Noteless Preaching and the Preacher’s Task

The following lengthy passage, taken from Charles Merrill Smith’s “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious,” offers a piercingly satirical vision for the life of an ambitious minister.

Bishop CoverNotes on Noteless Preaching:

Let us now turn our attention to some do’s and don’ts of preaching, little practical suggestions—each by itself a small thing perhaps—but put together adding up to great things for you so far as preferment in your calling is concerned.

At the top of the list of those items which you should do is this: Always preach without manuscript or notes of any kind.

Young clergymen seldom grasp the value of perfecting themselves in the “noteless” style of sermon delivery. Most of us have weak memories and feel horribly insecure without the comforting presence of a manuscript on the podium in front of us. Not one person in a thousand feels naturally inclined to this style of delivery. It is this very scarcity of noteless preachers which works to the advantage of the man who is one.

When you preach without notes, the focus of attention for the congregation is not your sermon but your performance. Since most of your listeners are paralyzed and inarticulate in front of an audience with everything they intend to say written down and before them, they are vastly amazed that anyone can stand up and talk for twenty minutes or so without visible aids to the memory, no matter what he says.

This situation obviates the need for undue concern over the content of your sermon since hardly anyone will be more than casually interested in what you say, thus lightening your preparatory labors and granting you many extra hours every week to do with what you please—hours which your less gifted brethren of the cloth will spend sweating over the manufacture of a manuscript for Sunday morning.

You may have observed already that the possession of a noteless preacher is a genuine status symbol for a church, the ecclesiastical equivalent of a chinchilla coat or recognition by the headwaiter at Le Pavillon. These confer status because they are rare, and rare status symbols cost quite a bit of money. This law operates just as surely in the ecclesiastical world as in the secular world, and a noteless preacher always commands a higher salary than even the most profound of his brethren who encumber themselves with manuscripts.

Those fortunate few congregations blessed with a noteless preacher become inordinately proud of him, and brag about him much as they brag about breaking 80 at golf or being invited to the Governor’s for tea. They never comment that their preacher is learned or witty or forceful or devout or thought-provoking or inspiring. They always say, “You know, he preaches without a single note.”

Also, the noteless style endears you to the extremely pious members of your flock who tend to be suspicious of written sermons on the grounds that excessive advance preparation allows insufficient opportunities for the workings of divine inspiration. The extemporaneous homily seems to them to come from the heart instead of the head, and is thus a sure sign and seal that their preacher is “spiritual.”

~ Charles Merrill Smith, “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious” 38-39.

As a preacher who has personally made the transition from sermons in full manuscript to preaching with only minimal notes, I read the above passage with no small amount of mirth. There is something strikingly true about the tacit change a listening congregation undergoes when a preacher preaches without notes. People’s faces are more engaged (largely because you are looking at them and making eye contact), they respond with greater emotional resonance to the things you say, and one receives more positive general feedback (of the “I enjoyed your sermon” variety). Regrettably, this transition has made me suspicious of my own congregation. Suspicious, because I know for a fact that my shift into “noteless” preaching has not resulted in an improvement in sermon quality. Quite the opposite, I am confident that the overall quality has in fact decreased.

When I first began writing sermons, now almost thirteen years ago, the writing process was labored. I would brainstorm, reflect, and write out the sermon word for word. A sermon, let us be clear, is not simply a matter of “just speaking to people.” A sermon is a carefully reflected piece of rhetoric, born of devotion, study, prayer, and intentional construction. The preacher who neglects any of these elements has no right to stand before the Church and instruct, because his casual attitude toward the sermon disqualifies him from service. For my part, those first sermons were tinted by some real awkwardness—I hadn’t yet learned how to write for my own voice. There is a real difference between writing to be read, and writing to be spoken, and I think most people only learn this when they try to read what they’ve written out loud. It can be shocking to the reader! In time, I learned and became adept at writing so that the written word matched my spoken voice in cadence.

On average, 1000 written words equates to about ten minutes of spoken sermon, therefore an average 30 minute sermon would then be composed of no less than 3000 words. This means that the preacher, in preparation, is each week researching and producing a 3000+ word presentation for public consumption on Sunday morning. This fact elevates the sheer difficulty of memorization, because only the most exceptional of minds would be able to memorize such a treatise each week. Further, if you as a minister are committed to manuscripting and then memorizing, your sermon each week, the time commitment for such a process will drain you from all the other tasks asked of the professional minister. There simply isn’t time to keep it all up.

Sweating ProfuselyFor five years of full-time ministry, I manuscripted and read my sermons each week. I did not memorize, because I was aware of my own limitations in that area. Additionally, I knew that while the written word was well-crafted and honored all the nuance and depths which the Scriptures called for, whenever I strayed from the manuscript the product was diminished. Speaking on my own meant speaking with less poetry, less craft, less depths, and less overall insight. A manuscripted sermon for me ensured that the depths of teaching were secured.

However, I recognized that there was an element of fear involved in this as well. One of the reasons I didn’t want to stand in front of the congregation and preach without notes is because I had come to trust in the manuscript as a buffer of safety between me and the congregation. I’m not sure if this fear was warranted or not, or if my thoughts were justified or not. At the same time, I began to feel that I had stalled in my development as a preacher. The next option to attempt was to change my style to a noteless—or at least minimally noted—format. This was met by fear, but I also felt that it was something I needed to attempt. Thus, the choice to preach without notes was for me an act of trusting God.

