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Every preacher needs to be able to preach without notes on some occasions.

It is not a freakish skill that only some possess or a special style that only some need to cultivate. It is something every preacher can and sometimes needs to do. In another essay, I describe some ways that preachers might know when to preach with notes and when to preach without them. In this essay I want to suggest some ways to cultivate the ability to preach without notes when the situation calls for it. It can be helpful to distinguish among three different modes of preaching without notes.

Impromptu Preaching

What I will call impromptu preaching involves almost no preparation. It might arise when someone says, “Give us a word, preacher …” and then expects a word on the spot. It might arise in a service in which testimonies are welcomed or expected, but not prepared in advance. It might arise in the ebb and flow of a meeting about some issue, when what starts as a speech for the affirmative slips into a higher gear. Calls to impromptu preaching come through many parts of a pastor’s life.

Good impromptu preaching, like all good preaching, depends on the long-term habits of the preacher. If an athlete has been training for months, suddenly needing to run half a mile through two long terminals to catch a plane is not a problem. And if a preacher is immersed in regular study, prayer, works of justice and talk of God, being called to preach on the spot can be a gift to all those gathered — including the preacher herself. There is no substitute for the daily habits of a preaching life. And when those habits form a preacher’s life, questions of rhetorical technique tend to answer themselves.

That said, attention to technique can itself be part of a faithful preaching life. Impromptu preaching can be strengthened especially through attention to four rules of thumb. As rules of thumb, these are not the strict dicta of technique. They are rather rough, fallible guides formed through reflection on the practices of actual preachers. They will almost surely need to be modified, supplemented and selectively ignored in order to be useful for any individual preacher in any particular setting. But a rough guide can still be useful as a place to start.

  1. Say one thing. Preachers sometimes feel obliged to have three points (or five or six) but most impromptu situations allow time to conceive and articulate just one strong idea. And one idea — like “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” — can do all the work a sermon needs to do.
  2. Play your riffs. Like blues players, good preachers tend to have a rich stock of deep and simple phrases that they go to again and again. These might be quotations from Scripture or just phrases that communicate the heart of what the preacher understands the Gospel to be. An impromptu sermon might open with a riff to get the preacher rolling. It might rely on riffs to mark transitions or to bring the sermon to a close. Such riffs can slip into empty repetition. But they can also be enduring and concise statements of what a preacher believes — or longs to believe — most passionately.
  3. Don’t be afraid to pause. In any mode of preaching without notes, preachers can feel tempted to try to talk their way into making sense. But even when the preacher eventually gets around to making sense, he’s usually lost listeners in the process. It is better just to pause and wait for sense to come. A pause invites closer attention. It creates suspense. It leaves room for the listeners to think for themselves. And it shows respect for the task of proclamation.
  4. Before you start, know how you will end. Preachers sometimes want to use the few seconds they have for planning an impromptu sermon to work through the sermon as a whole. But this usually does not allow time to plan the ending, and so the ending sometimes gets bungled or endlessly deferred as the preacher hunts around for when and how to stop speaking. If you have time to plan only one thing, plan the ending. If you know where you’re going, you can figure out how to get there on the fly.

Extemporaneous Preaching

If impromptu preaching happens with little warning, what I will call extemporaneous preaching allows for some focused time for preparation. Extemporaneous preaching involves working from an outline. The outline might be memorized or on a card or screen the preacher can see. Some preachers make extemporaneous preaching their usual style. Others make use of it for services when they do not have as much time to prepare as they might like, as for a funeral, or a wedding sermon right before a Sunday sermon or for the string of sermons demanded during Holy Week. Whatever the occasion, these rules of thumb can guide preparation of a good extemporaneous sermon:

  1.  Craft a strong, clear structure for the sermon. An outline, even if it is set aside in the preaching moment, is usually the best tool for developing this structure. The outline should have a clear, logical flow. Each of its moves should feature a complete sentence. If a move is just labeled with a topic word like “Grace,” for instance, a preacher might not yet know exactly what work she needs this move to do. But if the move is headlined by “Sometimes grace comes through the most despicable people,” then the preacher knows where she is going. Most good extemporaneous sermons won’t have a lot of structure underneath the main moves or points. Points within points within points can be too much for a preacher — or a listener — to remember. Keep the structure simple.
  2. Talk your way to the sermon. For most preachers the best way to prepare for an extemporaneous sermon is to make an outline and then add flesh to that outline by talking it through. The sermon can be composed primarily in speech, rather than in print that then must be transformed into memory and then into speech. A preacher might memorize a very few key phrases of an extemporaneous sermon, perhaps the first and last sentences, or an especially potent statement of one of the most important moves. Most of the sermon, though, can be outlined in writing, composed in speech and then recomposed in the act of preaching.
  3. Work out the beginning and the ending of the sermon in more detail. It can be fine — even good — to leave the middle sections open to improvisation. But confidence about how you plan to begin and clarity about how you plan to end can make the whole sermon much stronger.

