Beckett: Review – Preaching Without Notes

Author: Joseph M. Webb
Publisher: Abingdon Press, 2001
Rating: 4/5 stars

Review

At first, I was skeptical when I picked up this book. I had to read it for my Homiletics I class at Concordia Seminary. When the professor, Dr. Nafzger, told us that he advocates preaching from memory, I immediately thought, “How ridiculous. What difference does it make?” I read the majority of the book with a closed mind, but as I began to actually experience preaching without notes, it opened my mind to its effectiveness. This book is meant for pastors and seminarians studying to be pastors.

Webb makes clear at the beginning of his book that by “preaching without notes” he does not mean preaching that is improvisational or unprepared. By going through his process, one sees that a lot of preparation still goes into the sermon. “Preaching without notes” is exactly what it sounds like: preaching without staring at a manuscript. Even having the sermon mostly memorised whilst reading from the manuscript isn’t helpful because then the preacher creates what’s called the bobblehead effect—repeatedly looking up and down from the manuscript because you’re trying to read and maintain eye contact with the audience simultaneously, hence a bobblehead.

There are many advantages to preaching without notes, but Webb lists three major ones. The first is that it maiximises connectedness. Preaching without notes “makes possible the fullest and most intense bonding between the preacher and those who share the preaching” (25). If the preacher wants to connect with his hearers, that connection is made easier when he preaches without notes.

Consider being told a story or a joke from a friend. He’s telling you the story from memory and you connect to the story and your friend because you can see how connected he is to the story. Chances are your friend practiced telling the story or the joke. If he didn’t practice, it would become obvious and the story or joke would be boring. Now imagine if your friend told that same story by reading it from a piece of paper. It probably wouldn’t have the same effect as telling it from memory, would it?

The second advantage is that it maximises participation. Here, Webb advocates an inductive sermon versus a deductive sermon. In a deductive sermon, your statement is said upfront and then you give reasons that support it. In an inductive sermon, you ask a question and arrive at the answer towards the end of the sermon.

For example, a deductive sermon would be, “Today, I’m going to give you five reasons for why we should pray.” And lo and behold, you list five reasons. An inductive sermon would be, “Why do we pray? Let’s take a look at the prayer the Lord taught us.” And you then move into your next rhetorical unit utilising a method of development looking at the Lord’s Prayer as to why we pray. It’s not until the end of the sermon that the hearers get the full reason for why we pray.

So what? Both deductive and inductive sermons are legitimate styles of preaching depending on the topic and the occasion, right? And you’d be right. I agree with you. Webb, however, claims that “in the deductive speech mode the audience perceives that almost every word is pre-planned. In the inductive speech mode, the audience senses, or knows, that the words are not planned in advance; neither the speaker nor the audience knows what the next words, or the next sentence, will be” (29). I disagree with Webb here.

On the topic of “why do we pray,” for example, the preacher can choose to preach it deductively or inductively. I believe it is a hasty generalisation to say that all deductive sermons will be perceived as pre-planned. Besides, Webb’s first chapter is about preparing and planning the sermon without notes. So, even with inductive preaching, the preacher is going to know what he’s going to say next and he should know what he’s going to say next. Otherwise it just becomes improvisational preaching and Webb has already said he does not advocate this.

The problem, I would say, is when deductive sermons are preached via rote memorisation. Hearers can easily tell when a sermon is memorised word for word and it doesn’t appear genuine. The preachers sees not his hearers, but the words of the page. This is less of a danger in inductive preaching, but that certainly doesn’t mean deductive preaching cannot be used when appropriate. I can recall several deductive sermons that I found highly intriguing because of the nature of the subject.

What does this all have to do with maximising participation, however? In a sermon, you want the hearers to become involved in it, like a story. You want them to see themselves in the sermon. Webb claims this is much easier to do with an inductive sermon, and I agree with him. However, I maintain that a deductive sermon may be needed as fits the occasion. Not every sermon needs to be inductive. The preacher just becomes predictable then, and being predictable is something the preacher wants to avoid.

The third and final advantage he gives is that preaching without notes reflects authentic witness. Webb writes, “In order for one’s Christian witness to be as moving as it can possibly be, that witness must appear to those who receive it to come ‘from the preacher’s heart’ and ‘not from a page of the preacher’s sermon'” (30). I think this has some merit to it, but at the same time I think Webb also underestimates the preaching ability and personality of the preacher.