Not having to manuscript and “rehearse” a sermon each week has released an enormous amount of time into my schedule. Consequently, Charles Merrill Smith’s words about the time saved for a noteless preacher struck close to home. I spend less time preparing a sermon, and need less time to practice it. I still study and outline heavily, but there are significant portions of what is said each week that is not prepared. This leads to a number of uncomfortable questions. Am I trusting in God’s Spirit for those utterances, or am I relying too heavily on my own natural gifts at public speaking? Am I lazy in preparation, or am I simply utilizing those assets God has given me in effective ways? There are not clear answers to these questions, however I am confident of two things: first, that the quality of my sermons has diminished, and second, people like my sermons more.

This is where Smith’s criticism comes home most clearly to the congregation, because he identifies neatly the brute fact that noteless preaching draws the attention of the congregation away from the content of the sermon to the virtuosity of the preacher; it can make of congregants spectators at an event rather than hearers of the word, and shifts the heart from evaluating the Word to reflecting on how I felt at the time. Now, every effective sermon ought to touch hearts as well as minds, but something in the noteless sermon weights the experience for the congregation on the “heart” side of the matter and minimizes the mind. This is a dangerous propensity.

Slain in the Spirit

Look Ma, no notes!

To the congregant, then, I say this: the sermon is a moment of weekly instruction, not performance; it is a prepared event of teaching and proclaiming that requires your attentive listening, and is not a passive reception which you either “feel” or don’t. At your weekly church service, you are not, and have never been, a spectator.

To the preacher, however, I want to say something else—or, rather, five somethings else.

1.Let people be people. We must acknowledge that people will be people. They are emotional beings who respond in emotional ways to the things we do in our public service. We ought not to chastise them for responding in accordance with their humanity to a public worship service. However, by means of our own faithful self-offering, we must seek to instruct them well, calling them to deeper reflection and insight into the Word. The sermon is never anti-emotion, but is best when it harmonizes heart and mind.

2. Stand in service to the Word, not the congregation’s desires. The appeal of different styles of preaching is that some appear to connect more readily with the congregation. The preacher must guard his own heart against the allure of adjusting style for the sake of congregational happiness. This doesn’t mean that we preach in a way that is intentionally obtuse, or that we make the sermon difficult on purpose—quite the opposite, it is a critical part of the preacher’s task to know his people and speak to them where they are. But he must also be aware that the people are not always the best judges of what they need or want. People like comfortable things, and the Gospel is a profoundly uncomfortable thing. The wise preacher will unwaveringly apply the discomfort of the Gospel but seek to do this through means that the congregation will be able to hear. In this, the preacher’s loyalty is always to the Word, first, and only to the congregation’s needs as they are met by that Word.

3. Style is an asset, and not a surrogate, to the Main Thing. The Main Thing in a sermon is the preaching of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ. Each and every style for each and every preacher is simply an asset to this main thing. When style becomes the surrogate, then our convictions and our content are made to serve our style, rather than our style serving our convictions. My experience is that this happens most often with story-based preachers, whose sermons are flush with humorous and memorable anecdotes and examples. The problem is that, very often, the listener remembers the funny story but not the Scriptural text which gave outline to the story. Thus, style has become the Main Thing instead of the Main Thing being the Main Thing. In the end, there is no such thing as a right “style” to preaching, there are only preachers who have sanctified themselves through dedication to the proclamation of the Word and who are causing their personalities to serve their message.

4. No Preacher can serve as a model for any other. This is a curious area of deception, that young ministers idolize certain preachers and model their ministries after those people. Just recently I had a gentleman ask me which preachers I listen to in order to learn my style, and my answer was, “No-one.” The truth is that nobody can teach you to be an effective preacher, because the primary quality of a great preacher is that the individual knows himself and is confident in who he is. I once had a conversation about preaching with a dear friend and former roommate (who, incidentally, is someone I actually think will one day be a bishop!). He observed that, when we think of it, all the so-called “great” preachers of our time—Tim Keller, John MacArthur, Erwin Lutzer, David Jeremiah, Alistair Begg—the one thing they each have in common (in all their diverse theology!) is that they are strong personalities. This was an eye-opening realization. Great preachers are not great because of their style, they are great because they are themselves. Therefore there is no model who can serve to guide you as a preacher, because none of those people can teach you to be you. The best you can do in the pulpit is to be truly yourself, and proclaim the Gospel as yourself.

5. Notes or no notes, choose the communication style that fits your maturity and capability. There is no sacred style of preaching. There is no single communication style. There is only a preacher with a given maturity, and a given set of capabilities, striving to serve God with the best that God has given him at this time. Consider the Word before you. Examine it carefully. Consider your people. What style of sermon will best communicate the conviction of your study to the people under your care? If you are a lazy individual, then you must consider whether preaching without notes is an extension of laziness. If you are careful individual, you must consider whether preaching with a manuscript is an extension of fear. Whatever style you choose, ensure that the choice is serving the message, and not the other way round.


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