Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Discerning When to Preach Without Notes

Posted 01.11.13

Preachers and listeners who favor preaching without notes have long justified the practice as more “spiritual” than preaching from a manuscript. 
“Father” Daniel Nash, the grand old man of revival preachers in upstate New York, relied on a warm, extemporaneous style. He was appalled when he heard that one of his protégés, Charles Finney, had begun using “skeleton” outlines to gain a little more precision in his language (and, not coincidentally, to appear a little more polished for an emerging merchant and professional class along the Erie Canal).
In 1831 Father Nash wrote Finney, saying
By the by, as a friend of Jesus Christ, I should advise you to be careful about using skeletons in preaching. Whatever may be the effect on you I am persuaded they would injure my spirituality; and, if not spiritual, I am worth nothing. If you choose to write them for the sake of digesting a subject, write. If you wish to look at them at home, to refresh your memory, do it: but, when you preach, throw yourself entirely on God.1
Nash’s letter to Finney gives a sharp statement of one of the most time-honored justifications for preaching without notes: it involves greater trust in God, and so a deeper and more authentic spirituality.
There is a distinct kind of spirituality to preaching without notes. But it is not necessarily more real or profound than the spirituality that attends to preaching with an outline or a manuscript. Preaching without notes, as Nash wrote, can lead a preacher into habits of trusting God and being present in the preaching moment with a powerful immediacy.
It can enable a preacher to attend more carefully and respond more nimbly to the people who are listening. It can involve long study, prayer, and rumination so that sermons arise organically from deep within the preacher’s own life. But it can also serve as a cover for shoddy preparation, procrastination, and arrogance. It can tempt a preacher to rely too much on performance skills that might or might not incarnate the Gospel she means to preach.
By the same token, preaching with a manuscript can lead a preacher into an extraordinarily rich set of spiritual practices. It can help a preacher attend to listeners in the course of preparation and then craft words and phrases that respond to the deepest needs discerned. It can lead a preacher into careful work with words. But it can also serve as an excuse for writing little treatises that are not as well researched as academic articles and not as punchy as good op-ed pieces. It can promote a cloying preciousness in style. And it can invite distraction and distance in the preaching moment.
The decision about whether to preach with or without a manuscript does have implications for the spiritual life of a preacher, just as Daniel Nash saw. Long practice in any style will form a preacher in profound and distinctive ways. But there are better and worse possibilities for preaching both with and without notes. Neither option guarantees that a preacher will be “more spiritual.”
The very best preachers tend to cultivate a wide range of styles, including styles that do and do not make use of manuscripts. Even more, the best preachers cultivate the wisdom to know when to use each one. What kinds of things might a wise preacher consider when deciding whether or not to use notes of some kind?
Sometimes a message suggests its own style. A sermon on the joy expressed in the exclamations of Psalm 150, for instance, might find fullest expression in a more extemporaneous style. And a sermon making sense of a very dense passage of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome might require a manuscript to get the details right. A sermon that is thinking theologically about a difficult moment in the life of a congregation -- like the discovery of some grave professional misconduct by one of the leaders -- might demand the precise language andgravitas of a manuscript sermon from the pulpit. Just so, a graveside sermon might best convey its message through a simple and unadorned style that is unencumbered by notes of any kind.
The habits and expectations of listeners also matter very much, but not in obvious ways. Preaching without notes might seem like a natural choice for a youth retreat in a camp setting. And it would probably be a wise choice in most cases. But a wise preacher might discern that expectation and play with it in ways that lend the sermon unexpected power. Or a congregation with a very formal worship service might be accustomed to sermons from manuscripts and so benefit all the more from a sermon preached without notes.
There are risks to sermons that elude or defy expectations. The mere fact of an unexpected choice can overwhelm anything else a preacher says or does. But when that unexpected choice fits very closely with the core proclamation of the sermon, this overwhelming quality can be a powerful asset.
The nature of the space for worship should also play a role in discerning whether to preach without notes. Preaching without notes may be essential for a service in which darkness plays an important role. It may be practically required of a space with no functional pulpit or lectern. A very large room, constricted lines of sight, or lack of a wireless microphone might all lead a preacher to stay firmly in the pulpit and so perhaps more closely with a manuscript.
The preacher’s own relation to the sermon, and the preaching moment, should not be neglected. I usually preach without notes, but when one teenager in the town where I served as a pastor accidentally shot and killed another one, I preached from a manuscript. The make-up of the congregation that day -- filled with young people who usually preferred a more extemporaneous style -- might have suggested that I should leave my notes in my study. But I was close to both the person who died and the person who pulled the trigger. I needed a manuscript to read and a pulpit to hold.
Less extreme situations also matter. A preacher might be too exhausted to preach in whatever style is more demanding for her. A preacher might be at a point where he can be bolder and more faithful in moments when he can gather his thoughts -- and so need to use a manuscript to carry the courage from the study to the pulpit. Or, like a tightrope walker who can’t stay on the wire when she knows there is a net, a preacher might need a boost from the particular kind of intensity that comes from standing before a congregation without notes of any kind.
Almost every preacher will need to preach with notes at some times and without notes at others. Neither style is always more effective. And neither style is necessarily more spiritual. The deepest faithfulness comes not in choosing one style or the other, but in discerning what it means to respond to God in each particular situation.

