What is the best way to preach? To use notes — even to the point of reading a sermon — or not to use notes? Fred Lybrand, a Southern Baptist preacher who seems to be cutting his own path, opts for the “not to use notes” approach in his new, useful, handy, clear book Preaching on Your Feet. I should perhaps tell my own story before I go any further.
What do you think? I’m keen on hearing the experience of preachers. And, what do you think? I’m keen on hearing the experience of folks listening to preachers: do you prefer that they read a more carefully stated sermon or have more eye contact?
But to my story. Why? No use talking about preaching if you don’t back it up with how you do things. When I began preaching I had no idea what I was doing so I imitated, quite unconsciously, those I admired. Some of them were pastors and others of them were professors. That led to the use of fairly complete notes, including quotations. Then I read John Stott’s book Between Two Worlds where he urged young pastors to write out their sermons and then, after ten years if I remember right, to begin preaching from notes. So I did this, but I wasn’t comfortable doing this. Teaching for a decade or so became my teacher and it led to being more comfortable with an outline. To this day I tend to speak from a sketchy outline. I now use a “Journal” for all sermon notes (and all kinds of other things) and I preach from that. But I cheat when I say this: I don’t do the weekly preaching thing where I am asked to give a new sermon every week. Instead, I can have ten sermons in a row where a church asks me to do something on Jesus Creed. And I never really give the same sermon twice because I speak from notes and adjust as I go along and as I see what is happening … and this leads me to Lybrand’s theory.
Preaching on your feet is his studied expression on the basis of years of preaching: it involves deep study, strategizing your sermon and then preaching. But without notes. I know there are many against this approach, but — as long as one can have a few notes (and I tend to have less than a small page of notes) — I think he’s right. Here are his reasons for “preaching on your feet” (I’ve italicized what I consider most important):
1. Time management: you save the hours it takes to write out a sermon or write out thick notes.
2. Connection with the audience: eye-to-eye is better than eye-to-manuscript-to eye. The struggle here is palpable for those who sit and listen.
3. Remembering: if you can remember it, they can remember it.
4. Humility: struggling to find the best word is normal human existence.
5. Adaptability: good preachers read the eyes of those who listen and adapt and adjust to the levels of comprehension.
6. Holy Spirit led. Obvious and potentially a source of abuse and an excuse for lack of preparation. Still, Lybrand gets this right. Preaching on the feet is more susceptible to Spirit guidance — in the moment — than reading the ms. But, Spirit guidance occurs as well in the writing of the ms. But it is not in the moment.
7. Personality trumps plagiarism: Lybrand is big on each preacher having personality, that person’s personality and not someone else’s.
8. An act of faith.
9. Growth in confidence.
11. A walk with God is more intimate to preaching …
12. You become sharper (if not smarter).
13. Fresh delivery.
14. Joy in preaching.
15. Audience is expectant.
Lybrand covers it all, but this point might be the most significant: there’s no example that anyone was using notes or reading a sermon or (he argues) preaching an “expository” sermon in the Bible. The only method we see is preaching on one’s feet. And he has a chp listing the great preachers whose studied practice was preaching on their feet: Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc..
And he says something important: too many preachers today are using their seminary professors’ lectures as models for preaching. The differences in context, purpose, audience, content, etc, are obvious.