I love the idea of preaching without notes! I aspire to do so. On occasion I actually pull it off. But the style of preaching I most often employ isn’t conducive to noteless preaching. Instead, I try to utilize a “Less-Notes” approach using minimal notes, including the outline, scripture quotes, any other quotes, and key words from illustrations. My style of preaching is a teaching style, topical approach, with multiple scripture quotes and multiple points. I tend to preach for twenty-five to thirty minutes. That’s a lot for noteless, but totally doable for less-notes.
I don’t want to get into a discussion about the merits of verse-with-verse topical preaching versus verse-by-verse expository, or with what has become the norm with homiletics professors: the one pericope, one point, narrative sermon. Instead, I want to acknowledge that many preachers today, myself included, employ a more didactic, verse-with-verse topical approach including multiple application points. This style generally includes providing the congregation with printed sermon notes featuring scripture quotes or references and the application points utilizing fill-in-the-blanks and space for note-taking.
Granting there is real value in preaching without notes, that the preacher can more effectively connect with the hearers, it must also be said that utilizing a didactic preaching style without notes is particularly challenging. The sheer number of scripture quotes creates a real challenge to the noteless preacher. In general I quote eight to twelve scriptures. It’s so much better to have my head up out of my notes and engaging with people, though, so how can I pull off a variation of the noteless sermon and minimize the notes while maximizing congregational engagement?
Five Keys to Less-Notes Didactic Preaching
1. Consider Less-Notes Preaching During Preparation
The process of preparing a less-notes sermon begins at the beginning of the week, not the end. Joseph Webb makes this point well in his book, Preaching Without Notes (Abingdon Press 2001), which I highly recommend. Even though he doesn’t use the didactic style, his advice can be easily adapted.
I can’t prepare a sermon and then decide I will preach it without notes or with minimal notes. I could, but it will be extremely difficult and the outcome will most likely not be helpful to either the congregation or the preacher. The time to think about going less-notes is at the beginning and how I think about the material I’m researching.
With a topical sermon I often begin with just one text, one “jumping off point.” I want to know that text very well, because either the story told or the teaching shared in this text will form the basis of the sermon. Understanding that text in detail, including the context, is vital, so I will take copious notes on that text. Out of this interaction, a plan begins to emerge and a topic is chosen. I then search the scripture for other relevant material. Is there a parable, a proverb, a pericope related to the topic? Amazingly, there always is.
One of the challenges in this style is being faithful to the context. Someone famously said, “A text without a context is a pretext.” I can think of many sermons I’ve heard in which the preacher used a text to fit a point without examining the wider context, and in so doing abusing the text. It takes work to understand the context, but it is worth it.
John Wesley stated that the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. The original text on which the sermon is based is best understood in light of other texts throughout the Bible including different styles of literature, wisdom, narrative, epistle, etc. These collected texts on a given topic often fit together in a logical flow, forming a good outline. The challenge is cutting it down to size, but that’s a topic for a different post.
2. Memorize the Outline
Even though when I go into the pulpit I will have the outline in front of me, I want to memorize it so that I can easily recite the points and keep in mind the overall flow and logic of the message, where we’re going, and how I plan to land the plane, so to speak.
I generally memorize the outline even before I have populated it with the necessary illustrative material. I want the outline to become a part of my thinking. This generally occurs by Wednesday.
3. Learn Your Illustrations
I need to be able to tell the stories without notes, so I learn all the little details of an illustration. If it’s a personal illustration, this is relatively easy, it happened to me. If it’s a story I find in the news or elsewhere, then it requires a little more work. I want to be able to launch into the story as naturally as possible and I don’t want to depend on my notes to do it. In my preaching outline I will simply list a name or a trigger word that reminds me of the story so I can move through the sermon smoothly.
4. Write Out and Read Scripture References and Quotes
Ellsworth Kalas was a master of noteless preaching, but when he used a quote, a scripture, or something from some other source, he’d pull an index card out of his coat pocket, read it, then replace the card. It had an interesting effect for me, as a hearer. First, it reinforced the importance of the quote. In essence, it said, “This is important to me and I want it to be important to you. I didn’t write this, but it has value and furthers the goal of the sermon.” Second, it highlighted the fact that he wasn’t using notes in the rest of his sermon.
When I quote scripture, the reference is up on the screen. Sometimes I read it off the confidence monitor, most often I read it from my outline. As I mentioned earlier, with this style of preaching, I use copious scripture references, so the congregation is reading quite a bit of scripture along with me during the sermon, which helps keep them engaged
5. Rehearse the Sermon
Some preachers actually go to the place the preaching will occur, generally the sanctuary, and deliver the message to an empty room. That’s a great idea, but I don’t do it. Instead, I develop my preaching outline. The preaching outline contains the outline, the illustration key words and scripture quotes. I then write the sermon out by hand several times: outline, illustration key words, scripture references (not the actual quotes), etc. I find writing with a pen and paper, not typing, helps sear the sermon into my brain so I learn it. I most often do this on Saturday morning, but sometimes early Sunday. If I have written it out on Saturday, then on Sunday I at least read over it.
When I stand up ready to preach, I feel confident that I know what I’m going to say. I have my preaching outline in front of me, but I try to only look at it when I’m quoting scripture or other quotes. The rest of the time I want to maintain eye-contact with the congregation and engage them in the stories and flow of the sermon. I find that when I do this and do it well, the less-notes approach is well suited to my didactic style.
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