1Daniel Nash to Charles G. Finney, 26 November 1831, Charles Grandison Finney Papers, Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin, OH.
Source: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preachingworship.aspx?article_id=658

How to Preach Without Notes

Ted Smith more from this author »


Date Published:

Like all good preaching, good impromptu preaching depends on the long-term habits of the preacher.
Every preacher needs to be able to preach without notes on some occasions.
It is not a freakish skill that only some possess or a special style that only some need to cultivate. It is something every preacher can and sometimes needs to do. In another essay, I describe some ways that preachers might know when to preach with notes and when to preach without them. In this essay I want to suggest some ways to cultivate the ability to preach without notes when the situation calls for it. It can be helpful to distinguish among three different modes of preaching without notes.

Impromptu Preaching

What I will call impromptu preaching involves almost no preparation. It might arise when someone says, “Give us a word, preacher …” and then expects a word on the spot. It might arise in a service in which testimonies are welcomed or expected, but not prepared in advance. It might arise in the ebb and flow of a meeting about some issue, when what starts as a speech for the affirmative slips into a higher gear. Calls to impromptu preaching come through many parts of a pastor’s life.
Good impromptu preaching, like all good preaching, depends on the long-term habits of the preacher. If an athlete has been training for months, suddenly needing to run half a mile through two long terminals to catch a plane is not a problem. And if a preacher is immersed in regular study, prayer, works of justice and talk of God, being called to preach on the spot can be a gift to all those gathered — including the preacher herself. There is no substitute for the daily habits of a preaching life. And when those habits form a preacher’s life, questions of rhetorical technique tend to answer themselves.
That said, attention to technique can itself be part of a faithful preaching life. Impromptu preaching can be strengthened especially through attention to four rules of thumb. As rules of thumb, these are not the strict dicta of technique. They are rather rough, fallible guides formed through reflection on the practices of actual preachers. They will almost surely need to be modified, supplemented and selectively ignored in order to be useful for any individual preacher in any particular setting. But a rough guide can still be useful as a place to start.
  1. Say one thing. Preachers sometimes feel obliged to have three points (or five or six) but most impromptu situations allow time to conceive and articulate just one strong idea. And one idea — like “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” — can do all the work a sermon needs to do.
  2. Play your riffs. Like blues players, good preachers tend to have a rich stock of deep and simple phrases that they go to again and again. These might be quotations from Scripture or just phrases that communicate the heart of what the preacher understands the Gospel to be. An impromptu sermon might open with a riff to get the preacher rolling. It might rely on riffs to mark transitions or to bring the sermon to a close. Such riffs can slip into empty repetition. But they can also be enduring and concise statements of what a preacher believes — or longs to believe — most passionately.
  3. Don’t be afraid to pause. In any mode of preaching without notes, preachers can feel tempted to try to talk their way into making sense. But even when the preacher eventually gets around to making sense, he’s usually lost listeners in the process. It is better just to pause and wait for sense to come. A pause invites closer attention. It creates suspense. It leaves room for the listeners to think for themselves. And it shows respect for the task of proclamation.
  4. Before you start, know how you will end. Preachers sometimes want to use the few seconds they have for planning an impromptu sermon to work through the sermon as a whole. But this usually does not allow time to plan the ending, and so the ending sometimes gets bungled or endlessly deferred as the preacher hunts around for when and how to stop speaking. If you have time to plan only one thing, plan the ending. If you know where you’re going, you can figure out how to get there on the fly.

