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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.



Peter Mead is involved in the leadership team of a church plant in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often at BiblicalPreaching.net and recently authored Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014). Follow him on Twitter

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Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Aug 31, 2011

Helpful article. Thanks

Deborah Milligan

commented on Aug 31, 2011

Good article, very helpful. Thank you and may the Lord bless and keep you and your ministries.

William Delcamp

commented on Aug 31, 2011

Nice. A pastor named David McClellan has done some good work in this whole area of orality. Check out www.preachbyear.com. A few years ago his teaching freed me up from being hooked to notes and sermons as merely bullet point readings. It indeed is an oral art. I'm having a ball learning.

Reverend Keith Moreland

commented on Sep 1, 2011

Peter, Great Article! May I add one more reason to go with no notes that I learned from experience? I found it easier to flow with the Holy Spirit if I'm not tied down to having a specific flow. Sometimes when preaching the Holy Spirit will reveal something to me, and it doesn't seem to "upset my apple cart" as much. Also, I can continuously watch my audience for clues that they are "getting it" vs. not since I don't have my head buried in a paper constantly. I practice my sermon as it is usually written by Thursday, and come Sunday, I have all of the points that I want to make inscribed in my mind. May God bless you in your ministry.

Dan Walker

commented on Sep 3, 2011

One of the reasons that churches and preaching is getting shallower all the time is this move to preaching with no notes. The real reason for this is not spiritual at all, in my opinion. Preaching without notes tends to cause people to elevate the preacher because they appear to be like television preachers (who are usually using teleprompters anyhow). The statement "If a message is so complex that you need notes to help you navigate it, then what hope do your listeners have?" makes no sense at all. Should all college courses be taught without notes? In fact, with downloadable messages and notes, messages should be able to be more complex, not less complex than in the past as people can listen to them multiple times. Preachers who preach without notes don't impress me one bit. They use a couple of verses and tell a lot of stories and have very little to say. Generally taking 30 minutes to say what could have been said in 5 minutes. Unless you have a photographic memory for the manuscript, preaching without notes is not the way to go.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Sep 3, 2011

Dan Walker, preaching to a congregation filled with people with a wide range of educational and religious backgrounds, and which includes both believers AND nonbelievers, is NOT the same thing as teaching a college course. It is ridiculous to compare the two. And a sermon does not have to be complex to be deep. Complexity is not an inherently Biblical virtue. You wrote the following: "Preaching without notes tends to cause people to elevate the preacher because they appear to be like television preachers." I could argue that preaching complex sermons causes people to elevate the preacher because they appear to be smarter and holier than everyone. Of course, both arguments are ultimately silly, because there will always be people who elevate preachers for whatever excuse they can come up with. You also wrote, "Preachers who preach without notes don't impress me one bit. " Well, I preach without notes, but I'm not trying to impress you or anyone! I preach without notes because by the time I stand up to preach, I have spent weeks so immersed in the text that I have internalized the flow of the message. Oh, and by the way, I use more than a couple of verse. I use an entire pericope, and sometimes I preach over an entire chapter or chapters, without notes. And I spend more time explaining than telling stories. Ultimately, I preach without notes because it is the way I can best communicate the Gospel to my congregations. There are other preachers out there who best communicate the Gospel by preaching WITH notes, and so more power to them. Unless you have Biblical evidence of Jesus and the prophets and the apostle preaching WITH notes, I would caution you not to elevate the use of notes, or complex sermons, to such a high level as you have.

John Jackson

commented on Sep 3, 2011

From experience it's about having the flexibility and confidence to abandon your notes when the Holy Spirit moves you. I like to write out my sermon in full. Not to read it but to clarify my thoughts. I then distill it into headings. I like to put those headings onto a powerpoint which will be used to reinforce points that are made. It also helps the congregation to make notes far more easily. The inspiration comes in the writing. My congregation would never accept a "read" sermon neither would they accept an "unprepared" sermon. The challenge is to deliver a word in which your notes are exactly that but the inspiration is new. I suppose as Pastor I have the flexibility to know that I don't have to finish my sermon in one go. So if I am inspired to move in a direction that I hadn't anticipated there is always the next occasion to complete the thought. Many a series has been born out of a one off message in which The Holy Spirit prompts you to move in a different direction at that time to minister to the needs of a congregation.

Steven Chapman

commented on Sep 14, 2011

Is it possible that neither preaching with or without notes, or with a manuscript is better or "more spiritual" than the other? Great and sloppy sermons can be preached either way. During a series of messages, I might preach every one of these ways. So rather than arguing over which method is best, we can embrace the diversity of styles that God gives us to effectively communicate his word.

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