4 reasons I preach from notes, not a manuscript

The styles of communication used in preaching vary between preachers. Some are fiery and demonstrative, while others are more conversational. Despite sometimes warning our church that I’ll be yelling at them in a few minutes, I probably fall in between those two ends of the spectrum.

Some preachers use props, video, audio, images, or other creative tools to help teach. Others rely only on verbal communication. Some like humor and use it well; others prefer to stay more serious.

In addition to styles, what the preacher chooses to preach from is also a matter of preference. Some use paper, some use an iPad or other electronic tool, while others preach entire sermons from memory. One friend of mine has been known to type out ten or eleven pages, commit them to memory, then preach the memorized text. If I tried to deliver an entire sermon from memory I’d likely swerve over into Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib, the plot of some West Wing episode, or a passage from Calvin & Hobbes. (Worse things could happen than Waterston.)

John Wesley preaching

John Wesley preaching

Besides the choice of tool, preachers can decide to preach from notes or from an full manuscript. Over the last few years the full manuscript seems to have made a comeback, though it is not the best for me.

I preach from a note sheet small enough to fit almost entirely inside the pages of my Bible. I typically print 2 columns on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper in landscape format. After printing I fold it in half. My notes consist of one half-side, then flipped to the other half-side. Sometimes if time does not allow for all the typing my notes will consist of the title, text, points and reference verses.

The purpose in this post is not to extol preaching from notes as morally superior to memorization or using a manuscript. But, it does work better for me. Here are four reasons why.

1. Preaching from notes forces me to immerse myself in the content of the message. To preach a good message one should not resort to “winging it.” Winging it typically leads to preaching what one already knows, which leads to repeating all the well-worn stories, which leads to a bored congregation. To preach from notes rather than a manuscript I must know the text as well as I can. I don’t want to depend on finding my place on page after page. The notes are reminders and sign posts as congregation and preacher travel through the message together. If I am prepared reading the entire message is not required.

2. It helps me to make better eye contact with the listeners. Reading from a manuscript worked for Jonathan Edwards, or so I’m told. It many have worked for others, but it doesn’t work for me. If memory serves I’ve read a manuscript sermon twice. One of those was the Sunday following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Words connect better with eye contact. Eye contact allows the congregation to see my facial expression, and allows me to get visual cues from the congregation. If I see too many furrowed brows I know to restate something, slow down, or stop for a deeper dive into the text.

3. Preaching from notes allows me to preach as myself. “Preaching is truth communicated through personality” (Phillips Brooks). After I had spent many years as a pastor, a friend from my teen-aged years heard me preach one Sunday. She said, “You preach just like <our former pastor>.” I received the compliment as she intended, but realized something: I’m me and should preach like me. If my personality was being unintentionally buried by his, it was an issue needing immediate attention.

With minimal notes I don’t have to worry about getting lost if I choose to engage someone in the audience, or do an impromptu illustration with a kid from our student ministry.

4. It helps me relate to the congregation as a flock rather than a class. Scripture portrays the pastor/congregant relationship as shepherd and sheep, not teacher and class. Though classroom instruction can have its place in spiritual growth, it isn’t primary (or Jesus might have used it). I approach preaching as a combination of love, trust, truth, encouragement, correction, instruction and challenge. Using notes rather than a manuscript keeps me focused on the people in the room rather the pages on my lectern/stool/table/floor.

Ultimately each of us has to find the style that fits us best and communicates truth best in our context. If you are trying to find what works best for you, or if you are manuscript weary, try preaching from notes. Be a little more extemporaneous. You may find it a great help in your communication efforts.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • martyduren

    I could have added “It frees me to walk around on stage” as a fifth reason.

  • Guest

    I also preach from notes. The last year or so I have started using an iPad and finding it really handy. Most of the preachers I’ve seen using a full manuscript don’t have enough eye contact. There are exceptions, of course, but not many.

  • I also preach from notes. The last year or so I have started using
    an iPad and I really like it. Most of the preachers I’ve seen
    using a full manuscript don’t have enough eye contact. There are
    exceptions, of course, but not many.

  • Bob Cleveland

    I was invited many years ago (really, trapped into) preaching in Nassau while on a mission trip. My topic was why we go to church … “What on earth are we doing here?” … and I was going to read from 2 scripture passages. The pastor of the church said their custom was to have someone else read scriptures for the preacher, and when I went to give him the second passage, he said “Oh, no … we cannot do that”. I asked why not, and he said “You do not know, when you preach on the first verses, where the Lord will lead you as you speak”.

    By all accounts, it worked out OK.

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