Monday, May 14, 2012

Mid-life Lesson #30: Preaching Without Notes

"He worked neither from notes nor from a text first written out, then memorized; he prepared only by prayer and study" (165). This is William Harmless's brief description of Augustine's preaching method in Augustine and the Catechumenate.

This is precisely how I have been preparing to preach for almost a decade now. Not that my sermons in any way compare to Augustine's. But the description of the process preparing them is quite similar.

Furthermore, I would break down my sermons into one of two types, similar to a description Deferrari offers in his essay St. Augustine's Method of Composing and Delivering Sermons.

Extempore--Those given after some previous meditation on the subject, but with no extensive preparation.

Strictly extempore--Given unexpectedly and without any preparation of any kind.

Most of the sermons I give are of the first variety. Perhaps one or two per month are of the second.

"Augustine notes that working from a prepared or memorized text hindered the ability to keep one's rapport with the audience... he says that he prepared with prayer. He had, of course, worked on some texts long and hard in his study."


As part of my dissertation, I have a chapter where I examine how to develop this extempore approach in terms of the neurology and formative aspects of it, and will provide a link to that essay (or perhaps post it as an e-book) at some later date. No method for preaching is built in a day, and there are many ways to preach. I do not offer this as prescription for everyone. But the above gives about as concise a sense of how I have learned to preach without notes as I can offer.


  1. I sometimes preach as you describe. More often I preach with a manuscript or with notes. I would like to preach extemporaneously all the time, but here's what I've found. It takes me more time to prepare a sermon that I will preach extemporaneously than it takes to prepare notes and/or manuscript. For me the act of writing is how I shape my thoughts and craft a message. That often surprises people when I tell them, but it's been my experience. Has this changed at all for you over time?

    Second, I find that I often preach longer when I preach extemporaneously than I do when I'm preaching with paper. People have generally not complained, but I'm very conscious of this.

    Have you had either of these experiences? Do you find that preaching extemporaneously has gotten easier over time?

    One of my challenges is also that I don't serve in a congregation and so I'm often encountering a different congregation on a weekly basis. I make the excuse that that adds to the challenge as well.

    This is a growth area for me that I'm continually developing. I welcome further reflections that you have.

  2. I have found that my brain has developed and changed over time so that the neural pathways that have formed that aid in this kind of preaching make it a kind of automatic process. It certainly doesn't take me "longer" to prepare a sermon that will be preached extempore. Although how long "prayer and study" takes per week is really an open-ended question, because in a sense all of life is prayer and study.

  3. I think it is Clifford Nelson in "Lutherans in North America" who quotes an early Lutheran preacher on these shores saying something to the effect of "When I use a manuscript, I am accused of being text-bound. When I preach without a text, I am accused of being a Quaker."

    Personally, I have not written a manuscript in a decade or more, but I usually use notes or an outline to keep myself focused. On rare occasion I have gone paperless.

    I have a friend who writes a manuscript but memorizes her sermon before preaching it. Another colleague has abandoned the use of paper and, by all reports, it has revitalized his proclamation.

    I'm not sure (and I know that you are not suggesting) that there is a "best" way to preach. I've heard some powerful sermons preached from manuscripts and some crappy ones spoken without any paper in front of the preacher. And vice versa.