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It’s a high wire act, one of which OSHA would not approve—preaching without notes. Only the most extraordinarily gifted speaker can pull it off, or so I used to think.

During his State of the Union Address, President Clinton began his speech reading from the Teleprompter. Suddenly, instead of the current address, the words before his eyes were from the State of the Union speech from the previous year. With remarkable aplomb and rhetorical dexterity, the president kept right on going with his intended speech, ignoring the Teleprompter and speaking extemporaneously until the right words reappeared once again. Most in the audience of millions did not realize that anything had gone wrong.

Most preachers do not have the advantage of Teleprompters, technical glitches notwithstanding. We cannot feign eye contact with our listeners while reading our sermons. Either we must bob our heads up and down between our notes and the congregation, or we must rely on our sometimes untrustworthy memories.

When I began preaching, I wrote out my sermons in full. I retyped them on half sheets of paper for pulpit use, adding spaces between the sentences and underlining key words for emphasis. I knew it was poor form to read the sermon word for word, but I lacked the confidence to “wing it.” I prepared myself by reading the manuscript over and over, just short of memorizing it. My intent was to become so familiar with the sermon that I did not have to read it. Still, I wanted the manuscript there, just in case.

For less formal presentations, I developed an abbreviated form of sermon notes, with key phrases written out. Even with abbreviated notes, I felt tied to that piece of paper. My gestures and manner of delivery were often stilted and uncomfortable.

Several years ago our church began to offer an early service on Sunday mornings, decidedly different from the traditional 11:00 a.m. fare. We designed it to be informal and contemporary, with praise music accompanied by a synthesizer, instead of the usual music of hymns, choir, and organ. We encouraged worshipers to come in more casual attire. I wore a sweater instead of a suit and tie, and I preached from the floor instead of standing behind the pulpit. Needless to say, for one who had always relied on sermon notes, this new manner of preaching was more than a little intimidating. Nonetheless, I was determined to give it a try.

Since a full manuscript was no longer practical, I reduced my sermon notes to one page, folded in half. I reverted to my abbreviated sermon note form, using key words and phrases instead of whole sentences. Still, this method required that I have something in my hand while preaching, since I wanted to get away from any type of lectern. I tried clipping my sermon notes to my Bible, but that proved cumbersome. I tried folding them into an even less conspicuous form, like a note card. Yet, the real problem was having any notes at all, however unobtrusive.

As long as I had them, I would refer to them. It was not an ideal solution, but I lacked the courage to go au naturel. The idea of standing there without any notes at all and delivering a sermon was about as appealing as preaching in my pajamas. (And what preacher hasn’t had that nightmare, or worse!)

What if I should suffer a memory lapse? What if I should lose my train of thought and blank out completely? There were other hesitations. I try to craft my sermons carefully each week. I do extensive background research in order to understand the biblical text and to interpret it in a contemporary idiom. I work to express my thoughts as clearly as possible, using fresh, colorful, succinct, descriptive language. In short, I still write out my sermons in full, whether or not I take that manuscript with me into the pulpit. Could I reproduce that effort without notes?

I don’t know that I would have ever tried to preach without notes had it not been for a mental lapse of a different kind. One week I simply forgot to reduce my manuscript to its one-page, early service, abbreviated form. I realized shortly before the beginning of the early service that I had not prepared any notes to hold in my hand. The sermon was prepared. I had read it over on Saturday night, as I always do. I had looked it over again early on Sunday morning. I would use my complete sermon notes in the pulpit for the 11:00 a.m. service as usual. But I had forgotten to prepare the early service notes. Ready or not, I would have to preach empty-handed.

Preaching scares me because I care about it so much. If I were a natural at it or if it came easily for me, perhaps I wouldn’t care about it as much as I do. But it doesn’t come naturally or without great effort for me. If my sermons are ever any good, it is because I have sweated over them, prayed over them, and wrestled with them until God has granted some blessing from the struggle. I envy preachers who are gifted with eloquence. I am not one of them. But the truth is that few of us are.

There are at least 350,000 churches in the United States, with at least that many preachers. We all can’t be like Billy Graham or some other pulpit luminary. But despite our limitations, God can use us to transmit His Word. In fact, the Bible is full of limited people whom God used to communicate His grace.