Extemporaneous Preaching

If impromptu preaching happens with little warning, what I will call extemporaneous preaching allows for some focused time for preparation. Extemporaneous preaching involves working from an outline. The outline might be memorized or on a card or screen the preacher can see. Some preachers make extemporaneous preaching their usual style. Others make use of it for services when they do not have as much time to prepare as they might like, as for a funeral, or a wedding sermon right before a Sunday sermon or for the string of sermons demanded during Holy Week. Whatever the occasion, these rules of thumb can guide preparation of a good extemporaneous sermon:
  1.  Craft a strong, clear structure for the sermon. An outline, even if it is set aside in the preaching moment, is usually the best tool for developing this structure. The outline should have a clear, logical flow. Each of its moves should feature a complete sentence. If a move is just labeled with a topic word like “Grace,” for instance, a preacher might not yet know exactly what work she needs this move to do. But if the move is headlined by “Sometimes grace comes through the most despicable people,” then the preacher knows where she is going. Most good extemporaneous sermons won’t have a lot of structure underneath the main moves or points. Points within points within points can be too much for a preacher — or a listener — to remember. Keep the structure simple.
  2. Talk your way to the sermon. For most preachers the best way to prepare for an extemporaneous sermon is to make an outline and then add flesh to that outline by talking it through. The sermon can be composed primarily in speech, rather than in print that then must be transformed into memory and then into speech. A preacher might memorize a very few key phrases of an extemporaneous sermon, perhaps the first and last sentences, or an especially potent statement of one of the most important moves. Most of the sermon, though, can be outlined in writing, composed in speech and then recomposed in the act of preaching.
  3. Work out the beginning and the ending of the sermon in more detail. It can be fine — even good — to leave the middle sections open to improvisation. But confidence about how you plan to begin and clarity about how you plan to end can make the whole sermon much stronger.

