Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Preaching Without Notes

A couple years ago, I attended my Conference's annual gathering, which always features a "professional event" for pastors the day before or after. I normally don't attend these (actually, I haven't been big on attending the Conference gathering besides, but that's a separate post), but I did that particular year. The featured speaker for this event was David Greenhaw, president of my seminary alma mater and occasional professor of preaching and worship.

I honestly don't remember what Dr. Greenhaw talked about. It surely had something to do with the church. What I do remember, though, is how struck I was by his delivery. Understand that I took two classes from this man, so I saw this same delivery for a year or so, not to mention the times he preached in chapel, convocation, graduation, and whatever other official function arose. But on this evening, in a different context and a year or more removed from school, it just hit me differently. He'd spend large chunks of his talk out among the people, talking, ruminating, telling stories, mentioning a theological concept here and there. Every 10-15 minutes (this was a presentation rather than a sermon), he'd wander back to his podium, take the briefest of glances at whatever notes he had, and then wander back out and talk some more.

I remember being struck by this delivery: by how engaging and conversational and natural it was. Sure, I'd seen this during seminary, but this time was different, mostly given the context, but also for one other reason.

Having been preaching nearly every week for a year by that point, mostly from full manuscripts, this made me think to myself, "Why can't I do that?" Why can't I be more conversational in my preaching? Why can't I rely on my notes for only a few cursory glances? I'd been in theatre, for crying out loud!

There was one other factor that caused me to start thinking about preaching without notes. Again, having spent a year typing out full manuscripts, the process was becoming a hassle. An "albatross," as a colleague has put it. I was getting tired of trying to come up with pages and pages of text and then becoming familiar enough with it that it wouldn't come off stilted and dry. I remember one week--the first time I preached without notes--I finally became so fed up with the manuscript process that I went ahead and wrote out a few notes and spent that next Sunday just walking around and talking, much like I'd seen Dr. Greenhaw do. It was invigorating, and it made me fully aware that preaching like that every week was really possible.

Shortly after, I picked up a book about preaching without notes entitled...wait for it...Preaching Without Notes. It provides an excellent day-by-day breakdown of how to prepare to preach without notes.

Unfortunately, I ended up ignoring half of what it said. I quickly abandoned my original venture of writing out a few sentences, opting instead to type out a few pages' worth of outline and basically memorize it.

This caused a few things to happen. First, I wasn't really preaching without notes. I was simply preaching with memorized, detailed, rehearsed notes. This made the sermon slightly more conversational, but looking back I'm sure it looked like I was reciting something, or at least it felt that way to me many times. Second, I'd be incredibly grumpy on Saturday evenings out of fear that I'd completely forget some important line that I wanted to make sure to use the next morning.

I used this preaching format for nine months or so before I decided that I couldn't keep up with it any more. Given the specifics, it's little wonder. Preaching without notes involves just as much preparation, but I think I was adding even more unnecessary preparation on top of it.

Still, I received some of the most positive feedback about how well people were able to pay attention; how engaging that style was for them. One person said, "I can understand so much better when you preach that way." There's something about preaching without notes that can connect with people in a way that a manuscript read from behind a pulpit can't.

So over the weekend, I re-read Preaching Without Notes. Here are some important items that I missed the first time around, along with some general things for preachers who insist they can't let go of their notes:

~Learn the text inside and out. Historical stuff, literary context, word studies, and every fleeting interaction that you have with it. Webb notes that when you do this, your memory work is already starting as you become familiar with your chosen Bible passage.

~The sermon shouldn't be about more than one thing, not even several things that weave together. Don't make it hard on yourself when memorizing your notes. Notes-less sermons can't be complicated. (Should sermons be complicated otherwise? Not so much, in my opinion.)

~Each section of material should be broken into workable-sized chunks that are distinct from one another in subject matter, yet also flow from one to the next. If one chunk is too big, break it into two smaller ones. Again, this aids in memorization.

I found preaching without notes to be some of the most engaging, rewarding preaching I ever did. I'd really like to return to it, and I hope to soon.