Stan Harding became my pastor at the end of high school. A Navy officer turned second-career pastor, he came to our church after serving for a few years at a little church in Iowa.
Here he was at a brand new place – a large, suburban, and highly liturgical church. And he did something crazy. When it came time for the sermon, he stepped away from the pulpit, came down into the center aisle, and talked to us. He preached without notes. His message was rich, Biblical, and made you think. He was personable. He connected. I walked away remembering things and thinking about things. I was a 52-week per year Sunday attender. But this was the first time I listened to a sermon.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, youth leader, or any other kind of church leader. There’s going to come a point where you’re going to find yourself in front of a group of people delivering a message. When we do, all of us hope people will connect with what we’re saying and be impacted by it.
I’ve been a pastor for 23 years now. Preaching and teaching are my main gig. I’ve learned that when I preach without notes, it connects more deeply. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t require memorizing manuscripts. It doesn’t even require writing one. With a few simple techniques, you can stay nimble and engaging – all without notes in front of you.
I don’t think it’s always better to preach without notes. But I do think it’s a limitation if you can’t. Some messages demand preaching without notes. Most messages are better when you can.
This is part three of our guide for how to build an 18-month preaching calendar. If you’re looking for the art of crafting a message and planning ahead, check out part one and part two. What you’re about to read is about delivery. These are the tips and tricks I’ve gleaned over time that help me preach without notes, and that will, hopefully, help you, too.
Satellites vs. Train Tracks
Too often we preach like we’re traveling by train. We start at a certain point, follow a carefully laid out track, and hope we reach our destination. It’s beautiful when it works, but there’s just one problem: get off track and the whole thing derails.
When your preaching follows a carefully laid out track, you risk forgetting the sequential flow and set yourself up to go off the rails. The only solution is to spend an inordinate amount of time memorizing each step or to keep notes in front of you. This often means reading, because the time and mental capacity simply isn’t there to memorize the route you charted.
Try this instead: Switch from train tracks to satellites.
Imagine your preaching is like a solar system. The central star is your main point. It’s what your message is about. All kinds of things revolve around it. These are the satellites – your supporting points, illustrations, and applications. It’s the stuff you want to say about your central point.
Focus on the central defining point.
- Articulate it. Everything you say will revolve around it.
- Now identify a few insights relating to that point. Just a few. These can be stories, anecdotes, implications, examples, further insights the center point raises, push-backs, related texts, personal impressions, application points, or anything else, so long as it relates to that center defining star.
- As you preach, keep coming back to that central point. Your delivery can develop its own organic flow without having to hit points in a predetermined order.
The benefit is that you no longer have to remember a singular, linear sequence of thought. All you have to remember is the central point and some of its satellites. Then, you’re free to jump to what’s coming to mind in the moment. Everyday conversation works this way, and it’s engaging. If you lose sight of one of the points you drafted (it happens), the whole system doesn’t come crashing down. You can skip points, move on, or come back to them. The central point is still intact. The satellites you choose only serve to enhance it.
Here’s another benefit: listeners drift. Even in the best messages, focus veers. Satellite preaching provides your audience natural entry points to reengage whereas train track preaching risks losing them at an earlier station.
What if I forget something in the moment? Take heart. You will. It doesn’t matter. The satellites aren’t dependent on each other. The listener doesn’t need to follow every single one. Every topic and every text has more satellites than we can count. There’s always more you can say. You will inevitably forget points or have to cut points for the sake of time that you so desperately wanted to make. It will kill you. It will not kill them. They’ll be none the wiser! With this style, even if you forget everything else, you have your central point. And you’ve also given yourself freedom to draw in new satellites that strike you in the moment.
I forget points all the time. It’s not that scary when you have an entire solar system of points to draw on. When you know your central point, you can adapt, even if certain satellites drop out of view. Just keep moving ahead.
What about the content of each satellite? Don’t I have to memorize that? I doubt it. Just remembering the satellite is usually enough mental prompt to help you recall its pertinent details. You know this stuff. If you’ve done your prep work, you’ll be surprised at how the pertinent details stick with you.
