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Eyeball to Eyeball

Five tips for preaching without notes

My friend and fellow-student Jack experienced a preacher's worst nightmare when he opened his Bible to preach in a Bible college chapel service. His sermon notes were missing. When our class met an hour after chapel to evaluate Jack's sermon, I was shocked to find out that he preached his sermon without a stitch of notes. As it turned out, he left his notes on his dorm-room desk. But I didn't know this during his sermon. Jack's flow of thought seemed a bit choppy in places, but he didn't miss a beat.

I shuddered when I imagined this happening to me. I figured that if I ever forgot my sermon notes, I would panic and start crying. I could probably recover from tripping on the platform or forgetting to zip up my fly, but I could not imagine preaching without my sermon notes in front of me.

When I entered pastoral ministry a few years later, I carried a word-for-word manuscript into the pulpit each Sunday. But this obsession has waned through the years. One reason stems from my interest in the stories of the Bible. Through my experience and from observing other preachers, I have discovered that preaching stories works best when preachers can relate them eyeball to eyeball.

So I took the plunge a few years ago and began preaching without notes. I decided to give it a three-month trial period, and I have never returned to preaching with a manuscript or with notes. Now, I'm a busy pastor who rarely gets his sermon done before Saturday afternoon. Furthermore I do not have anything close to a photographic memory. Yet preaching without notes works for me—especially when I'm preaching a Bible narrative.

I've learned there are no sure-fire formulas for preaching without notes, but I have found some effective strategies that have worked for me.

Trust your mind

Your mind is more reliable than you realize. Try telling someone the story of your favorite childhood Christmas morning. You'll recall all of the sights and smells, as well as feelings of anticipation, euphoria, or disappointment. You'll remember the smell of pine mingled with the aroma of roast turkey. You'll remember the words Flexible Flyer imprinted in red on the wood slats of a new sled. You don't need notes. You lived the situation, so all you have to do is reach back into the recesses of your mind to relive it.

But won't you have to sacrifice content if you don't have notes? If you've ever listened to Bible teacher R. C. Sproul, you know that his presentations are chock-full of data. Yet Sproul preaches and teaches without notes, and he counsels preachers to follow suit. He says:

Prepare a manuscript

Even though you'll leave the manuscript on your desk, it will serve you well during your sermon preparation process. Haddon Robinson tells his homiletics classes: "A good sermon remembers itself." Writing out a word-for-word manuscript forces you to tighten up your thoughts and achieve clarity. It creates an encounter with the text that you can relive when you preach it. Writing is a way of thinking. Clear thinking in the study leads to clear thinking in the pulpit.

Internalize your manuscript

That is, go over and over it. This is the meaning of the term meditate, which occurs in both Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2 and is applied to the way people treat Scripture. Originally, meditate described the sound of an animal growling or moaning. Eventually, it was used to describe any repeated sound, including the sound of reading. Meditating on Scripture means reading over it again and again and again and again.

Now, you don't have to memorize your sermon manuscript. In fact, it's better if you don't try to do this. You don't want your sermon to sound canned. Besides, listeners don't know when you forget an image or misspeak. They do not have your manuscript in front of them. To internalize your manuscript, go over and over it. Getting your manuscript done a few days before you preach gives you an edge. You can read through it every night before you turn in for bed.

Pray through your manuscript

Turn the major moves of your sermon into prayer requests. Ask God to help you communicate each section. Ask him to help you make it clear and how, if necessary, to say it differently.

Rehearse your delivery

Take your manuscript with you into the empty worship center where you will preach. Start by reading a section through. Then set aside the manuscript and deliver the section without it. If you slip, you can refer to the manuscript and find out what you forgot, or perhaps why you forgot it. The closer you get to delivery day, run through the whole sermon without notes. If you stumble over the same section, perhaps you need to work on a transition or revise a section that does not flow.

Caution—don't stuff your Bible with notes. Believe me, I've tried it, and it erases the advantage you gain by preaching without notes: connection to your audience.

I do make a couple of exceptions, though. I always write out the big idea at the top of the page that has the text I'm preaching. That keeps me on track. Also, if I want to talk about a particular item from the text—a word, phrase, event, or character—I will sometimes mark it in my Bible. If I don't trust myself to remember a particular illustration, like an anecdote about Jackie Onassis, I may write Onassis in the margin. These minor notations will not hinder eye contact. But I discipline myself not to stuff the margins with notes.

If you have an important quote, a few lines of poetry, or an excerpt from a book, it's fine to bring this with you into the pulpit and read it. If it's important enough to give it word for word, reading it is appropriate.

All right then, take the plunge. Remember to forget your notes. You'll serve all your sermons well—especially those from the stories in Scripture. Leave the manuscript, in which you invested hours of work, on your desk and communicate eyeball to eyeball. Give it a try for three months, and you may decide to do it for a lifetime.


  1. Michael Duduit, "Theology and Preaching in the 90's: An Interview with R. C. Sproul," Preaching (March-April, 1994), p. 23.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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