Guess what? I preached that first sermon without notes, and didn’t die. I wouldn’t call it an outstanding success, but it wasn’t a miserable failure either. Because I had no crutch to lean on, and because my memory is far from perfect, I had to try to recreate the sermon as I delivered it. It wasn’t impromptu by any means. I had written it out during the week and read it over several times. I had the general structure fixed in my mind. I even had certain key phrases which stayed with me. But far from being a recitation of a memorized script, it was a re-creation of what I had written. Now I preach the sermon for the early service every week without notes. I have learned a few things along the way to make it better, if not easier.

First, I write the sermon with that in mind. In the course of writing, if I see that the sermon is getting too complex to be preached without notes, I simplify. Only occasionally will I use long quotations, and then I write them out and read them, if necessary. If there is a poem or a set of statistics or something else which is worth using but is difficult to remember, I’ll write it down and make no pretenses about reading from it when the time comes. But I do not rely on that piece of paper during the entire sermon.

Second, I try to visualize the sermon in blocks of material. It’s not so much points in an outline as it is “moves” in the sermon, to use David Buttrick’s term. (1) Most sermons contain no more than four or five major movements; some as few as two or three. The idea is to let the sermon flow naturally, from one movement to the next. I try to follow Eugene Lowry’s description of the sermon as a “narrative art form.” (2)

Third, I make major use of stories. Because stories are easy to remember, they are helpful both for the preacher and for the listener. Some sermons are basically a series of stories tied together by a common theme. Other sermons might use stories for an introduction, a conclusion, or to illustrate certain principles. For other sermons, a story might be a controlling metaphor. (3)

Fourth, I try not to worry if I forget a few details. Probably no one will notice since I am the only one who knows what I intended to say. If I lose my train of thought, I rephrase the last statement and move on from there. Occasionally I will be inspired in the process of preaching to add a pertinent comment which I did not think of previously. Most of my sermon inspiration occurs in my study during the week while writing the sermon, but sometimes I will receive additional inspiration on Sunday morning in the process of delivering it.

Like learning any skill, the best way to improve is to practice. Practice may not make perfect, but it makes better. Once you have a grasp of the fundamentals, just do it. You won’t be totally satisfied, but if you will be patient with yourself, over time you will see improvement. What you sacrifice in precision of expression is more than made up with spontaneity and freedom of expression.

Currently, I still use sermon notes for the more traditional 11:00 a.m. worship service. Since I stand behind a pulpit for that service, it’s not much of a distraction to have notes there. Also, since that service is recorded, I like to be able to deliver the sermon as close as possible to the way it was written. However, over time, as I develop more confidence, I may move to preaching in that service without notes as well.

The jury is still out about whether I should walk around or stand in one place while preaching without notes. Many of the preachers on television move all over the platform and even out into the aisles. One member of my congregation told me that she finds too much movement to be distracting. It may be that for me, limited movement fits my personality. Billy Sunday, a former baseball player, used to animate his sermons by running pell-mell across the stage and dropping down onto one knee, as if he were sliding into home. Since most worship centers are carpeted nowadays, I wouldn’t recommend that particular maneuver.

I don’t claim to be an expert on preaching without notes. I’m still learning as I go. Maybe someday I’ll be so confident about it that I won’t even get nervous on Sunday mornings. But for now those butterflies in my stomach are a source of energy. It’s a risky business, preaching without a net, but the Christian faith is risky too. When I focus less on myself and more on Christ, the risk seems well worth taking. And if I should take a tumble from that high wire act, one of two things will happen. Either I’ll fall flat and God will help me to get up and keep going, or I’ll learn how to fly.

  1. David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 23.
  2. Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), 6. See also Doing Time in the Pulpit: The Relationship Between Narrative and Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985).
  3. Bruce C. Salmon, Storytelling in Preaching: A Guide to the Theory and Practice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988). To order, please send a check or money order for $10 (includes shipping and handling) payable to: Bruce C. Salmon, P.O. Box 1634, Bowie, MD 20717.


Dr. Bruce Salmon pastors Village Baptist Church in Bowie, MD and is the author of Storytelling in Preaching: A Guide to the Theory and Practice. Learn more from pastors like Bruce with a subscription to Preaching magazine, available at http://www.preaching.com/.

