Preaching with freedom (part 1)

The case for preaching without notes.

Walter Mueller, D.Min., is interim pastor of the William and Mary Hart Presbyterian Church in Leggett, North Carolina.

Preaching isn't easy! What is easy is to find excuses for not spending the time necessary to prepare a sermon. There are so many important things to do! But I believe preaching comes first.

I retired several years ago. When I wasn't preaching, my wife and I attended different churches. I had heard complaints about the sorry state of preaching but had no idea it had gotten as bad as it has.

One Easter Day my wife and I went to church with a sense of expectancy. The church was filled to overflowing. Chairs in the aisles were filled. As the pastor was preaching I glanced around the sanctuary. I saw some whose eyes were closed, though not in prayer and meditation. Others were reading the church bulletin. Still others were doing what I was doing—people watching.

The one message communicated by all was, "This is boring!" I could understand why many of these people would not return to that church until Christmas. It would take at least that long to forget the ordeal of that morning.

It's a sin to bore anyone, especially with the gospel. But that is what some preachers do every time they step into the pulpit. Just ask the people in the pews. Or, maybe ask the people who aren't in the pews. Many will state without hesitation that the reason they don't go to church is that it is boring. If you push diem, most will admit that it's the sermon they find boring.

When hearing this, preachers may become defensive and assign blame in various ways. We can place the blame on the listener—"He isn't spiritual." Or, we may justify our inability to captivate a congregation by saying, "I'm not here to entertain; I'm here to preach the gospel." At other times we may try to avoid blame for preaching boring sermons by striving to become the object of our church members' pity—"You just don't realize how many hours I work each week. I don't have enough time to prepare my sermons."

There may be elements of truth in each of these responses but we must realize that God has called us to be preachers. God has equipped us to preach by indwelling us with His Holy Spirit. He expects us to do our best in the handling of His "good news." I would assert that if our "best" is a consistently boring sermon then we should give serious consideration to whether or not God has actually called us to preach. This is not said to discourage, but to encourage us to strive to give what is really our best and not be satisfied with mediocrity.

What is the reason for this problem? Donald G. Bloesch says: "Most pastors give up study first, then prayer usually follows. John Calvin insisted that study is almost as important as prayer. This study, moreover, should entail not only the Bible but theology, for at its best theology is commentary on Scripture for the present age."1

Boring sermon or faulted culture?

Is it fair to level all the criticism against the preacher? Isn't our culture at least partially at fault? Haven't our expectations regarding what a pastor is to do with his time changed over the years? At the end of the nineteenth century pastors were expected to spend their time in the study preparing to preach. Elders today who see their preacher poring over a stack of books are likely to think he or she is being lazy and neglecting other more important tasks.

Or, maybe the accusing finger should be pointed at our seminaries. After all, isn't it the task of the seminary to teach the would-be pastor the importance of preaching? Look through a seminary catalog and you will see that the course offerings are so many and varied that it may be possible to graduate and be ordained to the ministry having taken only one or two courses in preaching. And what about what is actually taught at the seminary when it comes to preaching?

Granted, all of the blame cannot be leveled at the preacher. However, the ultimate blame does fall squarely into the lap of the preacher if that person doesn't do something to enhance his or her ability to preach.

The case for preaching without notes

One of the best ways of making preaching more communicative and interesting is to master the art of preaching without notes.

How is this to be accomplished? If the problem is that preachers have lost a sense of the primacy of preaching, the solution is to recover that sense. Hence the question: How do we know that preaching has achieved primacy in our ministry? One sign is that the Word of God is so soaked in the mind and heart of the preacher that he or she breathes the Word, meditates upon it, lives under its power, that at any time he or she is called to preach, is ready to let the Spirit speak through their words.

The preacher who is able to stand in the pulpit, look at the congregation and preach a 20-30-minute sermon without referring to a note is going to impress his or her listeners with the idea that what is being said is of primary importance.

I am making a case for preaching without notes. I want to discuss the importance of being able to communicate unhampered by sheets, or even a single sheet, of words on paper. There are compelling reasons for developing the ability to do this. Even a person who seemingly has no ability to memorize, is able to develop the ability to address a congregation with a total freedom from the constraint of notes.

