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Preaching With or Without Notes

Preaching With or Without Notes – Biblical Preaching by Peter Mead

by Glenn Leatherman on Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 4:34pm
I preached with notes for a decade, sometimes extensive, sometimes brief. Three years ago I switched to preaching without notes. I would not go back. … There are more important things than whether you preach with or without notes. It’s more important to be Biblical, to have clear big idea, specific purpose and relevance. So I would not make a definitive case for no notes as opposed to with notes or with manuscript preaching (although to be honest I have yet to see someone who can read a manuscript effectively in preaching). However, this issue is important since delivery is a key element in preaching.

So why do I advocate and encourage no notes preaching? Preaching without notes increases eye contact beyond belief! Greater eye contact increases the sense of connection and intimacy between listener and speaker. We are living in a day when people are increasingly resistant to “pre-planned” speeches. While my preaching is completely pre-planned, it feels more authentic and relational because I am not following notes. For eye contact alone, it is worth it for me.

But there are other benefits. Preaching without notes forces you to make sure the outline makes sense. As Haddon Robinson says, a good outline remembers itself. An outline on paper can be deceptive, giving the impression of logical ordering, but an outline that does not flow or make sense will be very hard to internalize for preaching without notes. Preaching without notes also forces you to tie the message as directly as possible to the text. The text is your notes, so the message needs to logically flow from the text. Furthermore, you are more likely to stay put in the text you are dealing with rather than skipping all over the canon (a good habit to get into for many reasons!)

So that’s the “why?” In the next post I will explain the “how” of no notes preaching . . . and it is not about memorization!

In part 1 of this post I presented the “why” of no notes preaching from my perspective. The relational connection through increased eye contact is the biggest reason for me. Also the side effects of less complicated messages, more text-related messages, and staying-put-in-your-text messages, these are all positives as well.

So, how? Well, it is not by memorization. Trying to memorize 30-45 minutes of material is a sure way to achieve the following negative results: performing like an actor, freezing like an amateur actor, and failing to have any relational connection because you seem aloof (trying to remember the next “line”). It is probably worth memorizing the big idea, perhaps the statements of each move or point if you are going to state them explicitly, the opening few lines and the concluding few lines. Beyond that, it’s all about internalization.

Having studied the text as fully as possible, you then prepare a message that fits closely to that text and makes good sense. If possible, it is worth typing out a full word-for-word manuscript. This manuscript allows you to work carefully on specific word choices and phrasing. The work of giving close attention to the manuscript is surprisingly effective at internalizing the wording so that it comes out again when you practice the message and/or deliver it.

In the busy schedule of ministry life, typing a full manuscript is not always possible. So writing out a full outline and then preaching through the message out loud also serves to internalize the message.

Preaching without notes is not about special memory skills. It is about full preparation that leads to the preacher being very at home in the preaching text. It is about prayerful preparation that allows the message to soak into the very fiber of the preacher’s life.

For many preachers the fear of forgetting where they are, or freezing during delivery, hinders them from trying no notes preaching. I thank the Lord for my preaching professor that took away all other options when I had to preach in class. Maybe you should find someone to require no notes preaching of you?

Stephen commented on part 1 of the “no notes” post. Please read his comment there. He referred to the fact that some famous speakers carry a manuscript into the pulpit. “The defense of using a manuscript I have been told is to ensure every thought is well developed and theologically sound.” Thoughts on the issue of the manuscript:

1. If possible, fully manuscript your message. I totally agree with these reasons for writing a manuscript – every thought should be fully developed and theologically sound. There is no excuse for preaching undeveloped thought or unsound concepts. This is why I avoid the phrase “extemporaneous” preaching, since people understand that to mean “spontaneous” preaching rather than “prepared, but without notes” (the dictionary gives both meanings). This is also why I encourage the writing of a full manuscript. It allows for both developed thought and doctrinal soundness. It also allows for attention to the details of style, precision in the choice of individual words, use of rhetorical devices, avoidance of unhelpful reduncancy, injection of deliberate aids to oral clarity and so on.

2. Don’t take your manuscript into the pulpit. I would guess that some of the big name speakers who advocate manuscript preaching do not actually read their manuscript verbatim. I’ve yet to hear someone preach from a manuscript effectively – although some who have a manuscript treat it as notes rather than a script. I find when I type a full manuscript that a lot of the extra work will show during delivery (the work of manuscripting internalizes the message, even specific wording). I prefer the connection I feel with the listeners now I preach without notes, but the real issue is the listeners, what is the most effective way to communicate with them?

3. Write your manuscript for the ear. If you are going to write a manuscript, it is important to write as you will speak. We have all learned to write for the eye. We place high value on succinct, clear and varied content. But we need to write for the ear. This means using restatement, sometimes repetition, short sentences, consistent terminology, very deliberate transitions, and so on. A thoroughly effective sermon, when transcribed, requires editing before it reads well. When going in the other direction, we need to pay careful attention to our style. The question is not does it look good on paper, but does it communicate when people can’t see it? Listeners cannot look back and reread a sentence, nor hear the underlining of a section title, so we must not speak in written English! Is it written for the ear?

4. Preaching requires a commitment both to the Bible and to the listener. As a preacher you must give yourself to diligent study of the text and thoroughly biblical content. At the same time, preaching involves maximum connection and effective communication with the listener. Write a manuscript, but preach without notes – in my mind this approach achieves both!

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