I was surrounded by ghosts and goblins. We had just finished the cake walk and awarded the final cake when I heard the hall phone ring. Someone called to me from across the fellowship hall and said it was an emergency. The call was not unexpected. I knew I would miss the last half hour of the church Halloween Party.
On the phone was Sue’s daughter, Janie. She said that her mother’s health had taken a turn for the worse and the doctors did not expect her to hold on to life for more than an hour or two. Sue had been fighting cancer for several years, and in spite of her great faith and remarkable courage she was no match for the illness that gripped her body.
When I reached the hospital it was about 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night in late October. According to the doctors, Sue could not possibly hold on to life beyond midnight. I joined the family in Sue’s room and began to share the words of hope and assurance that are called for in moments like that. The hours passed. Midnight came and went as did three, four and five o’clock. By now it was clear that Sue was going to hold onto life longer than the doctors had thought.
It was nearing 7:00 a.m. when I left Sue’s family to go home and get ready for church. I encouraged them to call me if there was any significant change in Sue’s condition. An hour later I was at the church. The call came between Sunday School and church. Sue had died. Even though we all knew it was coming, the news engulfed the church like a thick gray fog.
I had taken the call just as I sat down in my office to review my worship material and sermon. I called two elders into my office and gave them the sad news, then I returned to my final review before worship. It was then I realized that my eyes were not focusing very well due to my lack of sleep and the emotional stress of Sue’s death. Trying to see my manuscript as I preached was going to be impossible.
To this point I had been a manuscript preacher. I did my reading, prayer and exegesis, and then I wrote out the sermon. On Sunday morning after several careful reviews I preached the sermon, staying very close to the manuscript. I had worked hard on developing good eye contact and rapport with the congregation, but I preached from the manuscript.
I had done my homework and I knew the sermon well. The Scripture and my points were well suited to the events that surrounded the morning and so I did the only thing I could do: I preached the sermon without a manuscript or notes. I preached my first sermon without notes by necessity, not by choice. What I said seemed to be the word of comfort that the people needed that day. It was not only what I said but how I said it. That Sunday and for some weeks after that, people commented on that sermon and specifically on the difference in tone and presentation that had resulted from my not using a manuscript or notes.
That experience started me thinking. During the next few months I preached a couple more sermons without notes, but it was two years before I really made the break from my notes and committed myself to preaching without manuscript or notes. Of all the efforts that I have ever made to improve my preaching effectiveness, nothing has ever been more significant.
What are the benefits that enhance preaching effectiveness?
The first benefit that I noted was the relationship with the congregation during the sermon. I am talking with them and they are listening to me. My visual focus is entirely on them rather than divided between them and a manuscript or set of notes. The result is that I am able to develop a better rapport with the people during the sermon. I am more responsive to them and they are more attentive to the Word.
A second benefit came from a significant change in my approach to sermon writing. I continued all of the normal and recommended steps of sermon preparation, but I became acutely aware of my sermon organization. In the past I had written sermons that were well organized and effective when presented in written form, but I soon realized that the organizational forms that worked so well in writing were not ideal for oral presentation. Too often I had used organizational patterns that were too complex for me to remember when I stood up to preach. If these patterns were hard for me to remember, they were also hard for the listeners to follow.
The result of this insight was to completely re-think the organizational patterns that I use in preaching. The simplified structure of my sermons has resulted in sermons that not only flow from beginning to end, but flow naturally. This natural flow enables me to remember the sermon outline as I preach, and it allows the congregation to easily follow the line of thought.
One Sunday following worship a thirteen-year-old girl came out of worship and said, “I really understood the sermon today.” That was one of the nicest compliments that I had ever received in my years as a pastor. Serving a congregation near a large university, I always considered a sermon a success if the junior high and high school students understood it and at the same time the college professors and other professionals were asking questions and saying that they had gotten something meaningful from the sermon.
Natural tone and feeling is a third benefit. When I stopped having to look down at the manuscript, my phrasing, inflection, and verbal pacing all improved and became more natural. When I was preaching from a manuscript I would try to go into the manuscript to pick up a phrase that I had carefully crafted in my preparations, but it seldom came out with the effectiveness I had hoped. Although my mind and tongue still play tricks on me once in a while, fewer good thoughts and phrases are lost.
I believe that the enhanced effectiveness is a result of my own heightened intensity in weekly preparation. Although I have not drastically increased the time allotted to sermon preparation, the time that I do commit is single-minded and clearly-focused. This focus has helped me draw closer to God and has allowed God to work through me more effectively in my preaching. Certainly I must know the material. There are no margins in which to make notes. The result is that each week I know my Scripture better and I know my sermon better. As a result I preach better most of the time. There are many more benefits that could be listed, but let’s move on to see how preaching without notes affects sermon preparation.
Is it practical for the busy parish minister?
The answer is certainly yes! If I was talking about memorizing a twenty minute sermon every week as if it were an oral interpretation soliloquy for a high school speech class, then it would not be practical. Strict memorization has never been my strong suit. When I was in first grade I lost the role of Santa Claus because I could not remember all the reindeers’ names. As a result, I was Blitzen in the Christmas pageant and I had no lines!
