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On the Matter of Notes in Preaching

Gregory E. Reynolds

Should I use notes or should I not use notes in preaching? That is the question every preacher struggles with. A prior question will help to determine the answer: What are we seeking to achieve? Are we seeking good oral communication, including eye contact, rhythm, proportion, and passionate proclamation of God's Word? My answer then would be that whatever aid preachers need to achieve those goals, whether it is a full manuscript, full notes, a bare outline, or no notes at all, is what they should practice. There are advantages and disadvantages to each way. In most cases men will benefit from changing their use of notes as they grow in preaching experience. It is no doubt very helpful to begin with the discipline of writing a full manuscript,[1] although I do not think it wise to bring a full manuscript into the pulpit due to the difference between written and oral linguistic construction. Because each preacher is different in training and disposition, I think dogmatism in this matter is unwarranted. To insist that one cannot preach properly with notes is like saying a conductor cannot conduct properly with his score in front of him. The world's best conductors sometimes use scores and sometimes not.

I continue to use notes because I find that they help me to stick to the point, but I use no more than basic notes so as to remain free in the preaching moment. Mssrs. Story and Cotta make excellent cases for the two opposite poles of the discussion: a full manuscript or no manuscript at all. I will present, not so much a compromise, as a third way. A slavish commitment to either extreme is simply unsupportable biblically and practically.

Orality and the Use of Manuscripts[2]

Along with the mental discipline of writing well, the preacher must develop the finest oral skills as a herald of the Word. This assumes accurate exegesis of the meaning of the message given by the King. But the church also must not ordain men to preach who have not mastered good public speaking skills.

This is why it is imperative to distinguish between oral and written language. Manuscript preachers tend to blur this distinction. The written is for the eye, while the oral is for the ear.[3] J. C. Ryle: "English composition for speaking to hearers and English composition for private reading are almost like two different languages, so that sermons that 'preach' well 'read' badly."[4] Transcribed sermons of preachers who use few or no notes read very differently than manuscripts that were first written to be read. Seminary training makes us book, text, and lecture oriented. This indispensible fountain, from which the content of preaching flows, however, must not be confused with preaching itself, which occurs only in the preaching moment. Furthermore, whatever aid to the memory the preacher may bring into the pulpit, this is not the sermon. The sermon is the Word proclaimed in the presence of the congregation.

No matter what aid the preacher brings into the pulpit, the results of his study must be put in oral form. Homiletics is the art of translating the meaning of the text, in the context of systematic and biblical theology, into a form designed to transform God's people. It is a truism that the preacher is not to bring the results of his study into the pulpit without organizing them to proclaim to God's people. Contrary to popular misconception, extemporaneous preaching is fully prepared for, but exclusively oral in presentation, not rooted verbatim in a written manuscript. As a scholar of orality, Walter Ong properly asserted that "the written text of the New Testament itself is ordered to ... oral activity."[5] In his monumental history of the reading and preaching of Scripture, Hughes Oliphant Old makes a convincing case that the entire Bible is essentially a preaching document.[6] Thus, the oral form preceded the written.

Let me suggest some ways in which we can prepare for preaching that will preserve both good order and orality. It may be helpful to view notes, whether referred to in the pulpit or not, like a full calendar of a week's activities. The details of what is to be accomplished are there, but there is space in between events to allow flexibility. So sermon notes should be structured as a set of visual cues, not a manuscript to be read or memorized. It may be useful to use two manuscripts, if necessary: one is a written summary of your exegesis and application put in the order of your sermon; the other is a one page abbreviated form of this for the pulpit.

Near the end of my first decade of ministry I had a summer intern who had the latest laptop computer. He had taken all of his seminary notes with this new device. I had just begun using a simple Apple 2C, which was a dinosaur compared to his. Of course, he prepared his sermon notes on his word processor and suggested I try the same. After some resistance, my intern prevailed upon me to try word processing my sermons. I did so much to my regret. My practice had been to write my sermons in full five-page outlines with my beloved Mont Blanc fountain pen, highlighting the main points in yellow and red. I had learned early on not to be a slave to my notes, but the notes I brought into the pulpit were very full.

