Further to yesterday’s post on preaching without notes (or with less notes), here’s the method I follow to decrease reliance on paper in the pulpit:

1. Saturation
You must be saturated in your material. This is one of the benefits of preparing nearer the time of sermon delivery. The longer the time period between preparation and preaching, the more you will have to rely on your notes. I also find that praying over my sermon, applying each point to myself really helps to embed the sermon in the heart as well as in the head.

2. Scriptural
If your text is just a pretext for some topical sermon with little connection to your text, then you will be much more reliant on notes. But if your sermon points and material flow naturally out of Scripture, then you immediately have a huge help to reducing your reliance on notes. If you blank, as we all do, then you should be able to just look at your text for prompts to get you back on track.

3. Structure
You must have a clear structure for your sermon material. It is much easier to remember five bullet points than a five line paragraph. Use the outlining/indenting feature of your Word processor and use the same lettering/spacing standard each time to train your mind to step through the process.

4. Summarize
Try to summarize your points and sub-points, cutting the words down more and more until your main points and sub-points are no more than 3-5 words, and your explanatory sentences are no more than one line long. I would recommend that you end up with no more than one page of a summary. I’ve attached a sample below from one of my sermons. I may take this into the pulpit in my pocket or inside my Bible as a “fallback” if I blank. But if I’ve properly prepared by following the other steps outlined here, then I usually don’t need to refer to it.

5. Stress
Once you have a one page summary, stress or highlight both your structure and the main word in each point and sentence. Use a highlight marker to color the main points and sub-points. This will help “photograph” the structure into your mind.

Then, using a dark pen, underline the key word in each point, sub-point and line. This word should be one which “triggers” memory of the whole point/line. Write the first letter of each trigger word in the left hand margin. You will then have a series of letters running up and down the left side of your page. Try to memorize one main-point letter and the sub-point letters. Then see if you can recall the word and phrase or sentence related to each letter. The letter should trigger a word which triggers the point (see sample below). 

6. Study
This method does not advocate memorizing the sermon word for word. Instead you are remembering the key points, sub-points and “trigger” words (the skeleton). But you will need to stock your mind with a wide vocabulary so that the “trigger” word will pull in suitable other words to speak. If you don’t you will tend to start sounding “samey.” You should read widely and constantly to build up a ready vocabulary. Read outside theological books and magazines. Read a reputable newspaper or contemporary biographies. This will keep your vocabulary fresh, contemporary, and less cliched.

7. Start
The hardest step here is simply to start. It is like learning to swim for the first time without a flotation device, or learning to ride a bike without stabilizers. It is a large psychological barrier. So, let me give you some helps to starting.

First, start small. Instead of launching out with a full sermon in your head, choose a small section which you are committed to preaching without notes and follow the procedure outlined above. Next time, do a larger section or two sections, and so on. Your mind will get into a groove and you will become gradually more confident in the method.

Second, have a back-up plan. Even though you are intending to preach a section or two extemporaneously, take your paper with you anyway so that if you do “blank,” you have your paper to fall back on. The great temptation here though is that your mind will take the easiest path and so will you. If you know there is going to be no lifebelt, you will prepare much better for the jump!

Third, don’t try to memorize Scripture references or quotations. Have these written down on a small paper so that you can read from them. That will save you a lot of mental work. Also, quotations tend to carry more authority if read rather than repeated from memory.

  • Jacob Riggs

    I’m a young preacher, having only preached 20 times or so. Thanks for these two posts! I am uncomfortable with too many notes, but am also uncomfortable with none (I’ve tried both). I like being able to have an idea where I’m going and being able to look the congregation in the eye the whole time as well. I’ve never heard anyone say that was OK though, so thank you! Hearing someone suggest this makes me more confident to preach that way.

  • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

    Glad it was helpful Jacob. You’ll find your own niche/balance between notes/extempore. The main thing is not so much whether you have notes or not, but how much you depend on them.