By Bruce Salmon on Jan 24, 2011
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. Find out why.
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.
- David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 23.
- 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).
- 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.
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