My only experience with word processing had been creating documents to be read, not preached. Book reviews, along with essays, periodical articles and the like, require an attention to grammatical and structural detail which preparation for oral presentation does not. In fact, as I learned through my first painful experience, preparing for preaching with precise writing can be deadly to oral delivery, if that is the manuscript used in the pulpit. That was my approach to my first word-processed sermon. Because I had put so much effort into composition I felt naturally tied to the manuscript. For written productions one must be, because that is the final medium of communication. After one awkward sermon, I vowed never to use the computer again for sermon preparation.

It was not until half a decade later that I made the attempt again. My doctoral work involved reflection on the nature of orality and preaching in connection with the electronic media. Using a much more sophisticated computer, I realized the potential of putting the notes for an entire sermon on one page so that I could avoid turning pages in the pulpit. I began by rewriting old five-page sermons in the one page format. This enabled me to pay attention to the manuscript as a vehicle of oral communication rather than as a written record of a sermon. The highlighting and underlining had saved me from becoming a slave to the paper. Now I reworked the outline with directness and oral impact in mind. Few complete sentences, fewer quotations, highlighting vivid phrases in italic bold; everything was aimed at direct communication of God's Word to the congregation. The difference was dramatic. But it really all began with my reflection on my use of media, in this case the printed word, the written word, the word processed word, and the preached word. All of this was inspired by a passion to be a better preacher, a goal to which every preacher should never stop aspiring.

Everyone interested in extemporaneous preaching should consult Richard S. Storrs's classic, Preaching without Notes.[7] Extemporaneous preaching requires as much, if not more, careful preparation as does preaching with a manuscript, just a different kind of preparation. Clyde Fant's Preaching for Today (1975) is especially helpful in this department.[8] He deals with some of the unique mechanics of oral preparation. Write like you speak; do not speak like you write. If you have ever read a written transcript of one of your sermons, you will be horrified at how badly it reads. That is as it should be, as I noted above. Listening to your sermons on tape with the manuscript you used is a helpful exercise. This does not mean that poor speech patterns or poor grammar is acceptable orally. While no single method is universally helpful for each preacher, Fant's point is that we must prepare orally.

This means that it is useful to prepare sermons "out loud."[9] After exegesis and refinement of the theme of the text, begin communicating it out loud, and then write down the main points of the logic of what you have said. Fant calls this the "rough oral draft." Then go back after more reflection on exegesis and the rough draft and make a "final oral draft." From this he recommends a final one page "sermon" brief.[10] Those who use limited notes in the pulpit, or only pay attention to highlighted full notes, already practice something like this. Implementing the crucial distinction between written and oral will vary from preacher to preacher.

Furthermore, each genre of biblical literature requires a different approach, a varied use of outlines and structure. The recent discovery of the oral structure of ancient texts can be of immeasurable help to the preacher. Especially helpful in this area are the works of Robert Alter and J. P. Fokkelman on the literary structures of biblical narrative and poetry.[11] For example, the systematic announcement of "headings" may be helpful in preaching from the logically argued epistles of Paul, but the narrative of Judges will be better preached by following the story sequence and leaving the logical divisions "invisible" in the preaching moment. The distinction between oral and written logic should not be exaggerated in a way to diminish logic. No one can think, speak, or write, without it. But the logic of narrative and the logic of epistles are quite different. They require different ways of ordering our thoughts. The text itself dictates this. Much more work needs to be done with this area of homiletics.

General preparation is crucial for good preaching. Reading widely on a daily basis will furnish the mind with ideas and the words to express them. With all that we have said about the importance of orality, it needs to be emphasized that private reading, deep reading, broad reading, and constant reading of Scripture is absolutely essential to the development of the mind and spirit of the preacher. As Joel Nederhood counsels, "Be addicted to reading."[12] This does not contradict the need to distinguish between written and oral in the pulpit. Being a good writer enhances logical and rhetorical skills in public speech.[13]

One of the best ways to develop oral skill is to read aloud and pay attention to the best oral presentation outside the pulpit. Baseball radio announcers are an excellent example of vivid speech which engages the listener. In a visual age their skills are tested to the limit. They are well paid to hold attention, with words which stimulate the imagination so that the hearer visualizes the game. These announcers were often English majors in college and former English teachers. "That hard grounder to the short stop ate him up ... He roped one over the head of the second baseman into right field ... He crushed that one and sent it into the stands in center field ... He had a notion, but checked his swing ... A one-two-three inning ending double play."

