For many years I have been tightly bound to rather full notes in my preaching. However, I have long felt 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.
Why preach without notes?
It was the almost universal example of ancient preachers (including 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.
The preacher might forget some of what s/he intended to say.
It can lead to imprecise and rambling speech.
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.
Preaching with full notes (i.e. full manuscript or detailed outline)
Why use this method?
It gives security.
It yields precise wording
It gives you a permanent record
Why avoid this method?
It is difficult to read with sufficient skill: the pace may be too unvaried, the voice too monotone.
Eye contact is limited.
Too often, the sermon is characterised by a literary, rather than an oral, style.
It is a barrier to rapport.
It limits the audience’s comprehension and retention.
It hinders spontaneity.
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.
This method is favoured by most 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. Tricky points can be written out in full.
There will normally be a single page of notes, with the preacher’s own system of marking and highlighting.
Adapted from: The art and craft of biblical preaching (eds Robinson & Larson) 2005, chapter 169.