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Mark Sparks

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I find myself a slave to notes. I have on occasion when led by the Holy Spirit left my notes laying in the pew. On these occasions I find that my sermons seem to be much better. But like you I lack the confidence to do this on a regular basis. I believe in the times that I don't rely on my notes I rely more on God. I guess that is what it is all about. I find your article to be very good and maybe I can learn more and more to rely more on God and the Holy Spirit as I minister.

Tracy Mcintyre

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I follow the same pattern of writing my message out "long hand" and going over it and over it and over it, so I'm not reading it when I deliver it. I have always assumed that the Holy Spirit was involved in my writing process and in my delivery too, even with notes close by. I do not read my sermon, it is mostly committed to memory, but I do glance at my sermon as I go to keep me "on track". I think the article is interesting and helpful and I'm willing to learn and try new things. Thanks for sharing.

Bruce Ball

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I must admit that I, too, lack the self-confidence to do what is unnatural for me - and that is public speaking. I also care very much that I "get it right" because I do not ever want to preach or teach inaccuracies. But I have occasionally stepped out into the deep end without a preserver and have done okay. I must renew the desire to speak without notes on a regular basis, as notes are my comfort zone, and I always preach that when we are in our comfort zones we might be comfortable but we sure aren't productive. Thank you Pastor Salmon. I needed that.

Ralph Lassiter

commented on Jan 24, 2011

Great personal reflection, Bruce. I could have written this article, as my experiences preaching "au naturale" parallel the author's. My first attempt was at an outdoor service (worship in the park as we call it) and I had reduced my well prepared, prayed over message to one page of key notes. God in all of His wisdom, sent a wind that made it impossible to hold or use notes of any sort - we (God and me) did just fine. My reliance on "He who is greater in me than he who is in the world" has allowed me on occasion to preach entirely without notes. I am no longer surprised when parishioners now say that on those occasions, that the message was most impactful. Preparation, inspiration and trust (Proverbs 3:6) is all it takes. As is often said, in order to walk on the water, you have to get out of the boat.

Chuck Williams

commented on Jan 24, 2011

After pastoring for almost 35 years I came across a book titled "Preaching on your Feet". It set my soul afire to preach without notes. For the last 2 years I have been doing that and have loved it. Encouragement from my family and flock has confirmed this. It is frightening but wonderful to have the freedom to truly rely on the Holy Spirit , interact with the audience. I still use the Power Point outline for the congregation but nothing else. As the author stated, if a quote or statistic is needed I read it. Its hard to argue that this was the style our prophets and preachers of old used and they did pretty good.. John the Baptist... Elisha...Charles Spurgeon. Of course there is the research, prayer and preparation that still goes into every message. The delivery is what changes. This is not a argument for lazy impromptu winging it.

Ronald Eugene Creek

commented on Jan 24, 2011

Your article and the comments that follow are very helpful. Thanks for sharing your experiences; we all are still in the growing and learning business and it's great to read what others do.

David Mende

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I read this article last week on preaching.com and I thank Sermoncentral.com for publishing it on its website. I feel that we need to maintain a balance here. Yes, it's good to lessen the use of notes as much as possible while preaching. But then, there are certain important statements, quotations, or some Greek words which we may like to read from our notes. Also, I feel that the use or no use of notes depends on the personality of the preacher to an extent. Thanks Pastor Bruce for sharing your valuable insights.

Jeff Strite

commented on Jan 24, 2011

One of the values of "manuscripting" my sermons has been the ability to put them on sermoncentral without a great deal of effort. In the early part of my ministry, I preached with only a faint outline and a few illustrations taped to the pulpit. Since I've begun preaching with an overhead, however, I've gone to manuscripting my sermons so that I don't confuse the crew in the Sound Booth. The way I keep from "bobbing my head up and down" between looking at the audience and looking at the sermon is by working on the sermon a couple of times before giving it, and then relying on the script rarely - except where I put marks on the paper where I want to return my attention... so I don't get lost. I remember reading some of Peter Marshall's sermons and noting that he assisted himself by breaking up his phrases in an almost cascading fashion (one phrase indented slightly beneath the previous one). Apparently this helped him to keep on track.

Jonathan Jones

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I feel as if Bruce was reading my mind or more direct he was feeling my fear. I have battled with this same issue for years, do I use notes or not? Thanks for sharing this with us. The information in the article and how Bruce is dealing with this issue has encouraged me to try the same, preach without notes, or at least less notes.

