Dave McClellan

Preparing to preach is not writing a speech.

Preaching without notes is currently getting lots of attention. But it’s not a new topic. Most issues that seem revolutionary in a given historical moment most likely surfaced in previous ages as well. Recent books written or reprinted on the issue include Preaching Without Notes by Clarence Macartney (Wipf & Stock, 2008); Without a Net: Preaching in the Paperless Pulpit by William Shepherd (CSS, 2004); Preaching on Your Feet by Fred Lybrand (Baker, 2008); and How to Preach Without Notes by Charles Koller (Baker, 2007).

It has been the subject of papers at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. Since I presented one of those papers, and since I’ve virtually abandoned using notes in my own weekly preaching, it would seem safe to assume that I favor the practice. But as I thought about it, preaching without notes isn’t really the point.

First, some background. In 1855 Cardinal Newman weighed in on the issue. He called it preaching “with book” or “without book.” Though this esteemed theologian in Victorian England prized the highest standards of scholarship, he also concluded “that a very inferior sermon, delivered without book, answers the purposes for which all sermons are delivered more perfectly than one of great merit, if it be written and read.”

Newman understood the value of precision that comes with writing something well. But for preaching he concludes that polish and precision are not the best criteria, and that preaching “without book,” while messier, nevertheless produces a better result. Since Newman’s time and before, we have argued the merits of becoming note-free.

For some, the effort required to speak well without notes is time well-wasted, since many audiences are not at all offended or distracted by an occasional downward glance. Better to devote that time to solid research and clear construction, and let the notes provide their silent coaching as necessary. Some would even say that recourse to notes or manuscript lends an appropriate sense of preparation and subtle credibility. After all, preaching is serious business, not something that should seem off the cuff.

On the other hand, proponents of note-free preaching argue that breaking free from the crutch of a manuscript or outline gives the preacher unrivaled eye contact and force of expression. People do not tend to rely on written prompts when they speak of things closest and most important to them. No one reads a marriage proposal or attempts to read their way through a presidential debate. Things nearest and dearest to us to us happen “live,” so should not the sermon?

The world of preachers can be divided up between those who for good reasons preach without notes, and those who for other good reasons don’t. But what if preaching without notes is really the byproduct rather than the goal? If it becomes the goal, we can resemble the 10-year-old kid who, learning to ride his bike proficiently, calls out, “Look, ma. No hands!” (For preachers it becomes, “Look, folks, no notes.”)

But the goal is not to be note-free, but to prepare ourselves to accurately handle the Word of Truth in an unfolding and “live” congregational setting. If we achieved that, we may find that our dependence on notes decreases, not because we have made notes the enemy, but because our mode of preparation has equipped us to speak naturally. Rather than weaning ourselves from notes, can we prepare in such a way that we never develop dependence on notes at all?

Preparing for a Conversation

Typically we think of sermon preparation as something we do with pen and legal pad or keyboard. We organize our thoughts “outside” of us in notes and outlines. But that’s not the only way to prepare.

In previous eras sermons tended to rely more on what we’ll call oral composition. Composing orally allows the preacher to develop fluency on a given passage long before Sunday. It prepares the preacher to interact, not simply to read, recite, or recall. When we prepare primarily with literary tools, we’re preparing for the wrong environment. On Sunday we won’t be writing an essay or delivering a soliloquy; we’ll be speaking to a live audience. So why not prepare for what we’ll actually be doing? Otherwise we can only hope that the sermon will convert seamlessly from text to tongue at the very last minute.

The only way to prepare for an oral environment is to prepare orally. That means we start “preaching” way before Sunday. We start speaking the message all week long as a substantial part of our preparation. Or to put it another way, we don’t wait until the sermon is finished to start preaching it. What does this actually look like? Consider the following overlapping stages.

1. Literary preparation

At this stage we do the necessary work of good research and translation. We employ good hermeneutics to arrive at the meaning of a text. Biblical texts don’t mean just anything or everything. They don’t even mean what we wish they meant. They mean something particular which can and should become the germ of our sermon.

2. Conversational preparation

This is where we engage others in the text. Whether with a spouse, another pastor, an interested layperson, or some creative combination, we begin to talk about the text and its implications in conversation. This is where oral composition begins. The germ of meaning moves from page to tongue.

Ideas flow and are refined in the process of dialogue. We notice what questions arise. We recognize the emotions and tensions and temptations that accompany the subject matter. Theories emerge and ideas distill.

The sermon is becoming verbal before it is ever written. This is key because, traditionally, sermons start on paper and move toward oral expression. Oral composition reverses the process. The ideas start in live speech, and then the best ones can be jotted down and placed in the right sequence in the next stage.

This doesn’t mean we must have others around before we can prepare. Even sitting alone in an office or a park, a preacher can begin whispering ideas and illustrations and transitions before they’re ever annotated. But it sure helps to interact with another living human being. In fact, sometimes we don’t know what we mean until we’ve spoken it. And we don’t know if our words are understood until another person reflects them back to us. The act of conversation actually forces us to clarify. So why not do that all week instead of hoping it will happen for the first time on Sunday?

3. Roadmapping the sermon

Once the germ of the text has moved, by means of dialogue, into the world of the spoken word, the most compelling ideas can be organized by means of a homiletic roadmap. It’s similar to an outline, but comprised of visual icons instead of textual phrases. Instead of multiple points and sub-points listed neatly on paper, the roadmap has only five to eight visual icons. Each icon represents a block of thought. Your introduction might be one block. It might be a story about your first car. So you draw a little car as the first stop on your roadmap. The sermon then is a journey through these pre-selected visual icons.