Digested Manuscript

Like an extemporaneous sermon, a sermon from what I will call a digested manuscript is composed through a mixture of speaking and writing. Preaching in this style requires extensive time for preparation. It involves writing out a complete manuscript of the sermon, digesting that manuscript deeply and then setting aside the manuscript to preach the sermon without notes of any kind. Digesting a manuscript is not the same as memorizing it word-for-word. Digestion, rather, requires internalizing the sense, form and key phrases of a manuscript and then bringing that internalized manuscript to life in speech. These rules of thumb can help:
  1. Craft a strong, clear and simple structure. If you can’t memorize it easily, the fault is probably not in your memory. It is in the structure. A well-structured sermon will propel you from one move to the next.
  2. Write the manuscript out. Writing out a manuscript can have several advantages over more extemporaneous modes of preaching. It can help the preacher clarify her thoughts in advance. It can give the preacher a medium in which to develop phrases of particular beauty, precision and faithfulness. It can make the sermon easier to share through digital or printed copies. And — not least! — it usually helps the preacher preach a shorter sermon that gets more directly to the point.
  3. Use typographical devices. Use devices like boldface, italics and underlining to mark the lines that convey the structure of the sermon, the transitions between moves and phrases that you want to say exactly as you’ve written them.
  4. Memorize these marked lines. It can be especially helpful to memorize the opening and closing lines of each move or paragraph. Then you’ll know how you want to begin each move, how you want to end it and how to get to the next one. Don’t try to memorize anything else beyond these structural elements, except a favorite phrase or two. You can fill in the substance of each move with talk that is more loosely tied to what you’ve written.
  5. Learn the sermon by speaking the sermon. Let your whole body help you remember the sermon. Speak it and move with it, not so much to “practice” it as to live into it. Gradually wean yourself from the manuscript until you are speaking most of the sermon without looking at any notes.
  6. Revise as you speak. As you talk your way through the sermon you’ll notice phrases that sound awkward or make the wrong kind of sense. Follow your instincts for how it should be said, then revise the text of the sermon to reflect these changes. Again, if something is hard to memorize, it is probably too complicated or a bad fit with the flow of the sermon. Consider revising it.
  7. Work back and forth between big pictures and close-ups. That is, think about the overall structure of the sermon. Then talk through the sermon or some part of it. Then go back to the structure. This kind of back and forth can help a preacher move from memorizing to the deeper work of digestion.
  8. Prepare in a very quiet, focused way right before the sermon. While a fully internalized sermon relies on long-term memory, learning key phrases verbatim tends to involve short-term memory. It can be difficult to protect this time right before a service.
    But protected time before worship can allow for intense prayer and concentration that let a preacher be present in the whole service. Protecting time before worship can also be a sign to a congregation of how much worship matters. And, really, most things can wait. When the time comes to preach, do not take the manuscript into the pulpit with you. If you don’t have it, you won’t need it.
  9. Preach the sermon, don’t recite it. Recitation tends to divide consciousness, pulling part of the preacher’s attention to the effort of remembering or reconstructing what was on the page. Preaching, on the other hand, demands a more complete sort of presence in the moment. Don’t be concerned if you skip part of the manuscript as you preach the sermon. The editing process continues right through the end of delivery. Very often a preacher will be focused in the moment, fully inhabiting the train of thought in a sermon, and then leap over text that was on the page. When that happens, it usually means that the “forgotten” text was never fully integrated into the flow of the sermon. It won’t be missed.
All three of these modes can take some time to learn well. Sometimes preachers try once to preach without a manuscript, struggle, and vow never to do it again. But it is worth remembering that most first sermons with a manuscript are also marked by struggles. Preaching without notes, like any other kind of preaching, takes practice. But impromptu, extemporaneous and digested manuscript sermons are all modes of preaching that almost everyone can learn over time.

Ted Smith
Ted A. Smith is assistant professor of preaching and ethics at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Smith teaches and writes across the fields of homiletics, theological ethics, and social theory. He is the author of The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice.
Source: SermonCentral.com

Friday, March 15, 2013

Why (and How) Transitions Can Make or Break Your Sermon

Peter Mead more from this author »


Date Published:
Your sermon outline looks so good on paper, but how you transition from one point to another is just as important.
The bulk of preparation effort usually goes into the main content of a message. We wrestle with the text, we allow it to shape our theology, we think through how that content marks our lives, we ponder all this in light of who will hear the message. This is all work on the points, or movements, in a message.
Then perhaps we ponder illustrative material to help make sense of those movements. We consider how to introduce the message. We might even give some thought to how we will conclude it.
But often there is too little thought given to the transitions between movements in a message. Too little attention given to these little moments will result in too great a negative effect on the whole message. Great messages bomb because of poor transitions.
Here are some nudges to help us better transition during our preaching:

Introducing Effectively (A)

1. Emphasize clearly. The listeners need to know that you are moving from whatever introductory material you have given into the first movement of the message. You can do a star jump, pause for two minutes and turn to look at a PowerPoint slide. Or you can be less awkward. Vocal variation can serve to underline your shift effectively: perhaps a pause, a change of pace, a variation in pitch. You can say, “So for my first point …” but that is probably hinting at dullness already. But something along those lines could be helpful: “So let’s see how the passage launches ...” could work, as long as people catch what you just said (so think through how to add emphasis).
2. Preview appropriately. What is appropriate depends on the type of movement that will follow. If you are presenting a declaration and then supporting it, as in a typical deductive message, then you might be able to simply offer a preview of the point by stating it and telling what will follow (i.e.explanation, application, etc.). By previewing and then re-stating the point as you progress, listeners will spot the entry into a section of the message. If the point is the development in a narrative, then you may not want to give it all away at the transition. You need to decide how to make sure people are with you as you enter in.  Perhaps a question that will be answered — some variation on “so what happened next?” — might work.
3. Introduce confidently. Whatever you are about to say, convey confidence in how you introduce it. Don’t apologize. Don’t downplay in some supposed act of humility. ”Oh, I guess I should probably say a few words about ... ” Uh, no.  "Just a disconnected story first before we get into ...” Again, no. ”I wasn’t sure where to start, so ...” No.
Transitions are disproportionately significant. They don’t convey the content of the message, but their critical role can significantly support or significantly undermine the message as a whole.

