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We all have heard the preacher who preaches without notes by stating everything that comes to her or his mind. You know what I mean—the preacher grabs and articulates at everything. 

A while ago, I heard a sermon that was just like this. The preacher had highs and lows. The preacher made some profound points. But the points had no relation to each other. Then the preacher sat down.

At the end of a sermon like this, it is very difficult to remember either the individual points or the main point of the sermon. You can imagine what went wrong. There is no main point and thus the people remember no main point! So how do we fix this?

Glad you asked, here are four points to help you fix this problem.

1. Sermons with or without notes should have a strong “gospel claim.” What are you saying about the good news of the Kingdom in your sermon? If you are not clear in your claim it will be difficult to be clear about what to put in your sermon.

2. Sermons with or without notes should have a point informed and infused by that gospel claim! By that I mean at least one point and no more than one point. Well OK …if you want more than one point go ahead but make sure that they are related to each other so that they don’t obliterate each other. I fear that sometimes our five-point masterpieces are either entirely forgotten or only one or two of the points are remembered.

3. Sermons with or without notes should proceed logically to a conclusion. And, in the Black tradition, that conclusion a lot of the time will be a celebrative conclusion. I recognize that there may be some disagreement here. But I think usually if you are not headed toward a culmination people will know it, at least subconsciously, and will begin to pay less attention to your message. Save your strongest point for the end; don’t end in a whimper.

4. Sermons with or without notes should eliminate irrelevant asides. By irrelevant, I mean that they are not connected to your sermon’s main point.

Don’t jump from thought to thought without any rhyme or reason. Preaching Without Notes is not a brain dump. Put your sermon together as you would if you had a manuscript. Be open to the Spirit’s leading. Follow the text. And ultimately, allow that Biblical truth to come through you to the people.

Sherman Haywood Cox II is the director of Soul Preaching. He holds the M.Div with an emphasis in Homiletics and a M.S. in Computer Science.

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Talk about it...

Josh Mcdowell

commented on Jul 3, 2012

I love to listen to a good 'Black tradition' preacher end a sermon with a climax, but I choose not to do that kind of thing. I prefer to have conversation in my messages because I want the message or point to sink in and matter a week from now instead of just in the emotional moment. I wonder what do the rest of you think? Do you think the emotional ending is 'emotional manipulation' or just good preaching?

Stephen Webb

commented on Jul 3, 2012

I have been practicing preaching without notes (or being tied to them anyway). I like to bring it to a challenge, a new way of thinking or living, looking for opportunities to be more than we are and our relationship with Jesus become deeper. The emotional ending could be manipulation, I think it would depend more on the presenter. Whether that person is really presenting the Gospel for building the kingdom and changing lives or simply adding notches to the handle.

Anonymous

commented on Jul 3, 2012

I agree with the idea of having a conversation in the message because I believe it provides more depth an an opportunity for the congregation to connect with the word, at least that's how I learn. On a differnt note, I am not a pastor, just a member of the congregation but I do study the scriptures. My pastor has a really good heart and a good spirit but I sometimes feel like a student that is inadequately challenged in school. The sermon is all over the place with no structure or logical flow and the main point is sometimes very unclear. In addition he usually ends in a sombre note by asking everone to raise their hand if they're ready to see the Lord. This happens too often and as a nobody I really do not know how to handle this without hurting his feeling.

Josh Hunt

commented on Jul 3, 2012

I don't have any paper notes. The Powerpoint is my notes.

David Nuhfer

commented on Jul 3, 2012

There are times when I have had that kind of climax, but I like to come to a conclusion with the opportunity for the congregation to consider what they just heard, perhaps with a "This is the one thought I want you to take with you this week". I believe we use a range of emotions in the message. If it "intended" to be emotional, it can be manipulative. If it a result of the moving of the Spirit in your heart, it will likely resonate with others.

