Last week I posted the “George Whitefield” Principle of preaching – “let the Holy Spirit be your security blanket, not your notes.”
Apparently, that was pretty polemic. Some people around the web wholeheartedly agreed, some made out that I was being “holier than thou” by equating note-less preaching with being filled with the Spirit.
So, briefly 1) I believe you can be filled with the Holy Spirit and preach with notes, 2) I still thinking preaching without them is better, based on my own experience and that of others.
So here’s the principal in less offensive terms: Keep your eyes glued on them, and they’ll keep their eyes glued on you. Rather than dogmatically tell you why I think noteless preaching is superior, let me just share my experience:
1. Preaching noteless maintains the invisible thread. A benefit of having spoken to thousands of youth over the years is that I’ve quickly learned exactly where listeners disengage. Adults stare with glassy-eyed enthusiasm even when they’re tuned out. Students let you know. As I started teaching students regularly, I noticed something: every time I glanced at my notes, it was like I snapped an invisible thread that was difficult to re-weave. So I tried an experiment: one day I told my students I was going to talk to them without notes. The results were amazing. Every single student – all 240 eyes – were glued to me the entire time. I’d never experienced anything like it. After that, I’ve made it my ambition to know my material well enough that I could preach without ever breaking the “invisible thread”.
2. Preaching noteless forces you to ingrain the material. As a result, I found myself preparing for sermons more intensely. I didn’t just jot things down to put in my outline – I stopped, and soaked things in. I ingrained the material throughout the week because I knew come Sunday, I needed to know it well enough to teach without ever breaking the thread.
3. Preaching noteless engages your creativity. I also noticed something else: as I continued to preach without notes, I became more fluent in my communication. When I stopped worrying so much about sticking to my notes, the right side of my brain engaged while preaching and suddenly I could come up with illustrations, quotes and applications on the spot. Students loved it, and so have congregations since.
4. Preaching noteless forces you to simplify. I also had to change the way I constructed a sermon or teaching. After noteless preaching, it was no longer possible for me to maintain long, complex, overly-sophisticated messages. No – I had to simplify my logic and whittle it down in a way that would be sensible to me as I stood behind the pulpit. Incredibly, I found that congregants and students were able to remember my messages weeks later, because the message was simple and direct (in the book “Made to Stick”, the Heath brothers identified “simplicity” as the #1 factor for keeping people’s attention in communication – see their book for some fascinating studies on this).
5. Preaching noteless creates ethos. Noteless preaching also invited more conversation and engagement after each message. I think that’s because preaching noteless communicates that I care deeply about what I’m saying – enough to remember it. As a listener in any situation, I want to know that the speaker feels his material is important. Preaching noteless communicates: “I care about this material so much that I’ve ingrained it into my heart so I can share it with you.” It screams to the congregation: “Take this in; digest it; live it.” Notes, to me, tend to say: “You need this message, but I don’t”. Of course, that’s not what the preacher intends – but that’s how it can comes across.
6. Preaching noteless encourages dependence. After I dropped the notes, I found something else welling up in my heart: desperation. When I know I’ll be standing bare before a congregation on Sunday morning, I’m forced to my knees throughout the week. I dare not step into the noteless pulpit without taking significant time to fast and pray for power. It could be that I’m imposing my experience on others here; all I know is that for me, getting rid of notes forced me to rely on the Holy Spirit (I don’t mean that I “wait on God” all week, show up on Sunday morning and expect Him to feed a message into my head, Keswick style. I simply mean that after carefully constructing a message and ingraining it into my mind, I release it all to God through prayer, and I find myself doing this at much greater intensity when I can’t rely on my notes).
7. Preaching noteless communicates vulnerability. Yes, I’ve heard the case for pulpits – at the GCTS preaching conference Dr. David Wells made an excellent case for the relationship between our distaste for authority and our removing of the pulpit. I think pulpits are great. But let’s at least consider that a pulpit, for one, is a symbol. And as a symbol, it may not mean the same thing today as it did a century ago. It’s hardly fair to say that removing a pulpit is always an attack on scripture’s authority, even though I think in many cases that’s true. Following that logic, I could ad hominem attack any modern church on multiple levels. Symbols change over time. To me, the benefits of noteless preaching far outweigh the value of a symbolic piece of furniture that lost its meaning long ago. The ethos of our culture is no longer authority, but vulnerability. When people see my full body, it communicates connection and personability. When I hide behind a pulpit, people don’t see a man who trusts scripture as his ultimate authority – they see a guy who is afraid to be raw.
8. Preaching noteless keeps the focus right. Finally, when I preach without notes, I must come into the pulpit fully prepared Sunday morning. That means I’m no longer tinkering with the manuscript. I’m no longer trying to rehearse points in my head. I’m done – it’s time to focus on Jesus and my sheep.
I said it last week, so I’ll say it again: you might not like what I outlined here. You might not agree. But let me ask you this: Have you tried it? If not, don’t knock it.
Sure, it might not have the same effect for you. But ask your congregation if they felt a difference. If not, trash it. But if it does, it might just change your preaching, like it did mine, forever.
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