A Memory Method for Note-less Preaching

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So you’ve come to believe that preaching without notes would improve engagement with your hearers and increase your sermon’s impact on their lives. You’re ready to take the leap, now what? What memory work is necessary and how do you do it?

While a hugely important part of preaching without notes is to understand your sermon, there are a few things to memorize in order to best leverage your understanding. Memory is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes over time. There are a number of effective ways. Here is one memory method for preaching without notes, once you’ve got your study and basic content done.

I call it the “bucket method.” It consists of two parts: (1) “buckets” that manage strategic memorization and, (2) a logical flow for content presentation.

Buckets

Buckets have handles to grip that allow you to carry more in the container than you could simply in your hands. Memory can work in a similar way. For components of the sermon, the idea is to put the content in the bucket, then create a handle for each one with a key word or phrase that you can remember, and that contains in your mind the rest of the content in that bucket. For instance, most of us in the Methodist-Wesleyan tribe carry the content of Wesley’s famous awakening story in a mental bucket with the one-word handle, “Aldersgate.”

We can apply that natural ability to lots of stories and bits of information. It simply takes intentionality, crafting, and review. For stories, a keyword that contains the whole, like the Aldersgate example above, is simpler to imagine. What about biblical background, theological insights, and the like?

Link biblical background to the words or phrases in the text itself. What does the term “covenant” mean in the bible and why does that matter in this text? Formulate a simple way to explain it and put it in a mental bucket with the handle “covenant.” Theological insights work the same way. Basically, it comes down to having confidence in your learning process, thinking through how to communicate information effectively for non-experts, and creating the right “handle” for your own memory.

Logical Flow

Okay, you’ve got your content to instruct, inform, and inspire. And you’ve placed them in “buckets” to help you carry them mentally. What next?

The best way I know to make the mental load manageable is to arrange the buckets in a logical progression, so that one bit of information more-or-less naturally follows from the other. Arbitrary points are more difficult to carry in memory because they lack a natural sequence. Stories are more memorable in part because sequence lessens the mental work.

Here is my typical flow, which lends itself well to “bucket-work” on a week-to-week basis.

1. The Intro bucket (story, situation, question to start with)

2. The Text bucket (background or interpretive point/s to engage and explain)

3. The Core Point bucket (simple and memorable statement of core teaching)

4. The Implications or Objections bucket (as applicable)

5. The Application bucket (how to be doers of this word and not hearers only)

6. The Closing bucket (illustration, challenge, and/or invitation)

I average six to eight “buckets” of content per sermon. This means that for memory work, I have crafted the core point to be simple and memorable (both for myself and for my hearers). I have added to that what I’ve learned about the text and about God. I have addressed what is challenging about living in light of this truth and how to live it in real life. This progression makes general sense. All that remains are the handles particular to the content for this sermon’s specific “buckets.”

The point is not that this is the only progression that works, only that it is one that makes sense to me. Use it, or find one that makes sense to you.

It is challenging to carry a heavy and bulky physical load. It is no different with a mental load. So, practice putting your content into buckets with reliable handles and lining them up in a logical order that makes sense to you. If you can carry the message this way, perhaps you’ll help your people carry the message with them into the world.

Image Attribution: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz / Thinkstock

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Guy Williams is Senior Pastor of the United Methodist Temple in Port Arthur, Texas. A graduate of Texas A&M University and Asbury Seminary, he is married with three children. Follow him on twitter @guymwilliams or find him online at guymwilliams.net.

1 COMMENT

  1. I preach from no to a few notes, depending on the situation. If I have a quote I want to use, I have it written out. If during prep I find I need a note for a transition (what you call flow), I have it. But the basic way I prepare is to start with the text or a foundational source (for a topical sermon) and start talking out loud. After a few repetitions, the flow and structure appear (I say, “It’s starting to sound like a sermon). Then it’s just practice – a couple of times a day from Thursday to Saturday.

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