When people ask me about preaching without notes, many assume that you must write out the whole sermon and then memorize the sermon. These preachers are looking for a method that will help them memorize such a large amount of material. However, preachers should recognize that many, if not most, preachers who preach without notes actually memorize something that looks like an outline rather than memorizing a large amount of material.
The key to keep in mind is that these preachers are largely memorizing “what” they will say rather than “how” they will say what they will say. By that I mean they have a number of concepts in mind that they have memorized. They then articulate those concepts in the sermon. The key is that the words of the sermon are not memorized ahead of time, only the concepts of the sermon.
Now the “outline” that is memorized can be in a number of forms. The first of these is your common “deductive” approach. Here you take the main sermon concept and break it down into pieces. Each piece is a part of your sermon. If those pieces are big, then you must break those down into pieces. This approach is taught in the very helpful book by Charles Koller entitled How to Preach Without Notes. I think this is a very effective method, but I would be careful not to make your outline too complex. The three points and a poem outline form probably belongs here. Many people who preach such sermons have simple points that are easily remembered.
Another way to “outline” the sermon is a inductive method. Here you are not attempting to start with the main point of the sermon and break it down, but you are attempting to slowly build up to the main point of the sermon. OFten this is done with a number of pieces and/or images that slowly reveal the main truth in the sermon. Joseph Webb’s book entitled Preaching Without Notes is a very helpful book that seeks to teach this method. Another way to outline a sermon like this is the “sequence of images” approach that Hugh Litchfield presents in his work Visualizing the Sermon: A Guide to Preaching Without Notes. The key behind this type of outline is that it is usually simply a series of images or stories that the preacher presents while slowly revealing the reason behind the sermon.
Finally, you can think of the sermon as the representation of a Biblical story. Here you simply tell the story of the sermon and intersperse comments in the story. The key is to attempt to eliminate the difference in time between the past and the present. We help to bring the people into Biblical world.
The key to effective preaching without notes is not to have an extremely good memory that can help you to memorize a 45 minute sermon word for word, but to memorize an effective outline and then learn how to enlarge the points without notes by reliance on your preparation and the Holy Spirit.
Another method used by preachers to limit notes is to memorize part of the message. Here the preacher takes a manuscript, but has a particular portion of the sermon that is to be preached without reliance on it. For example, there are some manuscript preachers that know their introduction so well that they do not refer to their manuscript during this portion. Others like to memorize the conclusion/celebration so that they can close strong. Still others have stories or poems or even scriptures that they memorize to help in their presentation of the Gospel in the sermon.
This method will require less time to in memorization than memorizing the whole thing, and it can be very effective. If a preacher knows the key points in the sermon, then to memorize the presentation of those points can be almost as effective as memorizing the whole thing.
The drawback is that it can be kind of jarring to bounce back and forth between notes and non-notes. However, truth be told, many preachers who use a manuscript do bounce back and forth between their manuscript and notes-free presentation. Many do this very effectively. I would suggest that those who do this, take some thought in the preparation of the sermon which parts may be done without notes and which parts may have totally new additions due to the Holy Spirit’s editing function in the preaching moment. Then make note of these in your manuscript.
It is sometimes thought of as the Holy Grail of preaching. We look and see them preach with a grace and style that seems supernatural, but how do they do it? How can you preach without notes in an effective manner? In the next few posts, we will look at different methods used by preachers to preach without notes.
The first method is to simply write out the full sermon and memorize it. Here you must write in a memorable fashion. However, it does require not only the time to create the sermon, but it also requires a lot of time to memorize the sermon.
Some preachers memorize the sermon by just being so familiar with the sermon through repetitious practicing. The great advantage of memorizing the sermon is that you can work on the words used in the sermon. However, you can lose spontaneity.
A preacher who does this, must be open to the moving of the Spirit who may inject words here and there and concepts. To do that, the sermon must be structured in such a way that one can easily move from one thought or point to another.
I have never attempted such an approach, but a good book that suggests this kind of preaching is Without a Net by William H. Shepherd. If you preach in this way, let me know.
About a year and a half ago I posted an article about the preaching methodology of Rev. Mark T. Davis of the First Presbyterian Church in Boise Idaho.
In Davis’ approach, the preacher does not attempt to determine what he or she is to say. The preacher is simply immersed in the text. The the preacher preaches out of that preparation. Note that structure is not a part of this preparation. This is a very interesting approach that may be helpful to some preachers.
Recently Fred R. Lybrand has written a book that describes his methodology of Preaching on Your Feet. That method is similar to Davis’ approach. Here the preacher is not attempting to preach a set sermon, but is attempting to let the preparation and immersion in the text flow from the preacher to the people.
Lybrand distinguishes between the idea of “Preaching on your Feet” from “Preaching without notes. When you preach without notes like in Joseph Webb’s approach you totally define what you will say although you don’t define “how” you will say it. You do a lot of practicing, but you know what you are to say in the sermon. In Lybrand’s and Davis’ method, you do not know exactly how the sermon will end, you simply stand up and preach and allow a combination of the Spirit and your preparation to guide you in the moment.
I have only skimmed Lybrand’s work, but I will post more information on this work as I spend more time digesting the material.
The fundamental aspect of the memory system is to connect the thing you want to remember to your brain in a solid fashion. Tony Buzan, in his book Use Your Perfect Memory cites 2 fundamental principles that will aid you in your memory work. In our next post, we will look at the features. All of this is in anticipation of applying it to the problem of preaching without notes.
To remember something we need to connect the thing we want to remember to our brain. There are two fundamental principles to doing that. The first is to use imagination. Perhaps the biggest problem with many who seek to remember things is that they do not make use of their imagination.
We often try to memorize dry facts or unconnected data. In addition, much of our preaching is dry and unconnected to reality because it does not make use of the imaginative abilities of the preacher, neither does it evoke the imagination of the hearer.
How does one use the imagination in preaching and memory? Well, first one can look at the text imaginatively. A good way into this is to look at it through all of your senses. I would encourage you to read my post on sensory exegesis. Taste what is happening in the text, listen to it, touch it, and smell it. Run to the father with the prodigal son. Do you feel the anticipation in the son? Do you feel the fear and hope mingled together? Do you feel the hope increase as he sees his father run to him? Do you smell the stink of the pig pen on the prodigal’s body? All of these things will bind the features of the sermon to our mind as preachers and to the mind of the congregants.
The next principle of memory is association. In order to remember something, we connect it to something that we already remember in our brain.
Another mistake of those who seek to memorize things is to attempt to just memorize things unconnected. We need to first of all understand the structure of that which we are to memorize and then connect it to some structure that we already know or understand.
Preachers can use this feature by first of all understanding the structure of the sermon. And then applying that structure to something that is known in our minds. Let us say that you are attempting to memorize the historical facts behind a biblical text. What you might do is seek a parallel situation in the world that mirrors it.
Preachers often make use of this aspect of memory in illustrations. We seek to connect the Bible story to the minds of the hearers (and their memories) by comparing it to something that is in the lived experience of the hearers.
Good sermons make use of the two principles of memory. In addition, anything that makes use of the principles will be easier to remember for the preacher and the hearer.
A quick way to use what we have learned here is to take your main sermonic point, and every major sub point and be sure to use imagination and association in your presentation of it.