Every preacher needs to be able to preach without notes on some occasions.
It is not a freakish skill that only some possess or a special style that only some need to cultivate. It is something every preacher can and sometimes needs to do. In another essay, I describe some ways that preachers might know when to preach with notes and when to preach without them. In this essay I want to suggest some ways to cultivate the ability to preach without notes when the situation calls for it. It can be helpful to distinguish between three different modes of preaching without notes.
What I will call impromptu preaching involves almost no preparation. It might arise when someone says, “Give us a word, preacher … ” and then expects a word on the spot. It might arise in a service in which testimonies are welcomed or expected, but not prepared in advance. It might arise in the ebb and flow of a meeting about some issue, when what starts as a speech for the affirmative slips into a higher gear. Calls to impromptu preaching come through many parts of a pastor’s life.
Good impromptu preaching, like all good preaching, depends on the long-term habits of the preacher. If an athlete has been training for months, suddenly needing to run half a mile through two long terminals to catch a plane is not a problem. And if a preacher is immersed in regular study, prayer, works of justice and talk of God, being called to preach on the spot can be a gift to all those gathered — including the preacher herself. There is no substitute for the daily habits of a preaching life. And when those habits form a preacher’s life, questions of rhetorical technique tend to answer themselves.
That said, attention to technique can itself be part of a faithful preaching life. Impromptu preaching can be strengthened especially through attention to four rules of thumb. As rules of thumb, these are not the strict dicta of technique. They are rather rough, fallible guides formed through reflection on the practices of actual preachers. They will almost surely need to be modified, supplemented and selectively ignored in order to be useful for any individual preacher in any particular setting. But a rough guide can still be useful as a place to start.
- Say one thing. Preachers sometimes feel obliged to have three points (or five or six), but most impromptu situations allow time to conceive and articulate just one strong idea. And one idea — like “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” — can do all the work a sermon needs to do.
- Play your riffs. Like blues players, good preachers tend to have a rich stock of deep and simple phrases that they go to again and again. These might be quotations from Scripture or just phrases that communicate the heart of what the preacher understands the Gospel to be. An impromptu sermon might open with a riff to get the preacher rolling. It might rely on riffs to mark transitions or to bring the sermon to a close. Such riffs can slip into empty repetition. But they can also be enduring and concise statements of what a preacher believes — or longs to believe — most passionately.
- Don’t be afraid to pause. In any mode of preaching without notes, preachers can feel tempted to try to talk their way into making sense. But even when the preacher eventually gets around to making sense, he’s usually lost listeners in the process. It is better just to pause and wait for sense to come. A pause invites closer attention. It creates suspense. It leaves room for the listeners to think for themselves. And it shows respect for the task of proclamation.
- Before you start, know how you will end. Preachers sometimes want to use the few seconds they have for planning an impromptu sermon to work through the sermon as a whole. But this usually does not allow time to plan the ending and so the ending sometimes gets bungled or endlessly deferred as the preacher hunts around for when and how to stop speaking. If you have time to plan only one thing, plan the ending. If you know where you’re going, you can figure out how to get there on the fly.