“Try it! You’ll like it!” no doubt was one of the most successful and effective advertisements of the 1970s, maybe of all time. It was the creation of some brilliant ad execs for Alka-Seltzer, the well-known effervescent antacid and pain reliever. The ad campaign was rooted in the concept of ‘experiential learning,’ and the tag phrase quickly took on a life of its own. Like many parents, my wife and I used it numerous times in attempts to convince our children to eat their vegetables.
The Terror of the Thought
Many preachers need even more persuasion when it comes to preaching without notes. The mere suggestion of the idea gives them heartburn. It makes them feel queasy, much like I do when I even watch a video of a rock climber hanging off the side of a cliff. I’ve even heard some preachers say they feel like they’re naked if they don’t have sermon notes. I get it, I really do. Going into the preaching event without at least some notes you’ve developed from your study can feel like going to work without getting dressed, entering into battle unarmed, or—at the very least—eating something for supper that doesn’t agree with you.
To be clear, I don’t think the degree of notes a preacher uses is a spiritual matter. I’m confident that we can access the same power of God’s Spirit with or without notes, depending on how we manage what we use or don’t use. Personally, I preach without notes on most occasions. But I have close friends who are more gifted and more spiritual than me who always use notes, including word-for-word manuscripts. And doing so has many advantages, not the least of which is relief from the sickening feeling of being alone during the preaching event.
Why Even Try?
If the idea of preaching without notes isn’t a spiritual matter, and if trying to do it makes you feel uneasy and even sick, then why even experiment with it? Why not just stay with what’s most comfortable? Well, it’s my opinion that certain responsibilities in the preaching event should compel every preacher to at least give preaching without notes several tries. Here are six of those responsibilities that have pushed me to do it.
1. It helps me get the message in my heart.
Regardless of what degree of notes you use, every preacher has the responsibility to get the message of God’s Word in his heart before the sermon is preached. I’m convinced that listeners can spot a mile away whether the preacher is speaking from his head or his heart. I’ve simply found that when I know I’m going to use notes during delivery, I get lazy in my preparation and pull up short before fully getting the message of the text in my heart, whether that laziness be in my preparation or review or prayer.
Because I know I will have my notes to lean on, I don’t work as hard at internalizing the message. Knowing that I won’t have notes when I preach, however, gives me greater motivation to do everything I can by God’s grace to transfer His voice from the pages in my study to the portals in my soul. As you determine your degree of preaching notes, resolve to make sure that both God’s truth and His heartbeat are burning in your soul before you preach.
2. It helps me preach in the preaching moment.
What I think takes place in the preaching moment affects the way I prepare. If I think that what happens when I deliver a message is simply the transference of pertinent exegetical details, relevant application, and striking illustrations through a piece of art called a ‘sermon,’ then it makes sense for me to write down every possible detail and use it when I preach so I don’t leave anything out. But if I believe the preaching moment actually is a supernatural and mysterious occasion in which God speaks and people can be transformed, then it’s imperative that I remain yielded to His Spirit’s work throughout the delivery event.
Without a doubt, dependence on the Spirit must begin in my sermon preparation. But I’m confident there’s a special measure of grace the Spirit gives in the moment of delivery. Preparing notes diligently in my study, but then delivering the message without them, helps me remain open to the Spirit’s leadership in my delivery as well as my preparation. It helps me preach in the moment of delivery, and not just in my study.
3. It helps me look my people in the eye.
My dad taught me that it was important to look people in the eye both when I’m talking to them and when they’re talking to me. Doing so is not only respectful, but it enhances the quality of communication. Public speech is no different, and preaching is a species of public speech. Both religious and secular communication experts tell us that there’s probably no aspect of public communication that’s more important than eye contact. I concur with that assessment and believe the only things more important are the accuracy of interpretation and the supernatural attendance of God’s Spirit.
Truly, the heart is best communicated through the eyes, and the heart is easily veiled when the preacher’s eyes appear to be magnetically drawn to his notes throughout the sermon. I’ve observed that when I use notes when I preach, I really use them. In other words, I naturally look more at my notes—even reading from them—than I do at my Bible or my people. And a sermon that’s read sounds like a read sermon, not a declaration from God. Preaching without notes—at the very least—reduces the risk of both undermining the essential component of looking my listeners in the eye and veiling the communication of God’s Word from my heart.