Myron Heckman

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Thanks for the article, Sherman. If a sermonic celebration exalts God by exulting in Him, and the congregation rejoices, that is godliness. The ending should be determined by the text, but it makes sense to have a sermon climax whenever possible ? we are proclaiming God?s glory in some way. A quiet, low key ending won?t often be the tone to reflect such a treasure. A quick reread of Peter?s sermons in Acts 2 and Acts 10 have a build at the end where God is clearly at work. That? a great prayer and goal for our sermons.

Myron Heckman

commented on Jul 3, 2012

For #3, it sounds like your pastor doesn't have a unified, textual based overall point to his message. Ending often with the same conclusion is a sign of that ? he's not sure what his overall point is so he falls back on a familiar ending. You might try asking him to summarize his sermon in one sentence, and see what he says. If he acknowledges his fuzziness, the key is to get focused on a tightly focused, text-based proposition early in preparation. It?s the hardest work, and most important work, of sermon preparation. It would probably take some disciplined homiletical training, but most homiletic books will have a chapter emphasizing a unified focus

Fernando Villegas

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Although Mr. Cox referred to this in his article, I think it is very important to emphasize that preaching without notes does not mean preaching without preparation, or without any structure in mind going into the preaching event. It does happen, and more often than it should. But the blame for that is on the preacher, not on the method. I preach without notes, but I normally spend several weeks on a sermon before I preach it. As an aside, sharing the preaching ministry with gifted and trained elders and lay members in my congregations makes it possible for me to do that, by the way. But that's another topic! :) It also helps that as a general rule, my sermons are based on one passage of Scripture. By the time I get up to preach, I have internalized both the content of the passage, as well as its form, which serves as the structure for my own preaching. The musician in me prefers to think of the sermon structure in terms of "movements"--as in the movements of a symphony or a concerto--rather than "points." But I have those movements in mind, as well as illustrations that I can use, and then I simply stand up and preach. But I have done just as much preparation as the person who wrote out a full manuscript, it was just a different kind of preparation. Now, do I sometimes get off topic? Sure. But often it is no more than a few seconds lost, a couple of minutes at the most. And I've discovered that sometimes what I think are "irrelevant asides" were actually used by the Holy Spirit to minister to someone who needed to hear those few seconds or couple of minutes. That's not the case all of the time, certainly; but I suspect that it happens more often than I realize. I'm not saying this to justify irrelevant asides, and of course they can hurt the sermon if taken too far. But my experience in ministry makes me hesitant to eliminate them altogether.

Chet Gladkowski

commented on Jul 3, 2012

AMEN brother Sherman! As far as the "emotional ending" being "emotional manipulation" I see Jesus telling stories/parables that have very emotional endings (Prodigal son, good Samaritan.) Also, the historical accounts within the New Testament are also very emotional (birth of Jesus including murder of Bethlehem boys, healing, raised from the dead, tax collectors (Zacchaeus, Matthew), forgiveness of woman caught in adultery, to name a few. Faith involves our head and heart so our preaching must touch both to bring Jesus to life and the gospel call to repentance

Michael Morton

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Two positives about preaching without notes and a negative or two. Preaching without notes is fine but I don't particularly see what it accomplishes except (1) that you are not tied to the pulpit and (2) preaching with out notes allows you to address something very current that has happened in your congregation or in the world (such as 911). Preaching with a full manuscript allows (in my belief) better preparation, more focus where it needs to be, better flow in the sermon, and no wandering off topic. At age 70 my memory is not what it used to be. The biggest complaint I hear about older preachers is that they wander of topic regularly. I begun using a tablet for my manuscript so that gives me the mobility I desire and it also give me the crutch (manuscript) that I need. In talking with preachers in my denomination I've concluded that about 70 use a full manuscript. I was very surprised by this. If you want to preach without notes and have that ability my hat is off to you. I just don't see that it is something one should worry about doing one way or the other.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Jul 3, 2012