The preacher must cultivate a love for the English language, especially the spoken word. Ransack the best dictionaries. Above all read aloud. Choose the best poetry and prose and read it aloud. Read the Psalms, George Herbert, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, the essays and stories of G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, Stephen Leacock, Christopher Morley, aloud! The King James Version is best suited to the practice of reading Scripture aloud, not because it is a perfect or even the best translation for the modern world, but because it was produced in a golden age of orality, the Elizabethan Age of Shakespeare. In this period the literary and the oral achieved an almost perfect balance. One thing is certain: the Authorized Version was translated to be read aloud in churches as the subtitle indicates: "appointed to be read in churches." This did not mean silent, private reading.

Advocates of manuscript preaching rightly extol the verbal discipline this regimen exacts from the preacher. Although not advocating manuscript preaching per se, I would insist that the discipline of precise, well-ordered, and interesting speech can only be learned through deep reading and careful writing. One of the best aids in this discipline is poetry, one of our God's favorite literary forms, as we learn from Scripture. So, reading the best English poetry from Chaucer to Frost aloud, with special attention to the Psalms, will imbue the preacher with the best equipment in thought and speech.

Preachers should let the beauty of the best of the richest language in history sink into their oral memories. Words are the preacher's tools. He should seek to become a wordsmith in forging his sermons. As McLuhan said, "language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere."[14] "The spoken word involves all the senses dramatically."[15] The preached Word is the most powerful "view-maker" of all, as it corrects the idolatrous "view-making" propagated by the electronic media, and inculcates the redemptive "view-making" of the heavenly reality of the incarnate Logos.

English, American or British, is an amazingly versatile language. It is always evolving. The preacher must pay careful attention to the language that people speak every day. The danger, of course, is the temptation to be trendy or vulgar. But one need not compromise grammatical correctness, or good taste, in order to use the people's English well.

Much of what I have said above about appreciating and cultivating orality may seem to indicate that I see no place for the full manuscript. That is not the case as long as the manuscript is itself a document written in oral form and used in the pulpit in a way that does not impede vital visual connection with the congregation. Something else a manuscript should not restrict is the openness of the preacher in the preaching moment to add or subtract from the manuscript as the moment demands.

On the other hand, one of the great weaknesses of preaching without notes is straying from the theme of the text and expanding minor points in a distracting way. It is all too easy to become so enamored of one's own facility in speaking without notes that the preacher forgets that his expansion of the sermon may lose or even bore his hearers in the process.

With or without notes, a preacher must not be without the presence of the author of the Word.[16] The preacher must trust the Holy Spirit in the preaching moment. The greatest folly of our age is trusting the means, the techniques of doing things. The means of preaching, unlike any other form of public speaking, is uniquely dependent on God's blessing. Reformed preachers know the folly of trusting the Spirit without preparation; but we need to deal with the equal folly of trusting our preparation without trusting the Spirit, as if the effect of preaching were a merely human production. Preacher, pray for the only power that can make the medium you use effective: the power of God's presence in your preaching through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.


[1] The late John Hills, Jr. recommended that the young preacher discipline himself to write out his sermons in full for the first five years of ministry. I have in my possession a box full of his manuscripts and outlines. Several sermons were written out in full even nine years after his ordination. His outline notes became briefer as the years wore on.

[2] Portions adapted from Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 378-83.

[3] Clyde E. Fant, Preaching for Today (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 162.

[4] Iain Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 345.

[5] Walter Ong, review of Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion by William A. Graham, America (Mar. 4, 1989): 204.

[6] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 1, The Biblical Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 19-110.

[7] Richard S. Storrs, Preaching without Notes (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875).

[8] Fant, Preaching For Today, 159-173.

[9] Ibid., 165.

[10] Ibid., 166-169.

[11] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981); The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1987); Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide, trans. Ineke Smit (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999); Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide, trans. Ineke Smit (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

[12] Joel Nederhood, "Effective Preaching in a Media Age," class notes, Westminster Theological Seminary in California, 1990.

[13] Storrs, Preaching without Notes, 45ff.

[14] Marshall McLuhan, "Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters," in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, eds. Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szlarek (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), 154.

[15] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) 77-78.

[16] This paragraph/section is adapted from Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures, 384-85.

Ordained Servant, January 2011.

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