Preaching without notes February 14, 2013


To some this article may seem to be of limited interest. But we all listen to preaching and may ourselves be involved in ‘public’ teaching — in Bible studies, Sunday Schools, youth fellowships,  women’s meetings and so on. The ability to speak with greater confidence to a group or congregation is therefore germane to many of us and not only preachers in the usual sense. I hope, therefore, that what follows will be of interest to all who engage in teaching the Word of God, even though I shall address myself chiefly to preaching as such.

Why preach without notes?

There are several reasons why this is desirable but first let me list a few caveats!

1) While most preachers would, I think, like to preach without notes, this is not for everyone. It is far better to preach a good sermon or message using notes (or even by reading a full script) than to preach a poor one without these aids.

2) Congregations should not think a preacher is somehow superior if he dispenses with notes. The value of his ministry must be judged and appreciated according to its spiritual fruit and the blessing it brings — by its manna rather than its manner!

3) Nor should the note-less preacher feel superior to others, or the note-tied preacher feel inferior; the Spirit of God can and does use their ministries alike.

This being said, there are definite advantages in preaching (or teaching) without reliance on notes or scripts, so let me also list these.

1) Preaching without notes (hereafter ‘PWN’) allows greater liberty in preaching. The preacher can look up at his audience rather than down at his notes and thus speak directly to the people as we do in normal conversation. This means that the hearers feel more involved — that they are being addressed personally  — which helps both their attention and comprehension. Conversely, the preacher can better judge the hearers’ reactions. Are some restless or bored? Then it’s probably time to move on to a new point or insert an unplanned illustration. Are some looking puzzled or confused? Then further explanation is called for — and so on. In modern parlance, PWN can be much more interactive.

2) PWN allows greater flexibility in preaching. I often find that up to a third of what I say during a sermon is unpremeditated. A relevant scripture flashes into the mind or an unplanned illustration emerges unbidden from the subconscious. It also means that the preacher can adjust rapidly to the audience. For example, if visitors or strangers join an otherwise familiar congregation it is usually easy to introduce an unplanned evangelistic note at a suitable point in the message.

3) PWN allows greater passion and pathos in preaching. Unlike lecturing, preaching is not just a means of imparting information. It also calls for communication on an emotional level (pathos) and on a motivational level (passion). It must evidence not only a knowledge of biblical truth but a love and zeal for that truth. These ‘dimensions’ are more readily achieved when speaking directly to people in a ‘flow of consciousness’ than when constantly consulting notes or reading from a script.

How can we preach without notes?

Having briefly explained why PWN is desirable we can now turn to the ‘how’ question — how can PWN be learned and accomplished? It would be foolish to think that there is only one way to achieve this end, so please do not treat this article as a comprehensive guide to the subject. All I will attempt to do here is describe how I personally go about it, hoping that some of what I write will be of value to others.

Once I have chosen a text, passage or subject, hopefully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, my first task is to acquaint myself thoroughly with the context. This, of course, must be done however we preach but in preparing to PWN there is an additional requirement, namely to commit that context to memory as far as possible. I do not mean that I memorise, say, a whole chapter of Jeremiah, but I do memorise the key verses in the passage on which I intend to preach. These will be the basis of the sermon outline, points or headings. I also familiarise myself with the wider context (commentaries can be helpful here). In this process I also check out the literal original-language significance of key words.

Why memorise? because I find it essential to meditate deeply on the material I will use in PWN. I need to discover what the writer is actually saying, relate this to other Scriptures, and if necessary interpret it by comparing scripture with scripture. This is specially important when preaching from the OT, where I always seek to bring a NT and Christological perspective to bear. The great advantage of memorising is that this meditation can be carried out anywhere at any time. Personally I spend the time between turning out the bedside light and being overcome by sleep for meditation, as well as any wakeful hours in the night. Meditating while walking is another effective use of time (though I don’t advise meditating while driving because it can be distracting!) Biblical meditation has been described as ‘cutting and polishing the gemstone of Bible truth and turning it this way and that until shafts of spiritual light strike down into the soul’. Unless that light does so strike I do not feel I have a message from the Lord. I need to be excited about the truth I am preaching if others are to be moved by it also. So I must preach the sermon to myself before I deliver it to others.

It is in this process of meditation that the sermon is forged and, crucially, burned into the memory — where it must of course reside if we are to dispense with notes. I then rehearse the whole sermon in my mind several times in the days leading up to its delivery and this usually gives rise to several slightly different versions of the message, perhaps with different emphases, alternative illustrations and so on. Another important aspect is to link the text or passage with a small number of other scriptures that illuminate and focus it — especially in the all-important areas of interpreting the OT and of application. I find that it best to limit these cross-reference to no more than three or four, which gives me time to dwell on them for a while when preaching. Too many cross-references lead to a ‘paper chase’ that distracts the hearer from the main message and can become confusing and boring. Finally, I use my books to look up details of the historical, sociological and intellectual background of the passage and the issues involved.

Delivering the sermon

If all this sounds daunting let me conclude with a reassuring comment. PWN is not, in fact, a note-less activity — the scripture passage itself, together with cross-referenced passages, actually provide the preacher with the best possible notes. They contain all the key words and ideas, and provide the progression of thought to be followed (though not slavishly; I sometimes find the logical sequence works better by going through the passage in reverse). Above all, using the passage itself as my notes I am kept from wandering off at a tangent — a real danger when you are PWN — and ensures that we declare the Lord’s word rather than our own.

Finally, of course, in PWN the preacher should look his audience in the face, speaking directly to those he is addressing and making them look back at him. This becomes more difficult with large congregations but it is still possible to convince the hearers that they are being addressed personally and are hearing not just a man but also ‘what the Spirit is saying to the churches’. They must be made to feel that they are engaged in an earnest conversation, not witnessing a virtuoso performance!