As far as the "emotional climax" is concerned, I think a lot of it has to do with the personality of the individual preacher, as well as the preaching tradition that serves as the context for that preacher. I can get pretty loud and excited when watching a Cowboys game! I don't plan it, I don't force it. It just comes out of me because that's the kind of person I am. And that same kind of excitement--and volume!--comes out when I get excited by what I'm preaching! I mean, how much more exciting is that Gospel than a football game!! As far as preaching tradition, Hispanic preaching tends to be emotional, as well; similar to Black preaching at times, although usually without the climax at the end. From my experience, Hispanic preaching, at least in my denomination, tends to finish on a more quiet, reflective tone. Which, of course, also has the danger of being manipulative. I think the key is that if your listeners know you, really know you, outside of the pulpit and in the midst of their daily lives, they will be able to recognize whether your preaching is manipulative or not.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Michael Morton, I pray that by God's grace I, too, will still be preaching his word when I'm 70 years old! Praise God for your faithfulness to his calling on your life! Too many start off strong, only to fall away at some point. I do, however, and with great respect, want to resist the idea that one method is necessarily better than the other, whether in terms of preparation or any other aspect of preaching. One method or the other does not require "better preparation," just a different way of preparing. And since every preacher is different, every preacher needs to figure out what works best for them. I suspect that is what you meant, as well; I just wanted to clarify that point. I have certain skills and abilities, as well as a certain philosophy of preaching, that allow me to be able to preach without notes or manuscript. That is what works best for me, but that in no way means it is the best way. On the contrary, I know several excellent preachers who do use manuscripts, and that's what works best for them! Anyway, those are just a few additional thoughts. Again, thank you for your ministry, and I will be praying for you and your preaching!

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Jul 3, 2012

To Bro. Josh, I would say that it's pejorative to cast the "celebration" as an "emotional moment." It's got more to do with passion than emotion -- and there is a difference. Two points here: 1) If we're not passionate about the message we're preaching, should we be preaching it? 2) If people aren't passionate about what they've just heard, will it make any difference in their lives? The celebration is not -- or should not be -- a time to "whip-up" people's emotions, but to help them get a sense of the passion of the message, of your passion about the message, and perhaps get in touch with their own passion. It's the answer to their, "So what?" We don't want something artificial to happen, either on the side of the appeal or the response; any lasting effect will only come by the Holy Spirit, anyway. So, if that ain't your style, that's okay! Trying to fake it only makes it worse -- and that's where manipulation begins to creep in. Just my personal thoughts, brother.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Jul 3, 2012

To the over-all topic, I would add that PREACHING without notes doesn't necessarily mean NOT PREPARING A MANUSCRIPT. Often, I have prepared a manuscript and read it through many times before coming to the preaching moment. Being grounded on the main point, being thoroughly infused with the structure, and having thoroughly thought it all through, I then have freedom in the pulpit -- and something unexpected always seems to happen (in a good way). Now, I have to admit that since I preach at least 3 different sermons each week, they don't all get the same treatment!

Dennis Cocks

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Michael, I too use a full manuscript when I preach. I am 54 and my memory isn't as good as it used to be. I don't think one way of preaching or the other is any better as long as the truth of the Bible is being preached. Some of the great preachers of the past used full manuscripts. Jonathan Edwards, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Peter Marshall. The key I think is to go over the manuscript so often that you can still make eye contact with the people when you are preaching. I am able to read and look at the congregation at the same time. I also have three sermons a week (most of the time anyway) to preach which makes it a little harder to memorize the sermon.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Prescott Jay Erwin, that's a good point, as well.

Josh Mcdowell

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Prescott Jay Erwin... I'm not saying that it is always emotional manipulation. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't... I would just be aware that emotionalism isn't necessary for God to speak.

Pastor Sandy .

commented on Jul 3, 2012

Sherman - Once again, a very thought provoking article. I particularly liked your phrase "Don't end in a whimper." Thanks for sharing. Sandy

Clarence Campbell

commented on Jul 3, 2012

After 30 years of preaching to a predominate white church family and being a Black minister, both the conversation and emotional endings are beneficial. As with everything BALANCE is the key. Good preaching in my small opinion is the hearer make not remember every portion of the meal but they know they were fed! Also leaving room for the Spirit to challenge the thinking throughout the week.