Myron Heckman

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I've been preaching without notes for about ten years - I do read quotes. Two things convinced me to do it - 1) I found myself often expressing concepts in conversation more clearly than I did with closely followed notes in the pulpit, and people expressing truths clearly and powerfully to me just by expressing in a heartfelt way what they had learned well. 2) I heard Jim Cymbala preach energetically and powerfully without notes. I memorize my outline and other key points - but not necessarily word for word.The biblical text I'm preaching gives me cues. I write out my sermon in full, and rehearse it a few times to practice expressing it. I've had very few of the dreaded mental blanks. I don't always remember everything I had planned to say, but only I know that, and it is a small trade-off for the greater impact gained. It forces me to simplify my sermon and keep it on point. I encourage anyone to try it - a book about it could give you a good footing.

Tim Smith

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I interned with a great preacher who spoke without notes or just a few at best and away from the pulpit. HIs example forced me early on to begin preaching from notes and away from the pulpit as well. A number of years ago, I began to realize that I was relying on the notes more and more until I started serving in my present church. I began to get away from my notes and often the sermon body itself as the Spirit moved and brought new ideas and stories to mind in the midst of the sermon. That helped the sermon become much more conversational in nature but it also allowed my personality and sense of humor to shine through as well. I also found the message to be more powerful, practical and relational. I now often go back and add in the comments of stories I used into the body of the sermon. What I found is that trusting in the Spirit overcomes my fear of getting away from the manuscript and blesses me and the congregation. But even more important, I believe it blesses, honors and glorifies God.

Paul Newell

commented on Jan 24, 2011

Years ago while attending the Fuqua School of Christian Communication they hammered us about learning to speak without relying on notes. They taught us a visualizing technique were we literally "drew" our sermons in pictures/metaphors. I've come to rely on that method - sort of mindmapping - and it has revolutionized my speaking. If you can't walk away from your notes you probably have not assimilated the material well enough - especially since most speakers still have a powerpoint "cheat sheet" up on the public screen. I know it has helped me connect with those I am speaking to in a far more intimate manner. Great article!

Jim Kilson

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I have found that for me personally preaching without notes is not only possible but prefered. I've been preaching without notes for nearly 5 years, and the more I do it, the more I'm convinced that it's the most effective way for me to effectivly communicate. It requires more preperation time, but the end result is always worth the effort.

Byron Sherman

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I can preach without notes but only for those times which are very limited in scope & devotional in quality. Therefore I regularly use notes, but never use an entire manuscript as for me that would be canned. I do not preach exactly what I write but organize them so snippets of the research can be used as reminders while preaching. I am a preacher but not a speaker. My notes are usually intentionally too extensive so they are put in a format that is easily accessable by me, granting freedom to the Holy Spirit's desire while in the pulpit. I find that notes give a freedom & depth to my preaching which cannot exist without them. As a small-church pastor with no staff, notes free me up for the multitude of other vital aspects of ministry.

Rev. Dr. Dennis L. Bates Jr., Phd.

commented on Jan 24, 2011

Well, while I do SOMETIMES make notes while studying, I find that nearly all the time the notes are left on the pulpit whili preach as God gives it to me. Meaning, that I rely entirely on the guidance of the spirit rather than intellectual guidance. Notes are not a bad thing, as I said, I do use notes when I am studying. I do sometimes "glance" at them maybe at the start of the message, but usually I end up NOT using them at all.

Matt Hoffmann

commented on Jan 24, 2011

Good Article. But if people preach without notes or manuscript, what is going to happen to the sermon bank on sermoncentral.com? :)

Gerald Manning

commented on Jan 24, 2011

I have preached about every way one can do, I suppose, from reading the manuscripts of others, to writing full sermons, to using outlines, to using word jogs, to freedom from anything while standing on the floor in front of the congregation away from the pulpit. I must say that I believe my own effectiveness is dramatically enhanced by using a full manuscript and rifling the pages as I go along. Please know this is MY OPINION, not that of the congregation! I do not believe there is a 'right way' to do it, any more than there is a right way to fish, or lick a popsicle. Where is the preacher at ease with himself, and his congregation? How does the congregation best receive ministry? I cannot compare my preaching with that of Jesus, simply because I'm not in that league. Nor can I compete with Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, or Ray Amos. I am what I am, they are what they are. I believe Jesus would still support His own comment, "If they are not against us, they are for us." Let's all be for Him!

