My friend Jerrold Lewis, Pastor of Lacombe Free Reformed Church, has written a great article on preaching without notes. As this is one of my own passions, I asked Jerrold for permission to re-post it on Head Heart Hand, which he kindly agreed to. The original post is here.

OK, so I have been reading three books on extemporaneous preaching. The subject has always intrigued me, and frightened me at the same time. Up to this point, I have preached about half of my sermon from a manuscript, and half “from the moment” (that is what extempore means). However, recently I have begun to wean myself from my notes. The best I have done is 2 pages. We will see how it goes. So far I like it very much, because it gives me a larger contact point with my congregation. I’m not sure if they have noticed any difference in my preaching, which could be a good thing, or a bad.

I have found out recently that whenever you mention extemporaneous preaching to others, especially to others in the ministry, you are often met with some serious cautions such as, “Extemporaneous preaching lacks direction. It is less doctrinal. You will find yourself falling into the same rut, saying the same thing over and over”, etc. But what I have come to discover is many people confuse extemporaneous preaching with impromptu preaching. There is a big difference. Impromptu preaching is preaching on the spot, off the top of your head with no preparation, relying on the Holy Spirit to guide you. I am opposed to this practice as a model based on 2 Timothy 2:15, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth”. I think this is mysticism plain and simple. However extemporaneous preaching is not of this species, not at all.

In each and every book I am reading on the subject, the message is the same: a sermon with little or no script notes needs to be as well developed and meticulously crafted as the full writ sermon. It will require the same amount of original language work, commentary discovery, and direct application as any other sermon, week in and week out. I have discovered, both by research and practice, that there is no substantive difference in preparation of an extemporaneous sermon than in a written. Dispel the myth! The difference is in the delivery.

So what are the advantages of preaching in this way? Here is what I have learned so far.

Augustine’s dictum about the gospel sums it up well: Veritas pateat, veritas placeat, veritas moveat. “Make the truth plain, make it pleasing, make it moving.” When Christ preached, it is said that the common people hear him gladly (Mark 12:37). There was something warm, engaging, and true in Christ’s words that made Him compelling. If history has taught us anything on the subject it is this: that the best extemporaneous preachers were popular, not just because of “what” they said but “how” they said it. I think people are naturally drawn to someone that is not reading, but is looking. Why is it that President Obama uses the TelePrompTer? Because even the world knows that a speech that is spoken to the eyes, is more believable and engaging that one read from notes.

At this point one will say “but not all extemporaneous preachers were as successful as these men.” True, but the same can be said of those that preach from the full manuscript. Both sides can produce monuments of disaster. But this does not remove the benefits of the practiced discipline of note-less sermons. Dr. Webb, in his book Preaching Without Notes insists, “One can move people by reading or speaking from notes, but one cannot move them very far.” I am in no way arguing that everyone must preach this way. I don’t even know yet if I should. But why is this aspect of homiletics no longer encouraged in our seminaries when it reflects such a large portion of preaching successfully in the past? As Dr. Carrick of GPTS points out in his wonderful lecture The Extemporaneous Mode of Preaching, it was the moderates or libertines in the Church of Scotland that began to preach from full manuscripts in the 1700′s, making the sermon more academic and less applicatory. The conservatives, or evangelicals resisted it as long as they could, but eventually the full manuscript became the new standard.

Much more could be written on the subject. For instance, there are several different kinds of extemporaneous preaching (no notes, outline, partial manuscript, etc). But before I go any further, I have more to learn myself, both cerebrally and experimentally.  I would encourage you all to listen to the lecture of Dr. Carrick linked above.

The books I am reading on this subject?

Preaching Without Notes by Joseph M. Webb.

Extemporaneous Preaching by W.G.T Shedd

Hints on Extemporaneous Preaching by Henry Ware .

Also read, My Heart for Thy Cause (Borgman), Preaching and Preachers (Lloyd-Jones), Lectures to My Students (Spurgeon), Thoughts on Preaching (J.W. Alexander), and Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (Shedd), Evangelical Eloquence (Dabney).

  • Nathan W. Bingham

    Thanks for posting this Dr. Murray. :-)

  • Ryan Cavanaugh

    I have to admit, preaching without notes from the pulpit scares me so much. What I would forget, or mis-quote, or something like that. But I can open air preach and i never use notes for that. Open air preaching is a bit different than the pulpit though. I read stories about Calvin never using notes, and I wish i was that smart, LOL. Thank you Dr. Murray!