How is it possible to move from manuscript to notes or even no notes? A few thoughts:
1. Manuscripting is a great approach to sermon preparation that I affirm. The issue is not writing a manuscript, but relying on it or reading it in the pulpit. Work put in on wording and phrasing in preparation will yield fruit in preaching, so it is worth continuing to manuscript, in my opinion.
2. Moving to notes means formulating a distillation on paper. That is, putting in something similar to headings and sub-headings in your manuscript, then removing the text to leave these “headings” and highlights of content. I don’t like to use the term headings because actually a sermon outline is not built with headings, it is made up of ideas. The problem with headings is that they tend to be incomplete sentences, and therefore, incomplete thoughts. If we take the heading approach we will be tempted into clever little pithy alliterations and summary headings that actually don’t reflect the content of the message. Much better to summarize the movement of the message and preach with those “ideas” rather than alliterated bullet points. (That is not to say that you might not be able to use trigger terms to jog your memory of the ideas that constitute the points or movements of the message, but these are triggers for you, not your listeners.)
3. Moving to no notes means a bit more of a step. With notes you can still have a complex message that bounces around the canon like a hard rubber ball in a concrete box. When you go no notes, you need to simplify the message and tie it in more closely to the text you are preaching. Effectively the text becomes your notes, so you look at the text and see the shape of thought that provides the skeleton for the message. No notes preaching doesn’t require superior memory skills, it requires only greater familiarization with the text and a more accessible / clear / logical / simple message. If a message is so complex that you need notes to help you navigate it, then what hope do your listeners have? You’ve spent hours on it; they only get one shot!
4. Moving to notes or no notes requires practice. I don’t mean just trying and failing in the pulpit (in reality you won’t “fail” as easily as you expect). What I mean is running through the message without the manuscript. Prayerfully practicing before you preach is not at all unspiritual. I would encourage preachers to preach...often a message makes sense on paper, but simply won’t flow from your mouth. Better to find that out before you preach it on Sunday! Remember, the goal of sermon preparation is an oral communication event, not a polished manuscript for publication.