Through the years, I have admired pastors who can preach without notes. I have marveled at their ability to deliver powerful, heartfelt, life-changing messages without having to be propped up by a stack of papers. Given my personal wiring, I sadly concluded that paperless preaching was forever beyond my reach.
Then one Friday afternoon, as I reviewed my sermon notes, I suddenly realized that the message was so well-written that I could remember it all: the sequence of introduction, points, stories, and applications. The next day, when I stepped out of my pulpit and simply shared the message from my heart, something powerful happened. The freedom, the connection with my congregation, the interactivity, and the authenticity of the witness absolutely hooked me.
Let me share with you 10 points for paperless preaching that have worked well for me since that memorable Sabbath four years ago:
• Start early. When a guest speaker is coming on Sabbath or when you recycle a sermon in your second church, use that week to begin working on a new sermon. Study your passage, organize your research, and process your thoughts. Then, on the Monday morning before preaching that new sermon, start writing. Try to complete the manuscript by Tuesday or Wednesday; Thursday and Friday can then be devoted to internalizing your message so that you are free to preach without notes on Sabbath.
• Begin with the end in mind. The decision to preach a sermon without notes needs to be made before, not after, the sermon is written. This simple but important step will enable you to think and write in a way that is memorable, both for you and the congregation.
• Keep it simple. Operate around a single, central theme. Develop a simple, memorable outline. Craft simple sentence structures. Use no more than five points; you can’t remember more than five points, and neither can your listeners.
• Sleep on it. As you drift off to sleep on Friday night, review the sermon in your mind. After your wake-up prayer on Sabbath morning, stay in bed long enough to review your sermon again in your head. This is a great way to lock the message into your short-term memory bank.
• Tell stories. Jesus’ sermons were memorable because He told so many stories. People love stories, so pack them in. I find that my most effective sermons are 30-40 percent storybased. The stories are easy for me to remember and easy for my congregation to remember as I drive the points home.
• Create a prompt sheet. Create a bare-bones outline of your message that can fit on a single sheet tucked into your Bible. If you ever get stuck, the trigger points on your prompt sheet will get you going again. Your prompt sheet is also the place to put notable quotes that will need to be read word-forword.
• Get the messenger ready. Preparing the messenger is just as important as preparing the message. Through it all, keep your heart right with God. Go into the Sabbath worship service rested and hydrated. A small high-protein snack may also keep your adrenaline flowing while you are preaching.
• Relax. When you relax, the inner springs of thought flow with greater freedom. Take a calming walk around the block before the worship service. Retreat to your church office, put your headset on, and move through some muscle relaxation exercises. Steady your nerves, whisper a prayer, and set your butterflies free to fly in formation.
• Let it go. You don’t need to memorize every little word and every little detail in your manuscript—just remember the basic ideas and the sequence of materials. Don’t sweat it if you forget a few lines or even a whole section of your message. As long as your message flows well, no one will ever know the difference. Your improved ability to connect with people through paperless preaching will more than compensate forgotten pieces of the message.
• Go for it. When the time comes to preach, take the leap of faith. Grab the brass bar as it comes flying your way. Your careful preparation and God’s faithful empowerment will hold you secure. Your growing success as a paperless preacher will score appreciative “tens” in the changed lives of those you minister to on Sabbath morning and throughout the week.
Dan Martinella is the editor of Best Practice, an electronic newsletter of the North American Division Ministerial Association. This article first appeared in Best Practice, March 9, 2014. It has been lightly edited for Elder’s Digest.