One of the most important pastoral skills I have developed since my time in seminary is the ability to preach without notes. I don’t know of any single thing that will improve your teaching more than acquiring this skill. Instead of focusing on your papers, you can focus on your people. Instead of faking eye contact while trying not to lose your place, you can actually look your people in the eye. We’ve all heard how only a small percentage of human communication comes through our words, while the majority of communication happens through voice inflection, body language, and eye contact. Imagine what would happen if you could communicate using 100% of the tools God has given you rather than a mere 20%. When you’re bound to your notes, you end up looking like a little talking head peeking over a pulpit, but when you confidently know what you’re going to say, you can come out of hiding and really engage your congregation in a much more vibrant way.
What holds us back? Usually, it’s fear and a failure to realize just how many gifts and talents God has given us. Believe me, compared to all those Greek flash cards you had to memorize in seminary, preaching without notes is a piece of cake. You already have all the talents you require; you just need to find the courage to take the first step. The truth is that you already know what you’re talking about, you’ve already invested hours of prayer and study, and it’s just a matter of delivery. That being said, there are a number of techniques you can use to ease your way into this:
1. Start with a narrative passage
Your mind was designed to easily remember stories. When you go out to coffee with people, the majority of your conversation is the sharing of stories. You are a natural storyteller. The trick is to connect this with your preaching. Unfortunately, many of us don’t really know how to properly exegete a narrative passage. If we treat the story of David & Goliath the same way we treat Romans, we will kill the story and bore our people.
Narrative exegesis still involves many of the same principles as didactic exegesis, but there are a few more things you have to do. You’re still treating the text as the Word of God, and you’re using the same historical-grammatical techniques of paying very close attention to the text and the historical, cultural, and theological context in which the text appears. But you also need to engage the text in a much more visceral way. You need to imagine and deeply empathize with the characters in the story. You need to hear the pure contempt in David’s voice as he says, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine who challenges the Army of God?” If David doesn’t sound like Clint Eastwood, then you’re reading it wrong. You need to see how Xerxes shakes and is paralyzed with rage time and time again in the story of Esther. You need to meditate and emotionally immerse yourself in the text in such a way that the story comes to life in full color and sound. If you try merely reciting the facts of the story like a man trying to remember a grocery list, you’ll end up forgetting things and put your people to sleep while you’re doing so.
2. Hide your notes in plain sight
Although 2/3 of the Bible is in narrative form, that doesn’t mean a narrative passage is coming up to bat next Sunday. And honestly, non-narrative passages are much more difficult to memorize. However, there are still a couple of things you can do.
The first technique can be used if you are preaching from a single passage. For example, if you’re preaching from the 23rd Psalm, all you actually need for notes is your Bible opened up to Psalm 23. You’ve already spent hours of study, prayer, and meditation on the passage so you already know what you’re talking about. Simply read the first phrase or verse and then start talking about what it means. You’re not going to miss or forget anything because you have the book right there in your hand. The Bible itself becomes your notes. And because the Bible is fairly portable, you can come out of hiding behind that pulpit and engage your congregation face-to-face.
But what do you do when your message is more topical in format, and you need to be able to refer to many different texts? Once in a while, we are called to give a very complex and intricate message that will be very difficult to preach without notes. Fortunately, God has recently given us the gift of PowerPoint. This is the ultimate version of hiding your notes in plain sight. This will work best if you have the remote in your own pocket. All you have to do is discretely push a button, and your next point will appear for all to see. You then talk about that point and when you’re done, push the button for your next point. You will have the best of both worlds. You’ll be able to engage your congregation fully, and you’ll never miss anything important.
3. Memorize your outline, not your manuscript
Unless you have photographic memory, attempting to memorize your manuscript is merely setting yourself up for failure. Even if you do have photographic memory, memorizing your manuscript will make you sound wooden and stale because everyone will be able to hear that you are reciting *at* them, not talking *to* them. What is much easier and much more effective is memorizing your outline. It’s a hundred times easier to memorize a half a page of point-form bullets than a 6-page manuscript – *and* it will come across far more naturally. While not every pastor will be able to confidently memorize 6 pages of text, all of us can memorize six simple sentences.
What it will come down to is the confidence that you’ve done your homework and actually know what you’re talking about. Once you have this, you can spend all your time and energy up front concentrating on communicating with your people instead of worrying about losing your place in your notes.