It is easy to say, "I can't do it! It's just not for me. There are all kinds of legitimate ways of going into the pul pit to preach." Instead of dismissing the possibility of preaching without notes, be willing to take a more posi tive approach by saying, "Maybe I can."

Remember what God asked Moses, "Who gave man his mouth? ... Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say" (Exod. 4:11, 12, NIV).

Recall your own experience of listening to someone who was tied to his or her notes or maybe even read the presentation word for word.

What was your reaction? Boredom? Maybe there were other reactions as well. One of my responses would be, "If he needs to read his message he doesn't know his subject very well." Another would be, "If she needs to read that, she isn't very excited about her message." Both of these are negative reactions and when presenting the gospel we certainly don't want to cause a listener to react negatively to, or possibly even reject that which we wholeheartedly believe.

Manuscript preaching

Reading a sermon does several things. First, it destroys the sense of urgency and excitement a sermon should have. A sermon should come both from the Word of God and the depths of the preacher's being—from his or her heart, soul and mind. If it comes also from a printed page, this tends to interfere with the conveyance of this sense of excitement from the preacher to the listener.

Karl Barth once wrote, "... when the bells ring to call the congregation and minister to church, there is in the air an expectancy that something great, crucial and even momentous is to happen."2

Reading a sermon destroys the eye contact between the speaker and the hearer which is so important to the effectiveness of real communication. The preacher who is able to make a point while looking into the eyes of the congregation is a preacher who will maintain the needed level of interest. The preacher who is able to allow his or her eyes to scan the congregation, rather than a manuscript, will maintain a contact with the listeners that is impossible to achieve if the speaker's eyes are always looking down or if they are constantly looking up and down.

Preachers who read their sermons sometimes lose their place or misread what they have written. I have listened to a number of manuscript preachers who, when this happens, will go back and reread an entire section of their sermon. This has a negative effect on one's listeners.

Another problem faced by manuscript preachers is that often their sermons are literary gems. Is this a problem? It can be! A sermon should be a living, vital communication addressed to one's mind and heart through the ears. A literary gem is for the eyes. The written word may be savored, read, and reread. This cannot be done with the spoken word. A listener either catches the meaning the first time or that meaning is lost. If the hearer stops to savor what has been said, what is said next will be lost.

Manuscript preachers will often defend their practice by saying that they want to use precisely the right words. I maintain that it is possible to use those "right words" even when preaching without a manuscript or notes.

Another justification often offered for manuscript preaching is that it protects the preacher from rambling. This may be a legitimate criticism of much preaching without  notes. However, when a sermon is properly prepared the preacher will not succumb to this temptation.

Some counter the suggestion that they preach without notes by saying that the only other alternative is to memorize the sermon and that this is unacceptable for several reasons. "It would take too long to memorize a sermon" and "A memorized sermon sounds memorized." Neither of these criticisms are necessarily valid.

There is a way to preach without a manuscript or notes and still use words chosen in the preacher's study without consciously trying to memorize those words.

There are preachers who are able to preach from a manuscript without keeping their faces buried in their notes. Some are so good at this that a congregation usually won't even know that they are reading their sermon. If this is so, the preacher knows the sermon's content so well that the manuscript is unnecessary anyway.

Such preachers, if they would try just once to preach without manuscript, would find such freedom in preaching that they would never go back to manuscript preaching again. Again, if a preacher is "good" when using a manuscript, that preacher will be "better" if the manuscript is left behind when entering the pulpit.

Preaching with limited notes

How about preaching with limited notes? Admittedly, this would be better than reading a sermon but in my opinion it is still lacking. We want to grasp and maintain the attention of our listeners.

When Jesus preached His Sermon on the Mount He did not rely on notes or a manuscript. When Peter preached his great sermon on the Day of Pentecost he didn't read it. When Paul spoke to the Athenians at the meeting of the Areopagus it is very unlikely that he used notes.

Why preach without notes? There are any number of reasons. But most important, it will increase the effectiveness of your message as it strikes the heart of your listener.

1 Donald G. Bloesch, "Whatever Happened to God" Christianity Today, February 5. 2001, 54f.

2 Karl Earth, The Word of God and the Word of Man Douglas Horton, tr., (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), 104.

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Walter Mueller, D.Min., is interim pastor of the William and Mary Hart Presbyterian Church in Leggett, North Carolina.

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