Transitioning Effectively (B)

1. Slow down noticeably. The sermon is an unsafe vehicle. There are no seat belts or doors that guarantee your passengers will stay with you. When you take a turn, make sure they are right there or you’ll leave them in the aftermath of the previous movement. Slow down through the curves. Listeners can seem as if they are with you at a certain pace of delivery, and they might be able to stay with you in a straight line, but when you go in a new direction they may be unable to keep track and they will be left in a heap with dust settling around them. Slow down. Change pace. Pause. Make the transition clear. Sometimes in our anxiety to press on and get through it all we can cut corners at this point (since it isn’t content at this point) and in doing so undermine the whole message. If you must speed up, do so within a movement, not between them.
2. Look both ways. That is to say, use the opportunity to provide both review and preview. Where have we been so far? Where are we going next? Just a couple of sentences can make the world of difference. It is the difference between an enjoyable ride in a nice car with a good driver and an uncomfortable ride in an overpowered car with an overconfident teen at the wheel.
3. Mark physically. Slowing down the delivery and reflecting / previewing are helpful. But why not reinforce the shift in direction by a physical marker? You could physically switch from one side of the lectern to the other (assuming you don’t hide behind it all the time), gesture appropriately, change you orientation by a few degrees, etc. Subtle reinforcement in this way can communicate very effectively.
Notice that I haven’t suggested simply saying, “Now for my next point …”  If you have to, fine, but consider that this may have a soporific effect if the listeners don’t have confidence in you. Good transitions should give a sense of momentum and progress. Bad or patronizing ones can either lose people or reinforce the sense of boredom. Maybe a minute of your message will be taken up by this kind of transition ... but this minute could be make or break!
Transitions are a tiny part of a message, but they can make all the difference in terms of being heard properly. We’ve looked at the first two types of transition.  Let’s ponder the third: concluding transitions. Or to put it another way, transitions to a conclusion. This is very biblical, by the way. I was just looking at Galatians 5:1-12. I think that is Paul’s transition from his second main point and body of his argument to the conclusion and application phase of his letter.  An abrupt move from main point to conclusion may not be effective. So?

Concluding Effectively

1. Review clearly. These would be true of a message conclusion as a whole, but I am speaking of a transition from body to conclusion. This is a good place to review where we have been together. Anything more than clear and crisp statements runs the risk of sounding like the development of another element of the message. Don’t add explanation to this. Don’t restate in a way that might appear to be development rather than restatement. Keep this element as clear and punchy as possible. Try to make the message sound clearer than it did when you preached it!
2. Regain any drift from relevance. There is always a danger that in the development of the main argument of a message, with all the biblical and theological explanation listeners can lose sight of its relevance for them. This shouldn’t happen if you make every movement relevant and apply it as you go, but sometimes you need to give time to explanation. Lest any be drifting from the moorings of crystal clear relevance, use the transition to underline that this is for us today. Paul did this in his transition in Galatians 5. The sermon to the Hebrews reinforces relevance in every transition throughout the sermon.
3. Avoid apology. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but this applies at any point. Almost always avoid apology during your preaching. Some have the habit of half apologizing in transitions. “Well, anyway, that could have been clearer, but ... ” or “I wish we had more time, we haven’t really gotten the point of that section ...” and so on are not helpful. There may be occasion for apology. If you have a cough or weak voice, apologize if you feel it is necessary, but do so confidently. Basically the listeners will respond to your tone — if you are apologizing, they will feel bad. If you are confident, they will take that on board. So avoid undermining a message by apologising in some unnecessary way.

Peter Mead
Peter Mead is involved in church leadership at an independent Bible church in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often at BiblicalPreaching.net.

Source: SermonCentral.com