Digested Manuscript

Like an extemporaneous sermon, a sermon from what I will call a digested manuscript is composed through a mixture of speaking and writing. Preaching in this style requires extensive time for preparation. It involves writing out a complete manuscript of the sermon, digesting that manuscript deeply and then setting aside the manuscript to preach the sermon without notes of any kind. Digesting a manuscript is not the same as memorizing it word-for-word. Digestion, rather, requires internalizing the sense, form and key phrases of a manuscript and then bringing that internalized manuscript to life in speech. These rules of thumb can help:

  1. Craft a strong, clear and simple structure. If you can’t memorize it easily, the fault is probably not in your memory. It is in the structure. A well-structured sermon will propel you from one move to the next.
  2. Write the manuscript out. Writing out a manuscript can have several advantages over more extemporaneous modes of preaching. It can help the preacher clarify her thoughts in advance. It can give the preacher a medium in which to develop phrases of particular beauty, precision and faithfulness. It can make the sermon easier to share through digital or printed copies. And — not least! — it usually helps the preacher preach a shorter sermon that gets more directly to the point.
  3. Use typographical devices. Use devices like boldface, italics and underlining to mark the lines that convey the structure of the sermon, the transitions between moves and phrases that you want to say exactly as you’ve written them.
  4. Memorize these marked lines. It can be especially helpful to memorize the opening and closing lines of each move or paragraph. Then you’ll know how you want to begin each move, how you want to end it and how to get to the next one. Don’t try to memorize anything else beyond these structural elements, except a favorite phrase or two. You can fill in the substance of each move with talk that is more loosely tied to what you’ve written.
  5. Learn the sermon by speaking the sermon. Let your whole body help you remember the sermon. Speak it and move with it, not so much to “practice” it as to live into it. Gradually wean yourself from the manuscript until you are speaking most of the sermon without looking at any notes.
  6. Revise as you speak. As you talk your way through the sermon you’ll notice phrases that sound awkward or make the wrong kind of sense. Follow your instincts for how it should be said, then revise the text of the sermon to reflect these changes. Again, if something is hard to memorize, it is probably too complicated or a bad fit with the flow of the sermon. Consider revising it.
  7. Work back and forth between big pictures and close-ups. That is, think about the overall structure of the sermon. Then talk through the sermon or some part of it. Then go back to the structure. This kind of back and forth can help a preacher move from memorizing to the deeper work of digestion.
  8. Prepare in a very quiet, focused way right before the sermon. While a fully internalized sermon relies on long-term memory, learning key phrases verbatim tends to involve short-term memory. It can be difficult to protect this time right before a service.
    But protected time before worship can allow for intense prayer and concentration that let a preacher be present in the whole service. Protecting time before worship can also be a sign to a congregation of how much worship matters. And, really, most things can wait. When the time comes to preach, do not take the manuscript into the pulpit with you. If you don’t have it, you won’t need it.
  9. Preach the sermon, don’t recite it. Recitation tends to divide consciousness, pulling part of the preacher’s attention to the effort of remembering or reconstructing what was on the page. Preaching, on the other hand, demands a more complete sort of presence in the moment. Don’t be concerned if you skip part of the manuscript as you preach the sermon. The editing process continues right through the end of delivery. Very often a preacher will be focused in the moment, fully inhabiting the train of thought in a sermon, and then leap over text that was on the page. When that happens, it usually means that the “forgotten” text was never fully integrated into the flow of the sermon. It won’t be missed.

All three of these modes can take some time to learn well. Sometimes preachers try once to preach without a manuscript, struggle, and vow never to do it again. But it is worth remembering that most first sermons with a manuscript are also marked by struggles. Preaching without notes, like any other kind of preaching, takes practice. But impromptu, extemporaneous and digested manuscript sermons are all modes of preaching that almost everyone can learn over time.

Ted A. Smith is assistant professor of preaching and ethics at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Smith teaches and writes across the fields of homiletics, theological ethics, and social theory. He is the author of The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice.

