My parents grew up in a tradition that viewed preaching notes as a sign that
the preacher was not under God’s anointing. I joked with them about that when
I preached from notes in my first pastorate, which was also my home church.
That was over twenty years ago. Since then, I have tried many preaching formats
in an effort to communicate as effectively as possible. My first homiletics
professor taught that a preacher has to hit his stride, meaning that each preacher
has a unique preference and passion through which he or she communicates best.
After we had listened to a sermon during chapel hour, he told the class, “You’ve
just heard a preacher hitting his stride.” The preacher had delivered God’s
word with passion and clarity in a way which was true to his personality. What
is your ‘stride’ in relationship to using notes in the pulpit? You might step
up to preach with a full text, brief summary notes or with no notes.
I write my sermons out in full, attempting to make each sentence count. No
matter how much written material I carry into the pulpit, the discipline of
writing gives me an opportunity to ‘hear’ the sermon as I write it and later
review it. I delete content or add better transitions for the sake of clarity.
When do I preach with a full sermon text in hand? Early one Sunday as I went
over the text of a sermon from Paul’s letter to Titus, I anticipated reducing
it to a few notes and then preaching with only my Bible in hand. Whether because
of mental fatigue or too many distractions, I didn’t feel that I had mastered
the flow of the thought in the message. I needed the help of the highlighted
notes to stay on a straight and clear path and I believe I accomplished that.
If you use the full text, use a highlighter and don’t get stranded in reading
it word for word. Another Sunday, I commented to my wife that I had enjoyed
speaking without notes and she said that he hadn’t been aware that I had no
notes. I use a full text with highlighted portions often enough that it isn’t
obvious whether or not I have notes in hand. In other words, if you take the
written sermon with you, use it as a reference and not a distraction.
Rather than taking lots of papers with separate quotes with me, I would rather
preach from the whole text in one neat document consisting of four half pages.
Careful preparation means that I can accurately predict the length of the sermon.
Sometimes the sharp edge of a phrase or a quote is more incisive when it is
read effectively. It is only powerful when it is spoken in the exact word order
in which it is written. Similarly the nuance of a story might only be powerful
when you read it well.
There are Sundays when I prefer preaching from brief summary notes. If I can
articulate the point with exactness and memorize key quotes, brief notes are
sufficient. Short notes help me to the next thought in the flow of the message
when I might grope for the right phrase if I had no notes in hand. When specific
phrases are too important to leave to memory and I don’t want to neglect a critical
statement, notes assist clarity. Teaching is a component of preaching. As
a result, notes may be necessary unless you have a Bible Dictionary for a brain.
I can return to my notes and read from them, as long as I continue to preach
with energy. Not everybody is designed to preach without notes, either because
of memory lapses or lack of confidence. Notes are necessary if they ensure
conviction and clarity in communication.
Early on a Sunday morning, I was reading through the full text of my sermon
based on the blood of Christ as revealed in Hebrews chapter nine. I couldn’t
escape the sense after thoroughly reviewing the written sermon, that I should
lay it aside and preach with no notes. I felt free to speak from my heart on
this most sacred and wonderful theme. If I feel that I am tied to my notes,
I need to take the risk of preaching without them. Sometimes, what feels like
a symphony in the study becomes a sour note on Sunday. Why does this happen?
While I might have thoroughly studied and carefully outlined the Scripture text,
I have not carefully anticipated my audience. Setting the notes aside helps
me communicate with my listeners more conversationally.
It is a mistake to assume that preaching without notes makes sermon preparation
or delivery easier. I’ve noticed no difference in my passion while preaching
with full text, brief notes or no notes. After a worship service during which
I preached from the book of James, someone said “James is easy to preach from,
right?” Wrong! His assumption was that the practical nature of the book of
James required less effort in preparation and delivery. There are no easy sermons.
During the opening face-off of a game between an elite team and an underdog,
a TV commentator observed that there are no easy games in the National Hockey
League. In our most holy task of delivering God’s powerful word, there is no
easy method of ensuring maximum impact. What matters is that we embrace the
word of God with passionate intellect and communicate it with passionate love
for the Lord and the listener. Then you can hit your stride whether you preach
with a full text in hand, brief notes or the sacred text alone.
McDowell is Lead Pastor of Leduc Alliance Church in Leduc, Alberta.