Keep it ‘in the moment’: Preaching without notes

By Justin Tull, Special Contributor…

Looking back on my ministry, I had three preaching style stages: (1) preaching from extensive notes after doing a rough draft manuscript, (2) preaching from a “polished” manuscript, trying to look down as little as possible, and (3) preaching without notes (with a half-sheet outline in my Bible).

Justin Tull

In each style the quality of the content was quite equal. The results were not equal, however. I can say with absolute certainty that my preaching without notes has been by far the most effective method. Preaching from a manuscript was definitely my worse form.

One danger of committing to a polished manuscript is that it becomes more “literary” than “oral.” There is more invested in saying things exactly as they are on the page—thus the need to look down to get it right. Sentences are often longer and more complex. Unfortunately, the polished manuscript form often sounds more like an essay than a conversation. During my “manuscript period,” copies of my sermons were sent around the country and were well received. Regrettably, they were better “read” than “heard.”

Preaching today, if it is to be effective, must have a connection between the preacher and the person in the pew. A conversational style is most effective. “Conversational” should not be mistaken for casual or off-the-cuff or without intensity. But the real energy should be between the preacher and the congregation, not the preacher and the manuscript. The listener wants an experience of a person, not to simply hear a sermon. Authenticity is of the essence.

How often have we been distracted as a poignant point is being made when the preacher glances down at the notes? It makes the preacher’s words less believable even if the action is simply a nervous habit of a preacher afraid of not saying it perfectly. A preacher constantly bobbing up and down at the notes is like a dog lapping up water trying with an occasional look upward to convince his owner that he cares more about him than the liquid contents of his bowl.

I must be quick to point out that the style I am presently promoting is not manuscript memorization—reciting what has been written. Nor is it an act of improv in sharing the word. The general content has been carefully memorized not as a precise script but more like a sequence of stories. There is always room for ad lib—sometimes from the playfulness of the preacher’s personality and sometimes from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Throughout my ministry I have always believed that many of my sermon “insights” were more gifts of the Spirit than the creations of my own imagination. In the scary business of preaching without notes (or “preaching without a net”), one may well discover that the same Spirit that can speak to us in the study can also speak “live” in the very midst of the worship moment.

Whatever style one chooses in preaching, the energy—the connection—should always be between the preacher and the congregation. The “sermon” can never be finished on Thursday night or even Saturday night. A sermon must wait for its birth in the serendipity of the preached moment when its message is shared with the people.

After all, a joke is not a joke until it is told. And a sermon, like a good joke, is not just a matter of what is said, but how one says it. Content, as important as it is, is only half the formula. Delivery is the place where words will either stay in stiff, typed form or come to life through the authenticity of the preacher.

The Rev. Tull retired from active ministry after serving UM churches in North Texas for 37 years. Since then, he’s twice been an interim pastor and is preparing to be a regional trainer of interim pastors. He’s the author of five books, and this essay comes by permission from Ten Keys to Effective Preaching, an as-yet-published work he prepared for teaching a Course of Study preaching course.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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I have always admired those given the gift of preaching without notes. I myself am not among them. It's not that I can't do it–but once I start talking, sans discipline of manuscript, the sermon is likely to double in length. And there is this practical issue: If you use Power Point visuals, veering off "in the moment" can create havoc for the tech people. So, my sermons are in fact pretty much finished products, preached word for word at each of our three worship services. People seem to think it's effective. It's kind of like speaking in tongues, I… Read more »

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