Preaching: Notes or No?

I’ve teetered over the years on the issue of preaching/teaching with notes. As a whole, I think note-less is better for my style, especially when I have enough prep time. On the other hand, going note-less can blow up in my face if I don’t have sufficient time to prepare. In the end, I think note-free is ideal, but here are some things I’m considering:

1. Being note-free creates energy. We communication majors were taught the difference between a “hot” medium and a “cold” medium. A “hot” medium is a movie theater – the movie is in your face, screaming at you, grabbing your attention. A “cold” medium is the ingredient list on your medicine bottle; it’s completely optional whether you pay attention or not. Sticking to notes is what I’ll call a “cold-ish” medium. It doesn’t create the kind of intense energy in the room that note-less preaching can.

 2. Being note-free communicates ethos. Being note free says, “I care enough about what I’m saying to remember it.” Using notes can communicate that what the speaker/preacher is saying isn’t important enough, or maybe not ingrained in to his/her soul deeply enough to remember. It says, subtly, “I don’t need to know this, but you do.”

 3. Being note free creates flexibility. I admit that there have been times in my preaching and teaching when I’ve felt the urge to wander off-script, but didn’t because I was fearful of messing with my “script”. The problem is that the act of preaching itself gives us perspective on what needs to be said: the stage is different than the page. Written words don’t always transfer smoothly to the pulpit, where things need more repetition, explanation and clarity than on paper. Most times, you just don’t know the difference until you’re at the pulpit.


1. Being note-free isn’t necessarily spiritual. Being note-free can give the impression that the speaker is more “Spirit-led”, but that’s not true. For one, the Spirit can work through carefully prepared notes. There’s no reason to suppose that the Spirit can only work at the last minute.

2. Being note-free can hurt depth. I just sat through a very engaging speaker who told lots of personal stories and anecdotes without notes. It kept my attention, but it didn’t change my heart. It was like having a good conversation with a friend, not being confronted with God’s word. Note-less preaching can sacrifice good biblical exegesis, solid structure, and careful logic. It can easily deteriorate into off-text ramblings. This is probably the greatest case to be made for notes: notes ensure the kind of depth the pastor experiences in preparation for the sermon.

3. Being note-free can blow up in your face. Although point two is probably the greatest case against note-less preaching, this is more often the reason: it has more potential to go horribly wrong. If the pastor isn’t sufficiently prepared, Sunday morning can be an embarrassing mess. But I would argue that setting your mind on note-less preaching sets your adrenal glands at high enough alert all week to ingrain into your brain what you need to say.

Honestly, most people who tell me they could never preach without notes have never tried. It’s important that we examine our motives, here. Are our notes a security blanket replacing faith in the Holy Spirit? If not, fine. But I think every pastor/speaker should give preaching without notes at least one go. You might not do it every week, but my guess is you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the effect on yourself and your audience.

Note These Scribbles:
7 Tips on Speaking to a Foreign Audience. Read: How to be a missionary.
The Life Cycle of a Sermon. Birth. Death. Burial. Resurrection. Ascension.
“Uncreative” Writing. What does it mean to be “creative”?

Launch a Blog in 8 Minutes or Less. Because you know you want to.
6 Ways to Tell a Persuasive Story. Audience. Delivery. Realism. Imagery. Structure. Context.

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  1. Good tips, and encouragement, Nick.

    I use notes, but once wrote out the whole sermon and gave it verbatim. A phenomenal amount of preparation went into practicing it enough so that it would not look any different from preaching with just notes. As for going completely noteless, I’ve given talks that way too, but not in a pulpit. Perhaps if I preached regularly I’d be more inclined to give it a shot.


    P.S. Did you see the guest post at my place yesterday about using story as a means of telling God’s truth? Anne Bogel did a good job in a very short space.

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