Michael James Monaghan

commented on Jul 4, 2012

Dennis made a good point " as long as the truth of the Bible is being taught " . I can't help but be emotional if I find the truth expounded . And i think the speaker would be emotional too ; even if it's in the heart :) . Take the Lord's Day in Revelation . How the strong voice of tradition would have it that 'the Lord's day here means a Sunday !. Why , there is even a Lord's day observance society looking into Sunday matters . But surely The Lord's Day here means the John was transported in the Spirit to The Day of The Lord ' ?. And that's what the book of Revelation is mostly about ?.

James E. Holiday

commented on Jul 4, 2012

Amen bro. Erwin, well said. Brother Josh, emotional manipulation must not be limited to the climatic ending in preaching that is of a style other than our own. One can, in a conversational tone, manipulate just as effectively. What I'm observing here is a lack of exposure and respect for something different than what we're used to. For instance, when we talk about great preachers it's always the Jonathan Edwards, Harry Emerson Fosdicks, and Peter Marshalls, that we hear about. We never hear about the C.L. Franklins, Martin Luther King, Srs and Juniors, Henry Michells, and scores of others before them who didn't have the platform to be heard as those we're constantly bombarded with as great preachers. In doing so we limit the full colorful experiential spectrum of how God speaks to man. As for conversational style preaching, it is within this so called emotional type preaching that this actually takes place in that there's what's known as a call and response. It's where the preacher and the congregation are truly engaged in a conversation, not monologue where only the speaker is heard without a response. During this call and response there is a crescendo that rises to a climatic end; this comes at the end of unraveling some problem of the text or moving from problem, something that the congregation identifies with in the text, toward a textually unveiled solution. For example the crucifixion story. The week day presents the problem, but then comes Sunday morning. When Jesus, thought as being dead, when Jesus thought to be gone forever, when Jesus the lamb of God Almighty, got up with all power. Power to give hope to the hopeless; all power, power to give joy to the down trodden and heavy laden of heart... Seminary's can't teach that, but honestly if you've been in communion and dialogue not monologue with the preacher and the text from introduction to conclusion you have to feel and can't help but celebrate. When Israel got delivered from the Red Sea they didn't just calmly sit down an talk about what had just happened, they had a celebration! In the end we must learn to accept all forms of preaching. After all we want to hear the voice of God, to do this we must not allow our ears to only be attuned to those who look, sound and preach in certain styles for in doing so we may have missed the voice of God. Thanks and love to all.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Jul 4, 2012

I think we're talking about two very different things, Bro. Josh. You're framing the celebration as "emotional," but I'm talking about passion. The difference can be detected by their character, manifestation, and effect on decision-making processes. Emotion is a subjective reaction experienced as a strong feeling. Emotionalism may be completely devoid of facts and legitimacy; reasons for such strong reactive feelings tend to be very difficult to define. Emotion tends to be abstract (hard to explain), ego-centric (self-focused), and moody (up one minute and down the next). Carried away in emotionalism, one experiences exaggerated displays of strong feelings and tends to cause one to sink inwardly or to burst outwardly, either way leading to disengagement. Emotionalism clouds mental judgments, inhibits mental processes, and cedes (gives up) personal volition. It causes one to act without regard to logic, instead based on personal likes and dislikes, making one vulnerable to mistakes. Emotionalism leads to unhealthy attachments, which leads to pride, which inhibits progress; emotionalism hurts an intended mission. Passion is a subjective response to strong beliefs, not feelings, and drives one to act rather than feel. Being passionately engaged, one can describe the object of his or her focus and the reasons for it. Passion is characterized by confidence and assertiveness, rather than pride and aggression. Passion involves the engagement of mental processes and expresses itself through volitional engagement. Passion tends to focus one outside him- or herself. Taking ego out of the way, it drives a mission forward. Making a passionate appeal expressed in a celebrative manner as the climax to a sermon is not the same as playing on people's emotions simply for the purpose of a response or to finish on a high note.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Jul 4, 2012

I would add some lesser-known folks to James' list: Rev. E.K. Bailey; Bishop G.E. Patterson, Jr. and Sr.; Rev. Aldren Sadler, Sr.; Rev. Dr. S.M. (Shadrack Meschack) Lockridge; Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby; Rev. Dr. Kevin Smith; Rev. Dr. T. Vaugh Walker...

