Perhaps I am overly opinionated on this topic, but I am convinced that those who preach with few notes or no notes at all tend to connect better with listeners. There are a few manuscript preachers out there who are excellent because they come across as if they are talking to people not paper. However, preaching is primarily a conversational event not a written or read one. Good content poorly communicated will not be heard by the majority of people listening. Poor content effectively communicated will, regrettably, get a hearing. So it makes sense for preachers who have something to say that is Christ-focused and biblical to say it well. Agreed?
I have rubbed more than a few of my preaching students the wrong way when I have encouraged them to preach with no notes or a slim outline. Public speaking is usually among peoples’ top fears. Public speaking without notes, then, is an off-the-charts fear. So, why would I ask my students and colleagues to give it a try? Because it can liberate us from our deepest fears about speaking and help us connect with our congregation at a deeper level during the preaching event. Here are a couple of ideas that can help pastors preach without notes:
-Prayer: Prayerfully read and re-read the preaching text. This may seem like an obvious first step, but you’d be surprised how many preachers quickly run to commentaries or internet illustration sites without even giving God a chance to speak to them through the text he/she will be proclaiming on Sunday morning. See this step as one that is devotional, one that is aimed at deepening the preacher’s connection to the God who calls us to preach. As you read the preaching text prayerfully ask God three questions: What are you saying to the original audience (i.e., Israelites, Galatians)? What are you saying to me? What are you saying to us (congregation, audience)? Take notes as God gives you certain impressions. After this you can check your reflections and questions with a few good commentaries and dictionaries. But let God have the first word since He may lead you to a new discovery.
-Pictures: As you consider all the exegetical discoveries, illustrations, and applications that flow out of the biblical text you’re proclaiming, think in terms of pictures. Picturesque language will not only help you remember what you want to say but will stick in the minds and hearts of listeners more than vague, propositional language will. As you think of the 7-10 nuggets upon which your sermon will hang, think in terms of pictures. I would also encourage you to actually think of the entire message as one big picture. If there is a picturesque allegory that drives you sermon’s main point, assuming your sermon has a main point, it will be most memorable. I recently preached a sermon on being forgiven and being forgiving. I entitled the sermon “Getting and Giving Mulligans.” You golfers know what I mean by mulligans, but now so does my entire congregation. When they think of forgiveness they will think of mulligans and when they think of golf or Tiger Woods (a media spectacle these days) they will think of forgiveness. Perhaps you will get to the place in your preaching in which you have pictures to describe the 7-10 parts of your sermon outline. I hope you do.
-Placement: Now that you have all the pictures that make up the big picture of your sermon, you are ready to place the pictures in an order that allows for a seamless flow. This is extremely important because a poor thought flow will challenge your ability to preach without notes and your congregation’s ability to remember what you preached. Here is where, I think, lots of preachers drop the ball. I confess that for far too long I neglected prayerful and careful placing of the parts of my sermons. I threw things together haphazardly. As you place the parts try to aim for narrative flow. That is, think of the sermon as the components of a story: setting, character development, plot/problem, resolution, and conclusion.
-Practice: Once you have all the parts of the sermon in an order that flows, you are ready to practice preaching the message. Go ahead and speak it aloud, slowly and prayerfully. As you’re doing this, consider how you want to say certain things. Think about gestures that reinforce what your words are communicating. You may discover through practicing the message that your sermon is too long or too short, that something needs to be cut or added. Practicing the sermon will allow it to stick in your brain so that you can preach without notes. I usually spend about 60-90 minutes prayerfully practicing and reflecting on the message.
When you preach without notes you might forget a few things you wanted to say but you will remember the most important pictures within the big picture of your message. Go for it!