Warren Lamb

commented on Jan 24, 2011

Nicely written articulation of what a great many of us do or have struggled with - risking exposure. LIke the author of the article and many of those who commented so far, I have experimented with just about every combination of notes/no-notes. What I have come to is this: I study intently, talk it out as I prepare (my wife is finally used to the "voices" coming out of my study), pray over it all, and then allow God to use that preparation in the context of the moment. The smoothest and most effective messages are generally the ones where God and I are partnered in the delivery. One of the interesting things is having someone quote part of the message and find myself thinking, "That's pretty good...I don't remember saying that. I need to make a note of that."

Russ Stauffer

commented on Jan 27, 2011

Great challenge for us! When listening to a preacher i have always been able to get more out of what they are saying if they are at least mostly making eye contact with us listeners. So....I'd like to reduce my full, detailed manuscript to at least an outline that includes verses and quotes. That way i can refer to my notes but not be so tied to them.

John E Miller

commented on Jan 27, 2011

On the few occasions that I have used notes I found them a serious distraction. It is better to study the scriptures and the subject prayerfully in God's presence and rely on the Holy Spirit to fill the mind and the mouth when you stand up to preach. My observation is that those preachers who come with a sermon delivered word for word from a prepared script lack power in preaching. The Holy Spirit of God will always support and supply the man who preaches Christ crucified, Christ risen, Christ glorified and Christ coming again. The test is whether I want to be known as a great preacher or someone who preaches about a great Saviour. John the Baptist described himself only as a "voice". Luke 12:12 is noteworthy.

Michael Lum

commented on Jan 27, 2011

I would have to disagree that preaching without notes = greater reliance on the Spirit. I have watched men stumble through lessons where even a simple skeleton outline would be SUCH a blessing (to them and the audience). Why risk human forgetfulness on a regular basis--there is absolutely NO reason to preach without at least an outline. Maintaining healthy eye contact is easily achieved by good study habits and not being "overly reliant" on an outline.

Darral Frank

commented on Jan 27, 2011

I believe that we should continue to study to show ourselves approved unto God a workman that needeth notto be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. II Tim 2:15. When we have an outline in our mind a Subject, theme, Supporting Scripture, Introduction to draw the audience and bring in the oneness something that everyone can relate to. At least 3 points and also Romans no more than 3 girded with scripture, and a conclusion with a burning close relying totally on which ever way the Holy Spirit lead you. Your message will be a success. The main thing is you can not function without an unction; therefore if the Lord quickens something in your spirit please loose the paper, and trust him, he will bring all things back to your remembrance; whatsoever things he have said unto you. Perfect practice makes perfect. Be Blessed.

Karl Forshee

commented on Jan 31, 2011

Although I'm not a pastor, I'm often asked to preach. As an engineer I find it most helpful to create my sermons using an outline. I have yet to write them out, even though I know I should. I go over the outline many times visualizing I'm preaching in front of the church. This outline becomes my notes for the actual preaching. A very comfortable crutch. I rarely follow exactly whats on the paper, adjusting according to what i read from the audiance and what the Spirit impresses me. But to go without that paper would be like standing their naked! Your article has given me courage to at least start thinking about it.

Bryan Thompson

commented on Feb 2, 2011

Communication techniques is what is being discussed here. I think some of you have turned it into a discussion of whether someone is relying on God or not. That is a big mistake in my opinion. Perhaps when we depend on eye contact, gestures, pitch of voice, pauses, etc we are not relying on the Holy Spirit? I'm not saying we shouldn't do those things, but I do think a lot of "good preaching" out there today is largely theatrics. If it comes down to listening to the latest self help guru/pastor preaching without notes or Jonathan Edwards reading the manuscript of Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, I will gladly listen to the later.

Mike Ingo

commented on Feb 7, 2011

As a retired firefighter-paramedic, I used to teach CPR for the American Heart Association. I could tell when other instructors were teaching from books and not from the "field." I could teach CPR with a perspective of application. Now, as a pastor, I totally rely upon God for guidance in sharing His Word, however just like my EMS days, I find people relate to my message when I am able to teach them how I apply the Scriptures to my life first, and how it has worked for me. Notes or no notes; sharing what we know is the key; Jesus preached as one having authority; He is the Word. The least we can do for Him is preach Him with authority.

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