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Jason Davis

commented on Mar 26, 2013

I appreciate the delineation between the types of preaching. I am in the minority of preachers in my area because I use extemporaneous expository preaching instead of notes or manuscripts. It was great to see that I'm not the only one that needs to "talk my way" through the sermon. Thanks for a great article that shows the variety in preaching. I especially appreciate that he emphasized each type of preaching still needs preparation.

David Hallum

commented on Mar 26, 2013

You lost me at "including the preacher herself". Show me a place in the Bible where it distinctly says a preacher is to be a woman and I will show you 1Timothy 3.1 and Titus 1.6.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Mar 26, 2013

@David, I agree, that's when I stopped reading also! I won't take advise from someone who can't even get that men are called to preach and pastor. God gave men the leadership role in the home and in the church! I have had MANY debates on this subject before on this site and I don't really care to go there again as it really gets one nowhere. Some people can't see what the Bible clearly says so there is no point arguing with them!

Lina Mohr

commented on Mar 26, 2013

These are very helpful tools. Thank you for some other examples of effective preaching. I usually base my scriptures on lifr experiences using notes and papers but with these, I am pretty sure I can more effectively preach ANYTIME I am called.

Ron Vanderwell

commented on Mar 26, 2013

If a full sermon manuscript might run 2000 words or more, it's helpful to have articles like this that can help us identify the 150 words that will be most critical for getting across the point of the sermon. Helpful!

Pr. Charlie

commented on Mar 26, 2013

For Dennis and Dave, why even read or comment on anything outside your grid if you are going to act just like the world is when they comment on something they disagree on. It is here to help you become better at your calling. This is good stuff and I for one appreciate the suggestion. I am a manuscript guy who wants to please God in what He has called me to do. I can use all the help that I can get. Thanks for the article.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Mar 26, 2013

@Pr. Charlie, like I said, why would I want to read what someone has to say about a biblical issue if he can't even see the CLEAR teaching in Scripture on male leadership? If he can't get that right, why should I trust what he says about anything else? This is after all GOD'S Word we are talking about here, not some secular idea!

Will Hollis

commented on Mar 26, 2013

As a young pastor, this article is very helpful and encouraging as I tend to use a little of all of these at different times. Thank you for sharing.

Hugo Fries

commented on Mar 26, 2013

Thanks for the advice and the good reminders. Some of your readers insist on perpetuating and assailing the female gender with the consequences of 'the fall'. Check it, plain as day, Gen 3:16 'he will rule over you' right in there with the other fall-out from 'the fall'. NOT as God's premiere design. Read your Bibles correctly, grab some courage and let the woman preach.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Mar 26, 2013

@Hugo, I suggest YOU read your Bible correctly! 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, 1 Timothy 2:12-14, 3:1-5, Titus 1:5-7. Not to mention that Jesus chose 12 MEN as His disciples! It is exactly because of the fall that women would try to usurp authority over the man. God gave the man the leadership BEFORE the fall! 1 Timothy 2:13 "For Adam was FIRST formed, then Eve." Check it out, plain as day! Grab some courage and let God decide what is right and not our modern day feminisim!

Tim Secrist

commented on Mar 27, 2013

Good, concise article. It is well written and didn't take a long time to read. I print off articles like this and keep them in a file and then read through them regularly as learning tools. I also agree that his reference to women preachers made my radar go off, but that does not invalidate the quality or truth of the article. Personally, I disagree with King Solomon having a thousand women at his disposal, too, but I'm not ready to throw out Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or Song of Solomon. Refusing to acknowledge anything someone says over one point of diasagreement is to cut ourselves off from virtually everyone who may have something to teach us. Besides, considering different viewpoints makes us all stronger, even if we never arrive at their conclusions. Thanks again for the good article!

Dennis Cocks

commented on Mar 27, 2013

@Tim Secrist, do you realize what you are saying? Are you aware that you are implying that Solomon contradicted God when he wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes or Song of Solomon? What Solomon wrote in Ecclesiates is what happens when we disobey God. Nowhere does Solomon say that he was right and God was wrong. What we see is that all those women turned his heart away from God. Nowhere does he condone what he did, if fact he called it all "vanity." The same is true of David. Look what happened to him when he went against God's Word and married many women. His household was nothing but confusion and disarray. Murder, rape, jealousy, etc. Yet when David writes his Psalms, we are reading the pain he suffered by going against God, not that what he did was fine with God. The books Solomon wrote were inspired by God and God will never contradict Himself! When I read those books I am reading God's inspired Word. So when God uses Solomon or David to say, "Thus saith the Lord" we know that what God is saying is truth, regardless of the imperfections of the one He used to write it. Now, when we read what someone writes on Sermon Central and what he writes CONTRADICTS what God has CLEARLY said, then I have a problem continuing to read anything else he has to say! The question you have to ask is, is 1 Timothy 2:12-14, 3:1-5, God's Word or isn't it? That is the real issue in this debate about women preachers and pastors. Is God right when He says that women are not to have authority over men in the church or not? Is this God's Word or isn't it? Can you pick and choose what you want to believe about what God says? You go right ahead and overlook what someone on here writes if it contradicts even in part God's Word. I for one don't care to read anything else he has to say.

