For many years I was tightly bound to rather full notes in my preaching. However, I came to se that this is to walk with crutches, and that it would be better to do without them.
Jeffrey Arthurs discusses the pros and cons of preaching from notes.
He quotes Fred Cradock:-
Every method pays a price for its advantages. Those who prefer the freedom and relationships available to the preacher without notes will not usually rate as high on careful phrasing and wealth of content. Those who prefer the tightly woven fabric of a manuscript must … accept the fact that a manuscript is less personal and its use is less evocative of intense listener engagement.
Three clarifications are needed:
(a) almost every preacher will use some notes (even if only for quotations and suchlike);
(b) we are not dealing here with memorised sermons (a terrible waste of time and effort); or
(c) with impromptu messages (which are delivered without any specific preparation). We are speaking of extemporaneous sermons, where the substance has been planned, but the words themselves are mainly chosen at the point of delivery.
1. Preaching without notes
Why preach without notes?
It was the almost universal example of ancient preachers (including, we may presume, the prophets, apostles, and Christ himself).
Preaching is, essentially, an act of speaking, not an act of reading.
Speaking directly (rather than reading) to the audience is more direct, more engaging.
It enhances the act of communication, by enabling better eye contact and fostering an oral style that reflects that fact that the sermon is being listened to, not read.
It inspires careful preparation. Preaching without notes demands simplicity and clarity of organisation and argument (otherwise the preacher will quickly lose himself).
It enhances freedom. The preacher can add to, or subtract from, his planned material as the need of the moment determines. He is also free to move around physically as well.
It may prove to be an inefficient use of preparation time, given the amount of effort required to commit the substance of the sermon to memory.
The preacher might forget some of what s/he intended to say.
It can lead to imprecise and rambling speech. The preacher may drop into repetitive turns of phrase and other unwelcome habits of communication.
The preacher is quite likely to outstay his welcome (as one young preacher’s mother commented to him after the sermon: ‘You missed several opportunities to sit down.’
How to use this method
I would adapt Koller’s three-stage process as follows:-
Saturation. Study thoroughly, and think and pray deeply into the message.
Organisation. The sermon should be sufficiently well-organised that the flow is easy to remember. Various organisational principles can be used, such as:- chronology (such as past-present-future), space (such as inner-outer); cause-effect (such as symptoms-disease); problem-solution (such as disease-cure); and antithesis (such as not this-but this). Narrative sermons lend themselves well to delivery without notes.
Rehearsal. Running through in one’s mind some possible ways in which one might express oneself.
2. Preaching with full notes
Why use this method?
It gives security.
It promotes clear thinking and yields precise wording.
It gives you a permanent record (and enables the message to be circulated in written form either locally, to the house-bound, or more widely, in book form or via the internet).
It helps the preacher to stay within stipulated or assumed time limits.
Why avoid this method?
Preaching from a full manuscript:-
usually leads to ‘bubble preaching’. The preacher has prepared every word of the message, and what is needed now is to read it off the paper. Eye contact with the audience, and rapport with them, will be severely restricted.
over-emphasises content over delivery. Of course, the quality of what we deliver to our hearers is vital. But we must not neglect the quality of how will deliver it. And this will almost certainly suffer if we are tied to our notes.
slows a preacher’s development. There will be many occasions – in pastoral counselling, for example – when the preacher will have to speak extemporaneously. Preaching from a full manuscript will slow down the process of learning that skill.
misunderstands the differences between written and oral communication. They differ in many ways – pace, style, cadence, and even vocabulary. It is very difficult (and probably not a good use of the preacher’s time to try) to write a manuscript that lends itself to an oral style. The speaker should speak, not read.
It is difficult to read with sufficient skill: the pace may be too unvaried, the voice too monotone.
Too often, the sermon is characterised by a literary, rather than an oral, style.
It hinders spontaneity.
It can too often give the impression (or, indeed, convey the reality) that, ‘this is what the Holy Spirit saying to me the other day, when I was sitting in my study’, rather than, ‘this is what the Holy Spirit is saying to us all, here and now.’
These limitations do not mean that it is impossible to preach effectively from a full manuscript, but they do indicate that notes (even if they are fairly detailed notes) are the way to go.
How to use this method
Learn to write in an oral style. This is less formal, uses shorter sentences, addresses people directly (I-you), has much repetition, restatement and paralanguage.
Prepare the manuscript for easy reading. Highlight your script. Make sure you don’t have to turn the page mid-sentence.
Practice. Whatever you do, you must be able to look at your hearers.
3. Preaching with brief notes
This method is favoured by many preachers, because it is ‘the best of both worlds’.
It means that your memory gets a good amount of assistance. It lends itself to a good oral style.
Kevin DeYoung summaries his preferred approach:
‘I usually write out my opening prayer, write out particularly important sentences or paragraphs, write out quotations, and write out my major points. The rest of the outline may consist of sentences, phrases, Scripture passages I want to turn to, or simple prompts reminding me to tell “the Krispy Kreme doughnut story.”’
There will normally be a single page of notes, with the preacher’s own system of marking and highlighting.
Of course, there are some pitfalls and disadvantages:
The sermon may turn out to be longer than expected or intented (I always take a stopwatch with me when preaching from brief notes!)
Verbal expression generally, and transitions in particular, may end up being rather ‘clunky’. This depends as much on the basic fluency of the preacher as it does on the preparation that has gone into the sermon.
It will be harder to re-preach the same material some months or years later.
(This is a update of an article first posted in 2012). It draws on
The art and craft of biblical preaching (eds Robinson & Larson) 2005, chapter 169.
And this article by Kevin DeYoung.