It was a balmy night. Though I arrived half an hour early, the parking lot was already full. I could not wait; this was an event that I had looked forward to for some time. In fact, I had looked forward to hearing him preach in person for what seemed like forever. I had read a number of his books and listened to him on the radio for years.
I went in and took a seat in the balcony, as the floor was already full, and tolerated the music and “pre-preaching” observances. Though the music was great, at the time, it was simply a barrier between me and the great preacher I had come to hear. Finally, the Senior Pastor came out, prayed, and introduced the evening’s special speaker.
Haddon Robinson came out to enthusiastic applause and, without ceremony, began. That night I was swept away from El Cajon, California to the magnificent palace of David, King of Israel. As Dr. Robinson gave a fantastic narrative of the fall of this great king for a woman, I suddenly realized that he was never at the pulpit, and his hands were empty. The realization struck me forcibly: He had no notes! This drew me in even more; I tensely waited for the slip or the awkward pause or the panicked flight to the podium. It never came.
As a result of that night I determined to lose the manuscripts that I had always preached from. I downgraded to an extensive outline, then to a simple outline, and, finally, I stepped out on that slippery limb and preached without notes. I remember the first Sunday that I determined to do it.
Now, I had served for years as a police officer in the federal projects; I am a veteran of the Gulf War; I skydive and snorkel with sharks; however, I cannot remember a fear more stark than the fear that gripped me that Sunday morning as I drove away from my house toward the church, leaving my notes on my desk.
That was about a year ago. I preached that message with more freedom and more intensity and more power than I had ever been able to muster before. My fear quickly turned into exhilaration, my trepidation to excitement, and my fear of failure to a desire to achieve. My congregants noticed something different as well. While they were not able to pin down the change, they made it clear that my preaching seemed more alive and vibrant.
It was not an easy transition for me, but it was one of the most profitable things that I have done. There are four principles that I have learned about this method. I pray that it will give the boost to your ministry that it gave to mine.
1. Prayer
A. T. Pierson wrote, “Every step in the progress of ministry is directly traceable to prayer. It has been the preparation for every new triumph and the secret for all success.”
Let me caution every preacher, teacher, and speaker of God’s Word, never ever consider handling the Oracles of God without the proper preparation, having first consulted with the Author. A.T. Pierson’s truth applies to preaching as with anything else. We can build massive cathedrals, write splendid books of great wisdom, and prepare sermons that will shake the foundations of this temporal world, but if we do not first bathe it in prayer we are simply conducting an exercise of vanity.
2. Preparation
Several years ago a reader of the British Weekly wrote a letter to the editor as follows: “Dear Sir! I notice that ministers seem to set a great deal of importance on their sermons and spend a great deal of time in preparing them. I have been attending services quite regularly for the past thirty years and during that time, if I estimate correctly, I have listened to no less than three thousand sermons. But, to my consternation, I discover I cannot remember a single one of them. I wonder if a minister’s time might be more profitably spent on something else?”
The letter stirred up quite an editorial storm of angry responses from the paper’s readers for weeks. The pros and cons of the value of sermons were tossed back and forth until finally, one letter ended the debate. This letter said, “My Dear Sir: I have been married for thirty years. During that time I have eaten 32,850 meals — mostly of my wife’s cooking. Suddenly I have discovered that I cannot remember the menu of a single meal. And yet, I received nourishment from every one of them. I have the distinct impression that without them I would have starved to death long ago.”
As in any sermon, preparation is the imperative. Charles W. Koller, in his book How to Preach Without Notes writes, “Preaching without notes does not mean preaching without preparation …. Preaching without notes does not mean preparation without notes. Indeed, carefully constructed notes are the basis of freedom … in preaching.”
I prefer exegetical preaching. I begin with chapter one verse one of a book of the Bible and continue through the entire book. There are several benefits to this style. First, I am never at a loss as to what to preach. Secondly, I am forced to study the passages in depth and in context. This lends itself to preaching without notes simply due to the amount of time spent with the material. You will develop a greater confidence in the material that you are teaching and therefore in the Word of God.
After a worship service an old lady stopped and spoke to the pastor who had only been with the church a few months. She said, “I’m deaf, and I can’t hear a word you say, but I still come to get my plate full.” Hoping to console her, the pastor said, “Well, maybe you haven’t missed much.” She replied, “Yes, that’s what they all tell me.” Preparation, no matter what style of preaching, is a must if you hope to feed the flock.
Remember that when you are preaching your sermon you will not have your notes. This requires that you make some minor adjustments. Keep your illustrations close to your heart. When preaching without notes it is unproductive to try to use long unfamiliar illustrations.
I love to quote from the great preachers of old in my sermons; however, it is often difficult for me to adequately get their thoughts across if I have not made them my own. Therefore, I tend toward illustrations with which I am intimately familiar. To this end I often use Biblical situations to illustrate a point. I also use articles that I have read and jokes that I have heard, each of which I can recite without much difficulty.
Preparation also entails the time spent in study and organization. This will take you quite a while longer at first, but soon you will find yourself thinking in a different way as you prepare. A minister preached a very short sermon. He explained, “My dog got into my office and chewed up some of my notes.” At the close of the service a visitor asked, “If your dog ever has pups, please let my pastor have one of them.”
3. Presentation
From your perspective: You have prepared extensively, you have a strong grasp on the passage that you exegeted, and you know it in a way that infuses you with a confidence that comes from above. You have researched and organized your illustrations and now you know them well. You may have even alliterated your points to make them more memorable for yourself as well as those you are ministering to.
Now it is time. You are dressed and ready, you gather all of your paperwork, your Bible, and you head for the car — leaving your notes behind. After the offering, the music ministry, and all of the announcements, it is time to approach the pulpit. You open your Bible and begin, a little tentative at first. Then you move away from the pulpit, confidence begins to grow. You even walk down the steps. You may have never been this far from the pulpit before. You are almost conversational as the sermon fluidly and effortlessly flows. As you begin to wrap up your message, you feel a bit giddy knowing that you have more than survived; you have excelled.
From the congregation’s perspective: As you approach the pulpit, nothing seems out of place. The parents are arranging their children, the choir members are taking their seats, and you begin. One member thinks to himself, “Something seems different, but I can’t put my finger on it.” They are more responsive and more attentive. They notice your relaxed conversational tones and read your nonverbal communication. You are now communicating with them in new ways that may have been lacking before.
4. Postmortem
There is one final tool that I have employed. I have three trusted and admired men of God whom I have enlisted to evaluate my messages. Dr. Ron Barnes, of Christian Heritage College, once told me, “Experience without evaluation is useless.”
During one message, when I was new to the pulpit, I attempted to ipress the church with my vast vocabulary. Afterward one of the congregants approached me, “Pastor, your preaching is like the peace of God. It passes all understanding.” Get valued feedback, and be prepared to make adjustments. One thing you will find is that when you begin to exercise the freedom of preaching without notes, your evaluations will demonstrate the appreciation of the worshipers.
I am not going to try to fool you. It is not an easy discipline to begin. It takes determination, dedication, study, and patience. However, once you begin, you will soon wonder how you ever survived without this skill.
Clarence E. Macartney, the author of a multitude of books on sermon crafting, had preached without notes since his seminary days. Since that time he “never preached either with manuscript or with notes whatsoever in the pulpit.” In his book, Preaching Without Notes, he states that after forty years of preaching “in season and out of season, year after year, and to the average congregation, there can be no question that the sermon that does the most good is the sermon which is preached without notes.”

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