“If you can learn to do this one thing, I guarantee you’ll get more responses from your sermons.”
When one of my mentors said this to me over coffee about a year ago, I listened intently. It sounded like he was about to tell me a closely guarded secret that people, including my seminary professors, had been keeping from me.
“Learn to preach without notes. It won’t necessarily lead to you preaching better content, but it will lead to a deeper connection.”
I thought about his words, admitted my fears, and committed to making it happen. After a year of preaching without notes, I’ve discovered he was right.
My sermons now connect with my congregation in a way they never did when I had my rehearsed manuscript. I receive more positive feedback than ever before. People often tell me what they’ve been thinking about the sermon weeks after I’ve preached it. And stories about people being “doers of the Word” are becoming more and more frequent.
My mentor didn’t give me a handy ten steps to learn how to preach without notes, but over the last year I’ve learned from many others who’ve made the journey before me. Here are the five most helpful things I’ve put into practice:
1. Let connection take priority over precision
Most preachers are trained in seminary settings that prize precise language, perfect grammar, and phrases that read beautifully. But if you’re going to preach without notes, you have to be willing to sacrifice some precision of language for the sake of connection—unless you can memorize long form content verbatim on a weekly basis.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t do careful exegesis or commit certain phrases and transitions to memory. It does mean that you let eye contact and being fully present with the congregation take precedence over those sentences that took you hours to painstakingly craft in your study.
As Will Willimon recently wrote, “Even when we know our manuscript well, we tend to look at the manuscript rather than look at our listeners. We miss clues that our listeners are sending us when they don’t understand, or when they are losing interest.
2. Understand your sermon
Don’t try to memorize your sermon. It will be extremely difficult and probably leave you frustrated. Instead, simply understand your sermon. It’ll make preaching it without notes much easier.
Carey Nieuwhof puts it this way: “When you understand the structure of your talk, you understand your talk.” And when you understand your talk, you can stand in front of people without worrying that you’ll forget everything.
To help understand and remember the structure of my sermons, I often use structures popularized by others such as Andy Stanley’s Me, We, God, You, WeorPaul Scott Wilson’s Four Pages of the Sermon. Other times, I create a structure unique to the text I’m preaching.
In all cases, I make an outline of the talk’s structure with as much detail as I feel I need for every point. When I started, I converted manuscripts to detailed outlines, and then converted those to simple outlines. Now, I start with a detailed outline to save time.
Before I step in front of the congregation, I make sure I can write down the structure of my sermon on a sheet of paper with no hesitancy. Then, even if I forget specific points or phrases, I know I can still convey the big picture.
3. Practice out loud on location
Most performers wouldn’t step on stage without having rehearsed what they’re going to say and do. Most preachers will.
If you want your sermons to stand out, the most effective thing you can do after understanding your sermon in your head is to hear it in your ears. Yes, I know it’s awkward. But it’s less awkward to discover that your sermon is too dense, has too many stories, or is it just plain bad while you’re alone than when you’re surrounded by a crowd of people.
Schedule practice time into your sermon preparation and try to rehearse in the room where you’ll be preaching. This will help you get a feel for the room, platform, lighting, and other elements.
Like Tim Ferriss does when he’s rehearsing public speaking, I’ll write down one-liners and phrases that I like so that I can remember them for later. And I continue going through my message until I nail it once.
4. Put yourself in a position to perform
When you’re preaching every week and have discovered a rhythm that works for you, it’s hard to work up the motivation to make major changes to your habits. So, don’t rely on motivation. Force yourself to preach without notes!
Tell your congregation one Sunday that next week you’re going to try something different and you’d love their encouragement. Plan to preach at an outdoor service where there’s no pulpit or place for notes. Ask your spouse to throw away any sermon notes you bring with you into church for the next month.
5. Trust God
When I began this journey, I sat in front of my counselor and said that I didn’t think I could ever do it. I told him I needed the safety net of my manuscript. I confessed the great fear and anxiety I had when I thought about preaching with nothing in front of me.
He reminded me that a successful sermon isn’t one that contains perfect phrases or all the points I want to get across. It’s one in which the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed so that the listeners might become a little more like Jesus. And he reminded me that it wasn’t just me who was working to make that happen.
What’s worked for you as you’ve tried to preach without notes?