Tim Secrist

commented on Mar 27, 2013

Dennis Cocks, I thought this debate was actually about how to preach without notes, not about who should be preaching! In an ideal world (where preaching would not be cenessary), I would agree that it would be God's ideal that men should be doing the preaching. The fact is, there are women preachers and hopefully they will do as good a job as the men, but that only comes with training. Mr. Smith is only showing us all how to do that without notes. This article helps all speakers whether they be preachers or not. I've been preaching for over thirty years and still have a lot to learn. Every sermon has some room for improvement, especially when prep time is short. Go back and read the article and practice some of these things and you might end up a better preacher, as will all of us.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Mar 27, 2013

@Tim Secrist, you say "The fact is, there are women preachers and hopefully they will do as good a job as the men, but that only comes with training." The fact is also that there are also homosexual "preachers." Are you as hopeful that they will also do a good job if they are trained? Does that make it right in God's eyes just because there are people going against what He says? I simply stated in my original post that I would not take advise from someone who can't even get that God called MEN to be the leaders at home and the church. It doesn't matter what the article is about, if he can't get that right, I don't want to hear anything else he has to say! If people want to comment and challenge me on that I will give an answer as I have done, again, regardless of what the article is about. BTW, the author made the distinction that he was speaking about preaching, not speaking in another way when he said, "the PREACHER HERSELF."

Tim Secrist

commented on Mar 27, 2013

Mr. Cocks, I do very much appreciate your stand on the Word of God. I, too, use it as my only source of faith and practice. It seems to me, however, that this is about more than just what the Bible says. You ask me how I would feel about a homosexual preacher preaching the gospel. I agree that homosexuality is a sin before God and man, but the fact is, I hope they do a good job if in fact they are going to preach. Paul said in Phil. 1:15-18 that though some were preaching out of envy and impure motives, he did not concern himself with that as long as they were preaching about Christ. He even rejoiced in their preaching. If all sinners quit preaching, we'd all have to stop. I know men who are tax cheats, plegiarizers, and porn addicts who preach, but God still honors their preaching (more likely His Word), even though they still struggle with sin. One more thing. Have you gotten everything right in your study of God's Word, and therefore in your preaching? If not, by your standards, people should quit listening to you. Let's all do our best by staying true to the Word, learning from others, and extending grace where people need it.

Derrence Smaage

commented on Mar 28, 2013

This article was a complete waste of time. Ted Smith a homiletics professor? I don't think so. Preaching is an art and a science. All students of Homiletics should read "Preaching Without Notes" by Herbert Kohler and disregard everything said by Ted Smith in this article.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Mar 28, 2013

@Tim, I don't really believe God honors all "preaching." 1 Timothy 4:1-4 "I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom; Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lust shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned to fables." This is exactly what is happening in America today! Also read in Matthew 7:21-23 what happens to those who "prophesied" (preached) in His name, but don't know Him. I think it is VERY scary to say that God honors a "homosexual preacher" or a woman for that matter, because both go against God's Word.

Tim Secrist

commented on Mar 28, 2013

Dennis Cocks, It's not the preacher that God honors, but rather His Word. I recognize that not everyone preaches with pure motives, and some even preach who do not know God through Jesus Christ. That is a problem. My only point is that even when things are out of kelter, God is still capable of His Word going forth. I think we have lost sight of what this discussion started out to be. My hope is that you will reconsider reading the entire article and see if there be something in it that will help you. God bless you in your ministry. Preach the Word!

Tim Secrist

commented on Mar 28, 2013

Derrence Smagge, I believe your criticism of Mr. Smith and his article was a little harsh. Unless you've had him for several classes, I hardly think one article is enough to question the education, experience and ethics of this good man. I'm pretty sure that the Candler School of Theology at Emory is not going to employ someone who does not have the proper credentials. I have read Herbert Kohler's book, and frankly, if you get rid of all the "fluff" necessary to fill a book, you would pretty much end up with something like this article. Mr. Smith, I am sure, did not intend to say everything there is to say about preaching without notes; it's simply an article to get us started. I would also recommend Kohler's book, as it has been a help to me.