The journey metaphor is important because this kind of sermon has a narrative structure where sequence is significant. One block of thought leads naturally into the next. So fluency develops automatically since the roadmap is organized more organically. Since there are only five to eight blocks of thought that follow a natural sequence, and since those blocks all have a visual icon, the sermon roadmap is easily depicted on a half page of paper without any words.

4. “Prehearsing” the sermon

Once the sermon is road mapped, the sequence of thought can be rehearsed repeatedly, both in silent mediation and audibly in places like showers, cars, and empty worship centers. Refining the flow of thought both mentally and orally prepares the preacher to go into the sermonic environment with a crystal clear plan and natural verbal agility. But don’t confuse this with memorization. We’re talking about memory instead. Memorization takes the preacher out of the moment; memory keeps us there. Pre-hearsing allows our memory to traverse the flexible roadmap until we naturally get used to following one idea with the next. Things fall into place. At this point the sermon has been internalized, dwelling more “inside” than “outside” us.

Roadmapping and pre-hearsing are what distinguish extemporaneous sermons from spontaneous ramblings. Some preachers and some preaching traditions, convinced that the Lord can only lead through spontaneous speech, refuse to prepare at all and carry nothing into the pulpit save the scriptural text. That would be spontaneous sermonizing, and that’s not what I’m talking about here, because very few can do that effectively, and I’m certainly not one of them. Delivering a thoughtful oral presentation still requires lots of hard work in preparation. It’s just a different kind of preparation. Extemporaneous preachers may have a spontaneous tone, but don’t be fooled. It is good preparation that allows the preacher a “present” or spontaneous tone.

Oral delivery

When this kind of preparation has been done, the preacher can approach the pulpit with greater confidence. There is no worry about whether the sermon “will preach,” because it has been preached all week. There is a clear starting point and a clear destination that, while not memorized, are still highly accessible. Here’s where oral preparation can fuel a flexible oral delivery. While the roadmap defines a clear progression of thought, the sermons need not always stick tightly to the map.

Part of oral delivery is responding to the room and the moment in a way that actually affects what is spoken. In other words, the congregation itself helps fuel the sermon. They don’t decide the meaning or the ideas or the roadmap, but they do help decide how those ideas are expressed in that place and time.

The looks on their faces will help the preacher choose which words to use and how long to stay on a point before proceeding. This is not a generic lecture that can be delivered unchanged onto just any congregation. This particular expression of the sermon is a product of these people and this hour. Next week, even next hour, the expression would vary.

How can a preacher be so flexible as to allow this level of dialogical sense even in the midst of a monologue? By being prepared at the level of ideas instead of finished, written phrases. Sure, the same sermon preached a week later to a difference audience would still be similar, but the well-prepared preacher can allow the sermon to adapt to its environment in a highly personal way.

This is in stark contrast to the trend of video sermon casts that go out generically to any and every place, or downloadable sermons preached without regard to their present context. This is a sermon preached by a specific shepherd to a specific flock at a specific moment, and it carries all the appropriate personal and sacred overtones. It’s the kind of sermon our congregations, who bothered on a Sunday morning to do more than flip on the TV, deserve.

When is the sermon finished?

The difference between an oral and a literary orientation to preaching can be illustrated by the issue of a sermon’s point of completion. Those who are orientated toward writing assert the sermon is complete when it has been fully and properly captured on paper. It is “out there.” Finished. Complete.

Ever since Gutenberg, homiletics has been trending toward this definition of the sermon as a product of literacy and literary minds. Written first, then delivered. But church history shows us that many of the great preachers of the past (and many across the globe today) never wrote their sermons in advance. The only way we have record of them is by means of adept shorthand that was fast enough to capture a sermon in progress.

Those oriented toward an oral approach to preaching tend to see the sermon as a work in progress all the way through preparation and even into delivery. So the sermon isn’t finished until it has been preached audibly to a live congregation. It is still unfolding, adapting, conversing up through the closing prayer. When that sermon is done, it is unrepeatable and could not move “as is” to another environment without losing something important, something worth saving.

When a sermon is properly prepared and delivered, it is likely that its preacher will not be fixated on the issue of notes: either their presence or their absence. The goal becomes to be so consumed by an urgent message that we forget ourselves and our methods for a short while to concentrate on communicating with those in the room. “Good oral delivery means you acknowledge and respond to the people in the room.”—Dave McClellan

When that happens, we probably won’t be looking down to find the next phrase. Something much more alive will be happening. Newman refers to this as well: “Nothing that is anonymous will preach; nothing that is dead and gone; nothing even that is of yesterday, however religious in itself and useful. Thought and word are one in the Eternal Logos, and must not be separate in those who are his shadows on earth. They must issue fresh, as from the preacher’s mouth, so from his breast, if they are to be ‘spirit and life’ to the hearts of his hearers.”
Whether we use or don’t use notes, I trust every preacher’s desire is that our sermons reflect the kind of personal acquaintance with the sacred text that can’t help but reanimate it for the people of God.

Dave McClellan is pastor of The Chapel at Tinkers Creek, Streetsboro, Ohio.

This article “Unscripted!” by Dave McClellan was excerpted from: Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal. www.preachingtoday.com web site. March 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”