Sermon Notes or Noteless?
As a preacher, I know from experience how important sermon delivery is in the overall sermon event. How often have I worked hard to prepare an expository message only to stumble during delivery and minimize my homiletical effectiveness. And yet, I have also experienced the euphoria of being "in the zone" during sermon delivery. A significant factor in this process focuses on what (if anything) the preacher takes to the pulpit besides the Bible. Should I take notes, or should I dare preach with only the Bible between me and the congregation? Vines and Shaddix refer to this as the "delivery dilemma."1 Sentiment runs high on both sides of the sermon notes issue. As we ponder this dilemma, we will first explore the various forms of sermon notes and then transition to the noteless side of the discussion.
It should be stated that not all sermon notes are the same. There are varying levels of "noteness." Preachers can use everything from a fully written-out sermon manuscript to an abbreviated outline, as well as a sticky-note fastened to the Bible page. Let’s take a look at the varying forms of sermon notes.
Sermon Manuscript - The manuscript comprises a document of what the preacher would say, word-for-word, in the message. It fleshes out the contents of the various components of the sermon: introduction, central idea of the text, transitional statements, sermon points, exposition of the passage, illustrations, applications, and the conclusion. It should represent in ideal, written form the preacher's homiletical intentions in the sermon. One might think of it as a sermon transcript written in advance. Some preachers read from the manuscript during their sermon. The advantage is that the risk of forgetfulness during delivery is removed. The danger is that connection with listeners can be greatly impaired if one has to break eye contact continually in order to look down and read from the manuscript.2 One of the most well-known, and well-skilled, users of a manuscript was Billy Graham. Oftentimes, listeners thought that Dr. Graham had been preaching with little or no notes, rather than reading from a prepared text. In an interesting twist, H.B. Charles, Jr. prepares a sermon manuscript, but he does not bring it to the pulpit during delivery. He chooses to preach noteless.3 Haddon Robinson reminds us that preparing a sermon manuscript is only a partial step; the sermon still has to be delivered.4 In preparing a manuscript, one should remember that the sermon is an oral event. Short, uncomplicated sentences and simple words should be used to reach the heart of the listener by way of the ear. When I surrendered to preach as a college-student, my pastor took me aside and showed me his method of sermon notes used in delivery. He would take a 8½ x 14 sheet of paper and fold it in half, thus creating a four page document for sermon notes. He would then use a red pen for the sermon title, text, points, and any supplemental Scriptures and a black pen for any fill-in notes of explanation, etc. I tried this method for a few years, but with the advent of the computer and accessible, easy printing, I abandoned it.
Abbreviated Outline or Sermon Brief - This method allows the preacher to bring to the pulpit something less than a full manuscript but more than a simple outline. An abbreviated outline or sermon brief is a document where the sermon introduction and conclusion are written out fully, with the sermon outline in-between. These notes will serve as an abridged road-map for the preacher in sermon delivery. I can say that for most of my ministry, I have followed such a method, using a sermon brief that is coordinated with a PowerPoint media presentation. This allows me to work through my sermon with a minimal amount of notes.
Simple Note Card - This is simply a small card or sticky note containing the sermon outline and a bare amount of notes. In my observation of preachers, I have noticed that some have utilized a Bible with extra-wide margins, allowing them to record an equivalent amount of notes in the side-bar space next to the text of Scripture. I tried this method for a while, but I found it to be somewhat tedious because of the attention required to record legible notes in the margins.
There are those who would decry any shred of a note in the pulpit other than the Bible. Such reasons as enhanced connection with listeners, freedom of movement, more expressiveness in delivery are usually cited. Author and Professor of Homiletics, Charles W. Koller, advocated a notes-free sermon delivery. In his book, Expository Preaching Without Notes, Koller cites the prophets and apostles, as well as our Lord, as practitioners of note-free preaching.5 He taught that those who aspire to preach without notes should engage in the tasks of saturation (familiarity with the material), organization (simple, obvious and natural structure of material), and memorization (retention of material in heart).6 Some teachers of preaching have included extemporaneous preaching as a sub-category of noteless preaching, in which the preacher has carefully planned and thoroughly mastered the material. The specific wording of the sermon awaits the actual delivery.7
Your method of sermon delivery should suit your personality and giftedness. I did not settle on the method which best fit me until many years into my ministry. Whatever method you use, do it with excellence. Perhaps, I should conclude by stating that one's sermon delivery method is not as important as sermon content, nor is it as significant as having the anointing of the Holy Spirit on one's life. Greg Heisler, author of Spirit-Led Preaching writes, "Our sermon preparation and sermon delivery must be intentionally and prayerfully carried out under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In order to accomplish this, the preacher much come to see preaching as the Spirit's ministry, not the preacher's own ministry."8 May we be mindful of the Spirit's ministry in our sermon preparation and delivery.
1 Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit: How to Prepare and Deliver Expository Sermons (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017), 370.
2 The writers of Engaging Exposition mention both the advantages and disadvantages of using a manuscript—advantages: confidence, able to control the length of message, higher accuracy in explanations and illustrations, less likelihood to ramble; disadvantages: eye contact is reduced, less expressive and energetic, potential for artificial delivery, less likelihood to adjust to needs of the moment. See Daniel L. Akin, Bill Curtis, and Stephen Rummage, Engaging Exposition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 302.
3 See H.B. Charles, Jr., On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights For the Preparation & Practice of Preaching (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 95.
4 Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 137. Charles reminds us that the manuscript by itself is not a sermon; the preaching of the manuscript is (On Preaching, 97).
5 Charles W. Koller, Expository Preaching Without Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 35.
6 Koller, Expository Preaching Without Notes, 85-97. Moreover, Koller apportioned a percentage to each task in the overall effort of preparation: saturation (50%), organization (40%), and memorization (10%), see Koller, 91.
7 Akin, Curtis, and Rummage, Engaging Exposition, 302.
8 Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Sermon Preparation and Delivery (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 4.