Derrence Smaage

commented on Mar 30, 2013

Thanks Tim Secrist for your reply. Like yourself, I have been preaching for a long time, about 50 years. I am also a former Homiletics professor. My criticism of Smith was set off by his reference to female preachers. It seemed to me that Smith used this as a schock value which I did not appreciate. Also led me to believe his motive in writing this article leans toward a liberal bias. Your comments about hoping homosexual preachers doing a good job is shocking as well. No one should ever listen to any preacher whose lifestyle shows that he is lost. One who is blind cannot lead another who is blind, they will both fall into a ditch.

Derrence Smaage

commented on Mar 30, 2013

Tim Secrist. I don't know anything about the Candler School of Theology. Are they liberal in their thinking. A lot of good schools have turned liberal to reach the masses of our time. Yale, Princeton, Harvard were began as preaching schools but turned into something else. Most professors today are very liberal.

Derrence Smaage

commented on Mar 30, 2013

Tim Secrist. One more thing. I don't have to have several classes under a professor to know whether or not he is teaching what I believe to be right or wrong. One article is enough for me to see what he believes.

Tim Secrist

commented on Mar 31, 2013

Darrence Smaage, allow me to try to answer your last three posts in one post, although I won't guarantee it. Like most, I will probably think of something else after I post. Thank you for your reply. You obviously took some time before answering. I want to assure you that I do not know Mr. Smith personally, so I cannot speak to whether of not he is liberal, or to his motives in referencing women preachers. I doubt seriously that he was going for shock value, but rather was trying to be inclusive in recognizing that there are women preachers. The Candler School of Theology is most likely liberal by most counts, but to assume that Mr. Smith is liberal because he teaches there may be to assume too much. Or not. I certainly did not intend to shock anyone with my reference to homosexual preachers. Please note that I did not bring that up. I would no more sit and listen to a practicing homosexual preach than I would an active drunk or a man living with a woman outside of wedlock. While we are all sinners, a lifestyle of sin must not be tolerated in the pulpit if we are going to be God's messengers. My argument for Mr. Smith's article has nothing to do with any of this, only that if we're going to learn to preach without notes, we can learn something from what he wrote, whether liberal or conservative. All of us bring our differing views to the table. I personally refuse to throw the practical baby out with the theological bathwater. When you got your degree in preaching, did any of your professors say anything or believe anything different than you did? Most likely, yet you continued to learn from them. My entire argument in all of this is simply to find value where we can, and not get caught up in one point of doctrine with which we disagree. One definition of liberal/conservative is that a liberal is anyone who disagrees with me! That probably goes for most of us. Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

Sheila Bowling

commented on Apr 1, 2013

What is the difference between a male or female preaching if lives are transformed, and God is glorified? Just seeking biblical clarification.

Tim Secrist

commented on Apr 1, 2013

Sheila Bowling, read the posts from Misters Hallum, Cocks and Smagge and you will get your answer!

Diann Mcclain

commented on Apr 2, 2013

There is one thing I would like to say about this conversation, and that is God loves the person, but he doesn't love the act of homosexuality. We have to learn to separate the sin from the person. Our father loves his children and although we all do things that are unacceptable to him he still loves us. I ask our panel a question ? Are there little sins and big sins ? One is no better than the other one, that is why god is no respectable of person. We all have to suffer the consequences for our actions, and it doesn't matter if it's lying or practicing the act of homosexuality.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Apr 2, 2013

@Diann, so you are saying that there are no special qualifications for preachers and pastors? What do you do with the verses I have already shared such as 1 Timothy 2:12-14, 3:1-5, Titus 1:5-7? Do you just ignore what God says qualifies those He uses to preach? Yes, it is true that none of us is perfect, but there is a HUGE difference between falling in a puddle and falling in and waddling in it. A homosexual can be saved, but after he or she is, God will begin to change them so they will no longer practice that sin. The same is true of drunkenness. I used to drink all the time, but after I was saved, God took away the desire of drink as I started feeding myself with spiritual things instead of carnal things. Would you respect a preacher who was a practicing drunk? I hope not! So why would homosexuality be any different? BTW, while all sin is sin in God's eyes as He is totally holy, there are different consequnces for certain sins, such as murder. If I got drunk at home and did nothing else, it is sin, but if I murder someone my sin has much greater consequences to it because someone else's life was taken. Also read Romans 1:24-32 There are many sins mentioned there including homosexuality. Verse 32 says that if we don't call sin sin, and if we give consent to these sinful practices, we are just as guilty of committing the sins as those who have committed them.

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