Mark Aarssen

commented on Jul 4, 2012

Happy July 4th to all my American brothers and sisters. Independence Day what a great day to bring forward this topic - preaching with or without notes preaching independent of notes. I have tried both and I find that the points that Rev. Cox II outlined are indeed just some of the challenges of working without a net. When I do preach without notes I usually have a power point slide presentation to use as a reference to keep me on topic and to present a clear narrative. I think it is a matter of personal preference and knowing your audience but I find I'm better with a clearly thought out message that still leaves room for those little aside that are prompted by the Holy Spirit. Just do your best with or without notes.

Anthony R. Watson

commented on Jul 4, 2012

Very good article. During my sermon preparation time, I write out my sermon, I memorize it, and then I allow the sermon to become a part of me. When the time comes for the actual delivery of the sermon, the Holy Spirit is definitely in control. Here are three very good resources I would like to recommend to all: (1) Preachers and Preaching, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, (2) Preaching on your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment, by Fred R. Lybrand, and (3) The Holy Spirit and Preaching, by James Forbes.

Josh Mcdowell

commented on Jul 5, 2012

I love the celebration, and love it more when it is fueled by passion not emotionalism. My thought was only this... if we are attempting to have a climatic celebration at the end of every message will we be tempted to work up passion if it isn't actually there? Will we become emotional for the sake of the celebration. I don't care if you think it is real or not, the atheist, the fringe doubting seeking, thinkers WILL KNOW if it is real or worked up passion... Sometimes our talks end with tons of passion and celebration, other times there is none. I think that is ok. I was just wondering what y'all thought.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Jul 5, 2012

And how 'bout Elder D.J. Ward of Main Street Baptist Church, Lexington, Kentucky? I don't know if there has been a more passionate Reformed preacher.

Michael Karpf

commented on Jul 6, 2012

I enjoy reading these articles and comments. I have preached both with and without notes. In seminary we were taught and required to preach without notes, and I have preached in a church where the power went out and I had no Powerpoint. After I've done my exegesis, I make out a Powerpoint and from there I write out my manuscript. I don't take it into the pulpit with me (except when preaching in Thai or Japanese churches and the translator wants a manuscript). The most important thing is making your text the priority (remember the Preacher's Pledge). Know it forward and backward, because if you ever lose your train of thought you always have the passage to fall back on. However you preach, with or without notes, make your passage central and the foundation of your sermon.

John Mury

commented on Jul 6, 2012

Celebration, even consistent celebration, doesn't have to be "emotionalism." I think it's generally a good idea to conclude by painting a vision of what the world would look like and will look like when the truth of the text and the gospel is lived out. By the very nature of the gospel, that's goign to tend towards celebration, even if sublime.

Gene Cobb

commented on Jul 6, 2012

Good points! My husband writes his sermons out completely, but still will "take off" and allow the Spirit to speak through him. I on the other hand use very few notes. Just a few points on paper is enough for me. Having to keep to a script panics me! Because our styles our different our congregation seems to enjoy both. We each bring a fresh view to the subjects we preach. We have co-pastored for years now and there is no doubt our styles are different. However we present our sermons, it doesn't matter if they aren't God given. Just let the Lord lead! God bless, LaFern

Pastor Sandy .

commented on Jul 7, 2012

LaFern - you say having a script panics you! Well, I panic if I misplace my script! I can speak off-script, but just having that crutch nearby keeps me soothed! I left my notes on the podium once and the liturgist accidentally picked them up(which I didn't know til later.) So I know I can do it, but prefer not to be w/o. Blessings.

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