The idea is not to memorize every word in a particular order. In essence, you need to remember the basic outline. My guess is that you do this to some degree already. By the time you have completed your sermon preparation, you can tell your spouse or a friend the basic outline of your sermon for the week and, if the discussion warrants, you can relate the illustrations that you are planning to use. If you can do that, you can preach the sermon without a manuscript or extensive notes.
You already know this material. You are familiar with the Scripture for the week, and by the time you have worked with it in the exegetical process you have it firmly in mind. Remembering the outline of the Scripture lesson, if not the Scripture word for word, is second nature. You have a personal ownership of the points that you have chosen to make in the sermon. We do not tend to forget those points that we own and feel are worth sharing with the congregation. So the only thing left are the stories and illustrative materials to help reinforce your points, and they are the easiest of all things to remember.
Sermons take many forms but preachers often use some variation of the following:
State the point
Illustration of the point
Elaborate the point
(Repeat the process for each additional point)
If you see the sermon in this order in your mind’s eye, you are going to remember much of your sermon with little additional effort. If this is the basic form of your sermon but the organization you have written is hard to remember, then you may have designed in organizational complexities that are hard for you to remember and probably hard for your listeners to follow.
There are other lingering questions about preaching without notes that must be answered. “What if I forget?” It probably will not make any difference. The only person who is going to know is you unless you have a panic-stricken look on your face. Finish what you are saying and go on to the next point or illustration. If by chance you would forget a whole point in the sermon, move on to the next point that you remember, or go to the conclusion. Forgetting is not going to be much of a problem, but if it happens it will probably be because of unneeded organizational complexities that do not enhance a sermon anyway. A point or illustration that is forgotten is seldom a strong part of the sermon in the first place.
When you begin preaching without notes your style of presentation is going to change as you are freed from the constant tension between finding your place and extracting the needed information from a manuscript or notes and keeping eye contact with the congregation. Your style and verbal pacing is going to become more natural and conversational. Be conscious of pausing. Pauses can serve many positive roles in preaching. For example, they can focus emphasis, create a transition point, shift tone or verbal pacing, and recollect thoughts if you have forgotten something.
“Doesn’t preaching without notes lead to rambling, disjointed sermons?” I have known preachers with full manuscripts who regularly wander off on long disjointed tangents. Like every approach to preaching, preaching without notes requires dedicated preparation. Plan your sermon and preach the sermon you planned. I have always been very strict with myself about staying with the plan. On those occasions when I have moved into uncharted waters, I have seldom been happy with the results.
I have regularly preached two or even three services a week. If I am pleased with the overall sermon there is very little change from one service to the next. If I am unhappy with a particular portion of the sermon I make some adjustments before the next service. Those adjustments may be organizational changes or something as major as deleting an illustration and replacing it with another one that I had found or developed in my preparation. Experience has taught me to stay with the plan and, if appropriate and time allows, make improvements in the plan. It is well to stay out of uncharted waters because preachers, like everyone else, can drown when they get in waters over their heads.
“Does preaching without notes mean that I should never use a note of any kind? No! Preaching without notes is not intended to be a tortuous test of your memory, nor is it a way to show off your mental prowess for the congregation. The sole goal is to preach the Word of God and to communicate it as effectively as possible. Each preacher must decide when it is in the best interest of the sermon to use notes. I know some preachers who can recite long passages of Scripture word for word. I am not comfortable with that for myself, so I usually read any Scripture that I use in the course of the sermon. I also use notes if I have a list of more than four or five items or if I have a quote that is more than a sentence or two long. You will quickly discover what is right for you. As you become comfortable with the approach you will find that you will have progressively fewer occasions when you will feel the need for notes.
How does preaching without notes affect sermon preparation?
I am not going to go through all the steps of preparation in detail. Instead, I am going to focus on those steps that are most affected by eliminating manuscripts and notes.
1. Think orally. As I have already noted, complex organizational patterns create difficulties for both the preacher and the listener. Patterns of organization that are interesting and effective in written form can fail miserably when presented orally. Just as a playwright uses different patterns of organization and styles of writing from a novelist, preachers must use a different style for preaching than for newsletter articles or devotions written for the congregation’s book of Advent meditations.
This means a move toward organizational simplicity. For example: (1) state the point, elaborate the point, illustrate; (2) illustrate (story), state the point, elaborate the point. The simplicity of the process does not change but it can be expanded, for example: (3) state the point, illustrate, elaborate the point, illustrate, elaborate the point. You can see that there can be many variations, but the simplicity remains.
Sentence structure is another area that requires some re-thinking. One of the reasons that it is so hard to preach a manuscript is that most often a manuscript is written in a style appropriate for reading. Most sermons written as a manuscript read very well, but the problem comes in preaching as you move in and out of the manuscript and the writing style and the speaking style fail to mesh smoothly.
The same thing happens when you are preaching from notes and you try to go into the notes to get that carefully-crafted paragraph that you wrote on Wednesday. It often seems out of place — like a round peg in a square hole — when you read it from the manuscript in the midst of your sermon. Again, it is the difference between the written and oral styles.
