The well-known words of former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt apply to many situations, including that of standing in the pulpit and preaching without notes: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
The truth is that fear and fear alone is the only substantive thing that stands in our way. Fear of forgetting, fear of not being able to make our point, and fear of embarrassment immobilize us and render us unable to experience the freedom and effectiveness that comes to the one who dares to stand before a congregation unhampered by a manuscript.
The first time I preached without notes
Strangely enough it was a form of fear that enabled me to understand that I could preach without notes. Let me share the story with you.
For seven years I had pastored a small church. Then at the age of 27 I was asked to candidate for the pulpit of a rather impressive church. I arrived at the church early and did what I always did—went to what I thought was the pulpit, opened the Bible to the Scripture passage for the morning and placed my manuscript on the page following that passage.
The service began. At a designated time the soloist went to sing from the "pulpit" at which I had left my notes. Only then did I realize that this church had a split chancel with two identical pulpits, one with a Bible and the other without. The one with the Bible was the lectern while the one without was the pulpit. I had placed my manuscript on the lectern, not the pulpit.
Fear struck. I realized I had three options. I could go over to the lectern, retrieve my notes and then move to the pulpit to preach. Unfortunately, such a journey would reveal my ignorance to the congregation! On the other hand, I could preach from the lectern and in so doing also show these sophisticated, cultured people that I wasn't the one they wanted to be their minister.
The only other option was to preach at the proper pulpit without notes. This is the option I chose. Fear drove me to do what fear had prevented me from doing until that morning. The congregation decided to hire me.
I wish I was able to say that I learned that morning that I had nothing to fear but fear itself. I didn't. I went right back to preaching with a manuscript. It wasn't until some years later, at the urging of two very wise preachers, that I decided to go into the pulpit without manuscript or notes. I experienced such freedom in my preaching that morning that I decided never again to use notes.
The only thing a minister needs to preach without manuscript or notes is the courage to try. I would like to share how I prepare my sermons to preach unencumbered by the restraint of notes. I must give the warning that at first the process is time consuming and difficult. However, it does get easier and the results are far more than gratifying.
My eight steps in preaching without notes
Step 1. Recognize that every good sermon has but one and only one major point. When you have chosen your text decide what it is in that text you wish to emphasize. You may want to write a theme sentence expressing what it is you want to accomplish with your sermon.
Recently I completed a series of sermons on the apostles, beginning with James, the son of Alphaeus. He is one of the Twelve about whom the New Testament tells virtually nothing. My theme sentence could have been phrased in this way: "In this sermon I wish to inform the congregation that, like most of us, James, the Son of Alphaeus, though a member of the select group of Jesus' followers known as apostles, remains unknown to us but that this does not in any way diminish his value in the eyes of God."
Step 2. Develop an outline with the theme sentence at its center. Every sub-point in the outline must contribute to the development of that one major theme. Ordinarily, it is best to get the outline directly from the text. In the case of this sermon on James, there is no text. All we have is his name.
It is the theme sentence that gave me my two-point outline: (1) To be unknown is not to be unimportant; and (2) To be unknown is not to be unprivileged. Note the simplicity of the outline. An outline need not be complicated to be profound. Avoid the temptation to impress your listeners with your knowledge and ability to use unusual words. The purpose of preaching is communication and you will be best able to do this using simple terms. Whether your congregation consists of farmers or Ph.D.s, strive for simplicity.
Step 3. Develop each of the sub-points. Since nothing is known about this apostle I made the point that James was important, not because of anything he said or did but because of his relationship with Jesus.
This was illustrated by referring to other unknown people in the New Testament. The woman who anointed Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee isn't even named but Jesus said that wherever the gospel was preached she would be remembered because of her sacrificial act of love. In the final chapter of Romans Paul refers to a woman whose name was Phoebe. We know nothing about her except that Paul entrusted the delivery of his letter to her. Her importance lies in the fact that she was faithful in performing her task. The world has been transformed by Paul's letter to the Roman Church.
I referred as well to a woman I met in the religion section of a used book store. In our conversation she said something to me, a seventeen-year-old, that was to affect not only my life, but my entire ministry. I don't know her name, but she supplied an important element in my spiritual development.
Not only was James important, he was also privileged. He heard Jesus preach, saw Him heal and raise the dead. He saw the risen Christ. The depth of his privilege is found in a statement in the book of Revelation that could easily be considered insignificant. John in his vision of heaven saw that the eternal city had twelve foundation stones on which were engraved the names of the twelve apostles. James did not have the personality of a Peter or the fervor of the other James whom Jesus called a Son of Thunder, but he was privileged to have his name included with theirs.
In the conclusion, emphasis was placed on the importance and the privilege of the ordinary Christian. Our names too are written in heaven. It is our relationship with Jesus, not our fame, that is most important.
Step 4. Write out the sermon in full. This is an important part of the process and should not be skipped. Writing the sermon word for word helps to imprint it in the mind.
Step 5. Read through the manuscript six or seven times in preparation for preaching. At each reading, changes and refinements may be made.
Step 6. Take the full manuscript and reduce it to a skeleton outline which highlights the major ideas contained in the sermon. This will take about one hour. The purpose of this step is to further fix the content of the sermon in your mind.
When one follows this process a number of things will happen. First, without consciously trying, you will have memorized the main outline of the sermon. However, you will also have memorized the sub-points in the sermon and even many of the exact words you have written and which you think are important to the communication of the theme of the message.
Step 7. Preach the sermon. My sermons are usually 25 minutes long. If a listener were to follow my manuscript as I preached the sermon, he or she would see that there is seldom a variation. Finely tuned phrases are still there. Yet, the sermons do not sound memorized. I know this because people have regularly commented to me that my sermons have a conversational tone and that I seem to be speaking just to them.
Speaking without either a manuscript or notes allows me to maintain constant eye contact with the members of the congregation.
Step 8. I have left this step until last, not because it is least important, but because it is most important: Pray!
Throughout this process it is critical for us to remember that the power of preaching is not simply in the words, style, or techniques we choose, but in the God and Savior we seek to glorify through those words. So pray! One question may still dominate our thinking: "What if I forget some thing?"
Don't worry. You trust God for eternity, trust Him also for the one half hour you may be in the pulpit. Along with this be well prepared.
You may also wonder about the amount of time it will take to go through this sermon preparation process. Again, it is time consuming, but it is rewarding. Once you have tried it you will never want to go back to using a manuscript again. And as you use the process, it will take less and less time.