Preaching with Notes: Yes or No?

As a young pastor, I faced the unexpected wrath of a church member who couldn’t believe I used notes when I preached. “I want a pastor who only follows the Holy Spirit,” she told me—and then never returned to the church. Since then, I’ve debated pros and cons of using notes, and I’ve preached both ways. Here are my general thoughts:  

Reasons I Like to Use Notes:

  1. They push me to stay on target. I usually use an outline (not a manuscript), but even an outline helps keep me from wandering off topic.
  2. They help keep me focused throughout the message. Much can happen unexpectedly in a service that distracts a preacher. When that happens, having notes in front of me helps me not lose focus.  
  3. They help me during forgetful moments. Those moments don’t happen often, but I realize I’m getting older. . . . and I’m honest enough to admit notes become a “security blanket” in case those moments happen.
  4. They generally keep me from extemporizing during the sermon. I realize the Holy Spirit can always redirect me mid-sermon, but I often regret my unplanned words.  
  5. They work well in churches that use visual presentations of sermon outlines. That is, I can have my bullet points from my Powerpoint directly in front of me as I preach—and I don’t veer from what I’ve given the church ahead of time.  

Reasons I Like to Preach without Notes:

  1. I’m not limited to the space just behind the pulpit. I feel more comfortable moving toward the audience if I’m not tied to an outline on the pulpit.
  2. My eye contact with the congregation is better. There’s no way around this fact: I look more directly at the people if I don’t need to look at notes.
  3. I spend more time in preparation. Again, I’m simply being honest here. If I know I won’t have notes with me, I spend more time making sure I know the sermon well.
  4. I’m often more relaxed during the sermon. I assume that happens because of the three reasons listed just above this one.

General Conclusions:

  1. Our goal, regardless of approach, is to magnify Jesus and communicate the gospel clearly—not to impress the listener. Any leaning toward the latter purpose necessitates repentance before we step into the preaching role.
  2. Each preacher must find his own most effective approach. We’re all different, and what works for me may not be the best approach for someone else.
  3. The belief that preaching without notes is somehow more dependent on God or more spiritual lacks warrant, in my judgment. Dependence is about lifestyle—something much, much bigger than preaching style.
  4. Preaching’s not about us. Never has been. Never will be.

Okay, let us hear your thoughts.  

8 Comments

  • Robert Wise says:

    I have been preaching for 18 years and have changed over time. Hopefully for the better. I type a manuscript but don’t read it. I highlight my points but by writing the whole message it helps me think clearly through the whole sermon before hand. Also, with preaching 3 times a week it helps to make sure I have a solid exposition of each text.

  • Don says:

    After 38 years of preaching, I believe in all your reasons why to use notes. With a well prepared manuscript, worked prayerfully over and over, one does have the freedom to leave the pulpit, maintain eye contact and even take an extemporaneous departure, because the map is there to bring you back to the text and to the message of Jesus. You are right, it’s not about us!

  • david w mcbryar says:

    I sat under two men who both had been in their pulpits for 35+ years and both men told me the only time they’ve regretted saying something was when they strayed from their notes (outlines)

  • Rev. Sophia Snyder says:

    I feel it is necessary to that one has notes if one is new or novice or easily distracted. When the Holy Spirit takes over one might go a different direction. But notes is a safety net for organization and even for sharing later for those who want to dive deeper, etc. I only knew just a few pastors, teachers, or preachers saying it from memory. I feel most do not have this confidence or gift. This is from my life not a rule of thumb. Busy lives make busy minds and focus is important in any type of public address especially that of a sermon,etc.

  • Robin Jordan says:

    “My reaction to the church member who objected to your use of notes is that God knows our every weakness. Who is to say that it was not the Holy Spirit prompted you to use notes?” I wish your blog had a feature that enabled readers leaving comments to correct them or make additions and other changes. I proofread my comments before I post them but I am amazed at what I miss when I proofread.

  • Mike Massey says:

    General conclusion #1 nails it! We get in trouble if we ever forget that and start to steal glory from God!

  • Brian Thorstad says:

    I’m always amazed at folks who think that the Holy Spirit can only guide us when we’re behind a pulpit. Why can’t the Holy Spirit guide me, all week long, as I work hard on a message in my study? These folks are just not thinking very deeply. Would the Holy Spirit lead me (on Tuesday) to do the message one way and then change His mind on Sunday?

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