What if there’s a specific quote or passage I want to share verbatim? Just put it on the screen. If you don’t have one, read it from the Bible or the actual book directly. These shifts in presentation can actually increase personal connection as the listener intuitively journeys with you between fixed content and your comments on it.
Back Pocket Prompts
If you speak without notes, it’s good to have some go-to prompts in your back pocket. These are phrases you can draw on anytime you forget your next point or get lost. Here are a few:
- “Here’s what I like about this passage…” Actually say that. Then share what you like.
- “Here’s what I don’t like about this passage…” That’ll get their attention. Be honest about your own struggle with a reading’s perceived implications.
- “Here’s what confuses me about this passage….” Share the questions you’re asking or how you’ve misunderstood it in the past.
- “Here’s what challenges me in this passage…” Get transparent. How is God convicting you?
For a moment, imagine getting up to preach, forgetting everything, then doing this:
Today I want to talk to you about… [name the topic].
A passage I like that talks about this is… [name it, then read it].
Here’s what I like about this passage…
Here’s what I don’t like…
This used to confuse me…
But here’s where it’s challenging me…
Simple, clean, textual, and personal. Not a bad message. No notes required. And you can apply this to any message that uses a Biblical text.
Also note the use of “I” language. By talking in the first person, you’re now inviting them into your journey. You’re now sharing something personal instead of preaching at them. People connect with that. You’re also modeling a simple way they can talk about their faith, too.
Less is More. Simple is Better.
If you can’t remember what you’re talking about without your notes, how will they?
We try to do too much when we preach. I’m guilty of this. There’s so much we want to share, so many interconnections with other passages, and so many theological revelations and applications.
Complex arguments with intricate logical progressions have their place: in a paper. Speaking, though, is about clarion calls to action, words of affirmation and inspiration, warnings and convictions. Simplify your flow. Your preaching will be better.
Before you ever step into a pulpit, you’ve been on a journey with your message. Maybe it’s been an afternoon, maybe a week, maybe longer. Whatever the time frame, the text has been shaping you. You’ve had time to digest it, rethink various implications, and discover new connections.
Your listeners haven’t. They’re coming in cold and fresh. By the time you utter your first words, you’re already 20 steps ahead. They are not with you. If you’re not careful, you risk moving too quickly and losing them, permanently. Incidentally, have you ever noticed that the messages you’ve developed quickly sometimes connect better? I think it’s because we haven’t had the chance to get too far ahead of our listeners.
Try this: See if you can write your entire message on a post-it note. Write your central point with a few satellites defined by key words or short phrases. Now see if you can memorize that. You’re well on your way to preaching without notes.
Have the Guts
There’s more than can be said, but I’ll follow my own advice and leave you with one closing thought: have the guts to try it. At some point, you just have to take off the training wheels and go up there without your notes. You may wobble or even fall. That’s okay. God is full of grace! I suspect your people are, too.
I once forgot my entire train of thought mid-message and for the life of me couldn’t think of how to recover. What’s worse is that I already said I had five points I wanted to share. And I was only on point number two. Total deer in the headlights. I stuttered and stammered. Every second brought my loss of words into greater focus. Finally I just said, “Guys, my mind went blank. I had three more points. I have no idea what they are. But I bet they were good. I’ll have to share them with you sometime.”
And you know what? People laughed. In a good way. It was endearing. It created a bond. We were together in ministry that day.
People don’t demand perfection. So don’t demand it of yourself. People need to see that the church is a place where they don’t have to be perfect. Let them see you in such a way that you’re still poised and able to laugh about it. God may speak louder through that than anything you had to say.
Wrapping it Up
There is a difference between writing well and speaking well. Writing well doesn’t equal speaking well. We write differently than we speak. In a good conversation, we deftly jump between topics, organically. Have you ever tried to write down a conversation, let alone outline one ahead of time? It just doesn’t work. It gets messy, wooden, and stifles the flow.
If your preaching feels more like delivering a paper than having a good conversation, and if it’s tying you to your manuscript, try this approach and see if it helps you. Contact us if we can help you with your preaching, whether it’s setting up an 18-month preaching calendar, outlining weekly content, or preaching without notes. We’re here to help.