You need to design your sermons using your natural speech patterns. Clyde Fant suggests that after you finish your exegetical work and have collected your thoughts, you should stand up from your desk and just start preaching. (Be sure the door to the study is closed or you may confirm your family’s long-held belief that you have gone over the edge!) Just let go and see what comes out. I would suggest that you record these moments of extemporaneous preaching for further review. Now you are thinking and designing orally and your sermon organization and sentence structure are going to reflect that thinking.
2. Create a study outline. Once you are thinking orally, the whole process gets easier. With your study completed and your ideas gathered, you are ready to create a study outline which you can use in final preparation. Begin by developing a thesis statement, which defines in a single sentence what the sermon is to be about. If you do not have this clearly established in your mind, the sermon is going to suffer, especially the sermon organization.
If you conclude that the point of the sermon is too much for a single sentence, then the idea is probably too big for a single sermon. Continue to work with the material until you can focus it into a single thesis statement. The good news is that the extra material can become the essence of a thesis statement for a future sermon.
Now evaluate your thesis statement carefully. Can that statement become the single point of your sermon or does it need to be broken down into additional points? Do this thoughtfully. It is better to make one good point that your listeners grasp and take home with them, than to preach three points that they miss or forget before they get to the parking lot.
Once you are clear on how many points you are going to present, it is time to look at how the sermon is to be organized. All the components of the sermon must be evaluated to determine the best organizational pattern for the selected material. Do you have a strong story that will set the stage and help you make the point? Does the Scripture that has been read need to be revisited in the sermon? Is the Scripture a narrative that carries the very point you are making? Will it be necessary to establish some historic or literary context of the Scripture? Is the material for the sermon best presented by establishing the point at the beginning and then illustrating and elaborating?
Some sermons are most effective when they begin by helping the congregation visit the biblical event, then come back to the present times with a story illustration, and then end with the point. Sometimes you must make the point or restate it; at other times the point has been made and it is best left alone. Each sermon generates its own questions as you evaluate the material before you and work with the ideas that have come out of your study and prayer.
In most cases it becomes clear what the best organizational pattern will be. The more you work with it, preach it into a tape recorder and listen to it, the more clearly you will see the organization that will work best. Do not try to force material into the sermon. Use the material that fits and flows naturally.
On paper, note the Scripture lesson and write out your thesis statement at the top of the page so that you do not lose sight of these central components. The rest of your outline will be brief phrases that will help you remember your organization until it becomes established in your mind. Resist the temptation to start writing out large sections of the sermon. You need to think orally. A phrase or sentence should be enough to set your mind in motion.
If you need a manuscript of the sermon for parishioners or for your files, record the sermon during worship and transcribe it from the tape. At that point you may want to do some editing to convert the sermon into a written style. I keep files of study material and sermon notes, but I keep the actual sermons on tapes stored in albums on book shelves. When parishioners ask for copies of sermons, they seem just as happy with a tape of the sermons as with a manuscript.
As you begin making notes of your points, illustrations and elaboration, leave room near the top for notes on the introduction and do the same at the bottom of the page for the conclusion. The notes for most sermons should fit nicely on one side of one page.
Now that the body of the sermon is established, take some time to develop the introduction and the conclusion. These are two of the most important parts of a sermon and they deserve some special attention. There are many ways to begin a sermon. You must find the one that is right for you and for the sermon you are going to preach.
There must be something in the introduction that will draw the listeners into the preaching moment. Give plenty of thought to your first sentence and even your first word. Do some extra practice preaching on the introduction and specifically on your opening sentence.
The conclusion is much the same. Make your notes for the conclusion and then practice preaching the conclusion. There are many good ways to conclude a sermon. Try different types of conclusions and listen for the one that works best with your material and your preaching style. Listen for the natural ending. Try to feel the conclusion as you do your practice preaching. As preachers we occasionally go on preaching after the sermon is finished. When in doubt, sit down and trust the Holy Spirit to continue the work. A good short sermon will seldom get you into trouble. As with the introduction, you should give the conclusion some additional review. Practice preaching it and listen to it over and over until it becomes natural and comfortable.
3. Make a list of APCET words.
This is a key to capturing the attention of your listeners and turning that great phrase that hit you in the study on Wednesday into a high-impact moment in worship on Sunday. You have your sermon outlined and you have been preaching it to yourself and your faithful tape recorder in the study, the shower and the car. There is one more important step. Go through the sermon and identify places where you feel you do not have the right word or words. Look for places that are in need of more vivid description and start making a list of words that will enhance each section of the sermon. That is what I mean by making an APCET word list. An APCET list is a list of words that express action, or create pictures, color, emotion and texture. APCET words are words with vitality that bring your sermons to life for the listener.
Make this list down the right hand margin of your sermon outline. Put the APCET word near the appropriate place in the sermon. As you practice preaching it, you can begin to incorporate the APCET words into the sermon. You will also continue to think of new and better APCET words. This technique can enliven your preaching and it will help you express your ideas with more effectiveness and power.

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