I love preaching. I want to be better at preaching and help others to do the same. It is my plan to write some helpful tips for preaching on this blog from time to time. Some probably think I have not been preaching long enough to give advice, and that might be true, but take it for what it is worth (1 Tim. 4:12). There is no perfect way to deliver a sermon as it relates to method, but my preferred approach has been to preach without notes.
I started preaching without notes my second semester in preaching school and have been doing so ever since. Many people think it takes miraculous talent to deliver a sermon without notes. I assure you that such is not the case. Allow me to give you a few tips on how to deliver a sermon without notes and why I think it is beneficial.
Be Clear and Concise
When Nehemiah read the law to the people, he helped them understand the reading (Neh. 8:8). Such should be our goal in preaching. If you want to preach without notes, it would be wise to master the art of simplicity. Do not let simplicity be synonymous with shallow thinking, the two are not the same. When you write your outline or manuscript, say what you mean. If your outline is hard for you to understand, it will be difficult for listeners to comprehend. Jesus taught profound truths that still have us scratching our heads and searching our hearts centuries later, but people were able to understand him (Mt. 7:28-29; Mk. 12:35-37).
It will be easier for you to recall simple phrases that express deep truths than big words used to impress but often leave people feeling like that just left a graduate level class. Make your points and sub-points concise enough that you can repeat them to someone over dinner on Saturday night without hesitation and they would know what you are talking about. Many times, preachers preach to impress other preachers. We must preach to honor and glorify God (2 Cor. 4:5). There are usually very few preachers in our assembly, preach so everyone can understand.
I’ve heard the phrase, “repetition is the father of learning” and I believe that this is true. If you want to preach without notes, practice, practice, and practice again. Some shy away from practicing their sermons for fear it will make them sound rehearsed or insincere. That should not stop you. You do not have to get in front of a mirror and preach your full sermon from start to finish, but you will need to go over the points continuously to be sure they are engrained in your mind.
The Bible speaks of meditating on the word (Ps. 1:2). Preachers should be doing this as much as, if not more than, anyone else. The more you do this, the easier it will become, but you must put in the work. If you took fifteen minutes a night to walk through your sermon and go over the points and clean up the rough spots it would improve your presentation.
I believe that even if you don’t plan to preach without notes, you should prepare like you will so that you can better know your material. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. Practice until you are confident with the material and go from there. The goal is not rote memorization and exact regurgitation of the outline. Leave room for personality and change of pace. The goal is internalization. Be so full of the material that it simply bubbles forth when you preach.
This point probably should have been first, because I believe it is most important. The earlier you start the sermon prep process the better chance you have of internalizing the material and delivering it without notes. I know this is not always ideal because the preacher’s week can be hectic and chaotic, but guard sermon prep time. Saturday night specials rarely are, and good sermons take time to develop. Know where you are going earlier in the week and work on getting things done sooner. That way when the unexpected occurs, at least your sermon is done, and you are merely in the meditating process.
Some say that if they start early they will continue to change it and never be satisfied. This is a real challenge. It can be overcome by wrestling with the text, pinning down the main thoughts, and developing from there. The application may change throughout the week, but the truth of the text will not. The sooner that the text is exegeted and arranged to be preached, the better.
“What if I forget Something?” Many who want to preach without notes don’t because they are worried they might forget something. Trust me, you will forget plenty, so get over that fear. Even people who preach with notes forget many things they mean to say. Keep an outline in your Bible or your main points on a sticky note on the page of your Bible in case you draw a blank, it happens. In the age of PowerPoint, you will probably have the cheat sheet you need. Remember, just because you know you forgot something doesn’t mean the people listening know. Sometimes we must surrender our obsession with thinking we must deliver everything we prepared in one lesson. If you forget it, it’ll preach another day.
“I have two sermons to prepare every week, I can’t do that twice in a week.” Yes, you can (Phil. 4:13). But, even if you wanted to take baby steps, start by doing one sermon without notes each week until you build the confidence to deliver both this way. You may not preach a long time, but you can get the point across in the time you have and do an effective job. Jonah had eight words in his sermon and an entire city repented (Jonah 3:4). Maybe note-less preaching will shorten your sermons. The people won’t mind and maybe you will only say what is most important.
“I Don’t have a good/photographic memory.” That’s why you practice. We learn song lyrics, sports stats, and movie lines by constant familiarity. Keep going over the sermon with your notes in front of you, then put them away and see what you remember. You will be surprised at how much your mind can recall when you challenge yourself. Use mnemonic devices to help you remember. Assign colors to the points or cartoon characters. Whatever you need to help you bring them to memory, it’ll help.
Finally, why should someone preach without notes? I think it increases listener’s attention as the preacher makes eye contact with the audience. I believe it pushes the preacher to study hard knowing there will not be notes with him Sunday and he must put first things first in regard to sermon prep. It creates a natural flow of conversation because a man has studied divine truths and is simply sharing them with the listeners. In the end, what really matters is that we preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). This post is not meant to put down those who use notes when they preach. Some of my favorite preachers use abbreviated outlines or even full manuscripts.
The style is not more important than the Savior, so this is not meant to start a sermon prep and delivery war. Just consider these suggestions if you ever wanted to preach note free and were intimated by the idea. You are not better than others if you preach without notes, but you might find that you are a better you when you preach without notes. It is not for everyone, but it is not beyond the ability of anyone.