On preaching without notes

God uses all different kinds of preachers.

I, however, have been thinking lately about learning to preach more effectively without notes. That doesn’t mean I am doing it. It just means I am thinking about it! I don’t actually have a lot of good models for this,but that is not to say looking back at church history that those models aren’t out there. There are! 

Recently I have been reading J.W. Alexander’s book, entitled Thoughts on Preaching. He was the son of Archibald Alexander, a pastor and at times a professor.  Of J.W. Alexander, Charles Hodge once said, “No minister in our Church was a more accomplished scholar.” And yet, he seems to have been someone who preached extemporaneously. 

Writing to young pastors on the subject, he gives the following counsel. 

1. Be careful of saying “too much” when you speak about preaching without notes.

“You must expect nothing from me in the spirit of those censors who, in the language of the King James’ translators, ‘give liking unto nothing but what is framed by themselves, and hammered by their own anvil.’ After about thirty years of talking for my Master, often in a method ex tempore enough to satisfy the most rigorous, I cannot forget that there have been other anvils before mine, and that their work has been turned off by such workmen as Edwards, Davies, and Chalmers. I am not ready to say that their ‘reading’ was no ‘preaching.'”

2. The place to begin to learn to speak without notes is by beginning to speak without notes. 

“My counsel is that you boldly face these obstacles, and begin ex abrupto. The longer you allow yourself to become fixed in another and exclusive habit, the greater will be your difficulty in throwing it aside…When a friend of mine, who was a pupil of Benjamin West, once inquired of the celebrated Gilbert Stuart, then at work in London, how young persons should be taught to paint, he replied: ‘Just as puppies are taught to swim – CHUCK THEM IN!’ No one learns to swim in the sea of preaching without going into the water.”

3. It is possible to speak without notes if you can talk without notes, so long as you know what you are talking about. 

“As I am perfectly convinced that any man can learn to preach extempore who can talk extempore, always provided he has somewhat to say, my earnest advice to you is that you never make the attempt without being sure of your matter. Of all the defects of utterance I have ever known the most serious is having nothing to utter.”

4. While you ought to carefully prepare your thoughts, don’t prepare your specific words.

“If any words of mine could be need to reinforce the opinion of the most enchanting speaker I ever heard, I should employ them in fixing in your mind the counsel not to prepare your words…Nothing more effectually ruffles that composure of mind which the preacher needs, than to have a disjointed train of half-remembered words floating in the mind. For which reason few persons have ever been successful in a certain method which I have seen proposed, to wit: that the young speaker should prepare his manuscript, give it a thorough reading beforehand, and then preach with a general recollection of its contents. Generally speaking, the best possible word is the one which is born of the thought in the presence of the assembly. And the less you think about words as a separate affair, the better they will be.  My sedulous endeavor is then to carry your attention back to the great earnest business of conveying God’s message to the soul; being convinced that here as elsewhere the seeking of God’s kingdom and righteousness will best secure subordinate matters.”

5. Fight fear with faith. 

Fear inhibits preaching. “Suppose you have the finest parts; of what use will they be to you unless you have the presence of mind? On the other hand, he who is at his ease says only what he means to say; says it as he means to say it; reflects; stops a moment, if need be, to cast about for a word or thought; borrows even from this pause some expressive tone or gesture, takes advantage of what he sees and hears; and in a word, brings all resources into play, which is saying a great deal…You will perhaps tell me, that this self-possession which I recommend is rather a boon to be wished for than a disposition to be enjoined; that it is the happy result of temperament, of previous successes, of talent itself, and that it is not in a man’s power to be at ease whenever he chooses. I admit that it depends partly on temperament, and this is a reason for strengthening it when timid; partly on previous successes, and this is a reason why a young man should apply all his powers to take a fair start in his course; and partly, also, on talent itself, and this is a reason for diligently cultivating that measure which has been received. But there is yet another element which enters into the confidence which I at the same time desire for you and recommend to you; IT IS FAITH. Take your stand as the ambassador of Jesus Christ, sent of God to sinful men. Believe that he who sends you will not have you speak in vain. Seek the salvation of those who hear you, as you do your own. Forget yourselves so as to behold nothing but the glory of God, and the salvation of sinners. You will tremble more before God, but you will tremble less before men.” 

6. Know what you need to say, love the people to whom you are saying it, seek God’s glory as you say it, trust in Him to help you say it, then say it, with all your might!

As Luther once advised young preachers, “Stand up cheerily, speak up manfully, and leave off speedily.”


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