On the one hand, I wholly acknowledge how much more authentic the message of a sermon can be when it’s preached without notes. I myself do find sermons more invigorating when they’re preached from memory. On the other hand, however, I have been equally moved by sermons that were preached with notes. In the next sentence, Webb says, “One can move people by reading or speaking from notes, but one cannot move them very far” (30). I don’t find that to be entirely true.

As I’ve said, from my own experience, I’ve been extremely moved by sermons that were preached with notes. Would I have been moved farther if it was preached without notes? Probably not, since those with notes have literally changed my life. Of course, this depends on the ability of the pastor. A pastor who is rather monotone in his preaching with notes may benefit from learning how to prepare and preach a sermon without notes.

So, how does one actually prepare to preach without notes? I’m not going to cover this in this book review; you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I do recommend this book for current and future pastors, but with a few caveats.

First, as you read the book, you’ll find that Webb divides his steps into specific days of the week. These are guidelines to follow; you don’t have to completely adopt his method. If you choose to adopt his method, that’s fine. It may be more helpful, however, to create your own method whilst using his as a guideline. I myself haven’t adopted his method entirely. I used what I learnt from his book and created my own method that works for me and me alone.

Second, whilst I do advocate preaching without notes, I do think it is helpful to have a copy of your manuscript with you on your pulpit (even if you’re preaching away from the pulpit). I recommend this for two reasons: 1) as a security blanket, and 2) no matter how prepared you are, there will be times when you mess up and may need to address your notes. Something tragic may have happened the day before, and it may be on your mind whilst you’re preaching and may cause you to forget some things.

Webbs says when this happens, the preacher should force these things out of his mind and still preach from memory, but that’s not always possible. Here, he overestimates preaching without notes. Something might happen the day or a few days before that’s so personal to you that preaching completely without notes is just not doable. It is more respectful to the hearers to preach from your manuscript than it is to risk forgetting the majority of the material of the sermon and stumbling over words. If one of my parents died the day or a few days before Sunday, for example, it would be impossible for me to just “forget about it” for a few minutes on Sunday. Out of caution, I would preach from my manuscript, and if I find that I don’t need it as I’m preaching, then I won’t use it.

I’ve only preached one sermon so far, and I had a 3 x 5 card in my pocket Bible, but I never even looked at it. That’s only because I was so prepared, and my sermon was highly effective. Granted, I am lacking vast experience, but for someone who was so skeptical of preaching without notes, I’ve done extremely well doing so.

Third and last, since this is a Lutheran blog, you should know that Webb comes from an evangelical background. It becomes obvious that he advocates women ordination when he uses both male and female pronouns to describe preachers. You can choose to be of the type who’s uptight and says, “He’s not a Lutheran and advocates false doctrine! I’m not going to listen to a word he says!” Or you can be the type who’s intellectually honest and says, “I recognise he has some false doctrinal positions. Nevertheless, he is a brother in Christ and I can still learn from his knowledge and experience.” A Lutheran pastor or seminarian can read this book and still learn from it. My classmates and I certainly have.

One more thing I want to address before I end this review is that some of you pastor and/or seminarians might be skeptical of your ability to preach from memory. I understand. I’m right there with you. However, you are far more capable thank you think you are.

When I was told in my Homiletics class we would have to preach a sermon from memory in order to pass the class, I immediately grew skeptical of my ability to remember. But then I remembered my past in high school. I thought the same exact thing when my parents made me join marching band. Not only did I have to memorise music, but I also had to memorise where and when to march on the field whilst playing, including all the choreography, not to mention adequate marching technique. And marching band was an awesome high school experience! I doubted my ability then, but I did extremely well. In fact, I ended up becoming one of the section leaders of the saxophone section by junior year.

Memorising a sermon came more natural to be than I expected. I’ve had to memorise music for 4 years in high school, during my music career in the Army Bands, and memorisation for studying Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, not to mention studying for college exams. The human brain is capable of extraordinary things, even yours. Webb gives helpful ways in which one can work on memorisation as well as some possible hindrances (such as confidence). If you’re confident in your ability and trust God has given you the ability, you can certainly preach without notes.

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