4. It helps me remember that it’s okay to forget.
One of the primary reasons I hear preachers give for not preaching without notes is the fear of forgetting something they intended to say. I know this fear is justified. Who wants to spend all that time mining insightful and inspirational thoughts only to leave them unintentionally on the cutting room floor of the study? If there’s one thing I’ve learned about preaching without notes, it’s that I always forget some things I was planning to say. But I’ve also discovered that I always say some things that I didn’t plan to say. And I’ve grown comfortable with that trade-off.
This coziness isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card that gives me license to ignore necessary exegetical information, make heretical assertions, or even ramble and chase unimportant rabbits. I found that if I do my homework in my study through comprehensive preparation and review, and I get what I’ve prepared in my heart, then I can rest with the risk of forgetting some details of my prepared sermon and trusting the Spirit to prompt me with other thoughts that I didn’t plan. Diligently preparing in my study—and thereby getting a firm handle on God’s intended meaning of the passage—builds fences around my personal limitations and inspirations during delivery.
5. It helps me put the Bible on display.
Visual symbols have always been important in Christian worship. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—as well as many other practices and traditions—have helped believers through the centuries understand, remember, and reflect on what Jesus has done for us. Personally, I think hard copies of the Bible are helpful symbols anytime they’re available. Most people associate the physical book we call the “Bible” with God’s Word. That’s one of the reasons I like to use a hard copy of the Bible when I preach. I realize electronic copies contain the inspired Scripture as much as hard copies, but I like reinforcing the preached Word with the visual aid of the physical Bible.
If I use notes when I preach—whether hard copy or electronic—I have a tendency to position and navigate them in such a way that I’m more focused on the notes than am the Bible or the audience. It doesn’t matter if my notes contain what’s written in the Bible. The association that people make is different. It just looks and feels like I’m preaching the notes instead of the Bible. Preaching without notes enables me to keep the Bible centered in front of me, and always either be looking at that Bible or the people to whom I’m preaching, not at my notes.
6. It helps me preach within my intellect.
Again, I don’t see the degree of notes a preacher uses as a test of spirituality. I have mentors, fellow preachers, and former students who preach God’s Word powerfully with the aid of sermon notes. And they’re able to accomplish all the goals I’ve mentioned, and then some. But somehow, unlike me, they can do so while using notes. I not only applaud that ability, but I envy it. And trust me, I’ve often tried to do it. But I can’t.
What I’ve discovered in my many attempts—as well as in my years of observation of preachers and preaching students—is a simple factor that’s so often overlooked in this conversation. That factor is intellectual capacity, the measure of the preacher’s God-given ability regarding the way his mind works. Let’s face it—all preachers are not created equal! I’ve realized that my mind doesn’t work like some of these other guys who can navigate notes in preaching while at the same time preaching from their hearts, yielding to the Spirit, maintaining eye contact, featuring the Bible, and more.
This acknowledgment doesn’t mean that one preacher is better or worse than the next, but just that we are who we are by God’s grace. And we need to be comfortable operating within that reality. Furthermore, our individual measure of grace informs the capacity each of us has to be able to simultaneously expound the biblical text, navigate notes, yield to the Spirit, and engage an audience. It’s just an educated guess, but I would venture to say that there are more preachers out there like me who have average intellectual capacity than there are those with an extra measure of intellectual endowment. Not using notes helps me preach within my intellect.
A Final Thought—Both/And, Not Either/Or
What I’ve described is not a cut-and-dry, one-to-one relationship. There’s an infinite number of variables that go into effectual preaching. Preaching with or without notes doesn’t guarantee you and I will preach powerfully.
We all are responsible, however, to expound the text accurately, apply it relevantly, and exhort people to obey it compellingly, and to do so in the power of the Spirit. So, every preacher must figure out what degree of notes he can and should use in order to accomplish both good exposition and engaging delivery. Neither one should be sacrificed. But because today most preachers default to using some degree of notes, I encourage you to at least experiment with preaching without them. Try it, fellow preacher. You might like it!