How to Preach Without Notes & Nail It


It took me ten years in the pulpit before I tried preaching without a manuscript. 

The first time I preached without notes was for an Ash Wednesday service, and I was a nervous wreck the whole day! Once I overcame my fear, though, I relished the intimacy, fluidity, and spontaneity I found when not tied to paper.

I wish I'd known then what I know now because I wouldn't have been nearly so anxious.

Why was I anxious? Bad assumptions:

  • I thought I still had to have the sermon fully written ahead of time.
  • I thought I had to have the entire manuscript memorized. Since memorization has always been hard for me, I was terrified of forgetting carefully crafted words and phrases.
  • I didn't realize that as long as I had a map and knew where I was headed, I was ready to bring others along for the ride.

It turns out my assumptions were wrong. Preaching without notes was much simpler than I had realized.

Next time you'd like to introduce a bit of Holy Spirit spontaneity to your sermon (or have to deliver a homily on the spot!), try this simple, 3-step approach.


Preaching without Notes is Like

Planning a Road Trip


You need to:

  • Know the destination.
  • Make hotel reservations each night of the trip.
  • And, lastly, make sure you're prepared to begin.


1. Know the destination: Memorize the last sentence.

For those of us who find spontaneity as comfortable as cats find hot tin roofs, we start by determining where we intend to land. So, the first step is:

Memorize the last sentence.

Memorizing the last sentence functions as our "true north." Not only does a memorized last line let us land the sermon smoothly from a rhetorical point of view, it also allows us to make split-second decisions during the sermon.

We can afford to let the sermon flow and shift because we always know where we're headed.

Each thing we say must lead toward that final point. The last sentence functions as a filter, allowing us to decide instantly whether to include or ignore an unplanned thought.

One of the beauties of preaching without notes is that some unplanned thoughts arise from the Spirit, like

  • a new connection
  • a story
  • or a flash of insight.

But the danger is that many unplanned thoughts don't fit the sermon!

  • Some thoughts take us in the wrong direction and we may not know how to get back to the main road.
  • Some lead to a dead end where we get stuck.
  • And some thoughts take us on personal detours that may be fascinating to no one other than ourselves!

When we know our last sentence, we can decide in the moment which unplanned thoughts to use because we always know where we're headed.


2. Make Reservations: Know Your Stops Along the Way.

Think about the next-to-last sentence of the whole sermon. What's its purpose? To lead to the concluding sentence, right?

The same is true for the next-to-last paragraph. Its purpose is to lead to the concluding paragraph. The purpose of the third-to-last paragraph is to lead to the second-to-last, and so on all the way to the beginning.

For a spontaneous sermon, it's not even necessary to think in paragraphs.

Think in sections or main ideas. 

Understanding that one section exists to lead to the next means the specific contents of each section don't have to be memorized. We only have to know what each section must accomplish to lead to the next one.

And in order for a section to lead clearly to the next paragraph, it has to have a transition. 

The transition is the temporary landing spot in a sermon that connects the idea that came before to the idea coming next. It's the "hotel reservation," preparing us for the next leg of the journey.  These transitions provide the map of your sermon. 

Rather than memorize every detail of the sermon, memorize only the transitions.

When one section has served its purpose, you can move smoothly and surely through the transition to the next section of the journey.

Memorize the transitions from point to point, and you can fill in the details as you go


3. Prepare to Begin: Memorize Your First Sentence

Now that we know where we're headed and we've worked backwards to figure out how to get there, we can ask:

What's going to give us the best start?

You'd never leave on a road trip without making sure your vehicle was prepared with a full gas tank and plenty of air in the tires. Taking time to prepare the first sentence of your sermon ensures you get off to a successful start.

If memorizing the last line helps us know where we're headed, having a solid first line is essential to getting there.

Why? The moment of silence before we speak is when we have the most attention from our listeners.

During our first words, our listeners are deciding whether to tune in or tune out

A fumbled first sentence stands as much chance of getting folks to listen to the end of our sermon as a flat tire does of getting us to our destination.

Make that first sentence attention-grabbing, say it without hesitation or "ums," and people are more likely to tune in to find out where you're headed.

To avoid losing your congregation from the start, carefully craft and memorize that first sentence.


So here's how simple preaching without notes turns out to be!

  • Memorize the last line.
  • Memorize the transitions.
  • Memorize the first line.

Wish I'd known that fifteen years ago!

How do you make preaching without notes easier? Let me know via email or join the conversation on Facebook.



P.S. Are you looking for more ways to simplify your sermon prep and become more effective in the pulpit? 


Begins May 22nd

P.P.S. Headed to the Festival of Homiletics May 15-19 in San Antonio? Say hello at the Backstory Preaching table in the Exhibit Hall!

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