Thursday, February 08, 2007

Extemporary preaching

George Whitefield

Here are some thoughts on preaching without notes. I started to preach in this way many years ago for a number of reasons. First, I tend to gesticulate a bit while preaching. Once I knocked my notes out of the pulpit and had to retrieve them mid-sermon, which was a bit embarrassing. Second, I sometimes used to find a new vein of thought opening up while preaching. I would go with this, but run ahead of my notes. When the moment of inspiration dried up, I would have to pause for what seemed to me like an eternity, to find my place in the sermon.
So, one day I tried preaching without notes. I did my usual preparation, prayed hard and decided to give it a go. As an insurance policy, I brought my sermon with me into the pulpit, just in case it all went horribly wrong. I felt liberated and didn't need to glance at my notes once. Next time, I prayed even harder and left the notes at home. I found that I was able to keep to my prepared sermon outline, but be more spontaneous in my preaching. This was about 18 years ago, when I was in my 20's.
Extemporary preaching does not mean speaking without diligent sermon preparation. This kind of speaking must not be at the expense of considered Biblical exegesis, clear and logical ordering of the material and thought given to matters of illustration and application. Preaching without notes demands a clear, straightforward sermon structure, because the preacher himself will not be able to remember an overly elaborate address. Three or four main points with their attendant sub-points will be the preacher's guide as he delivers his message. The preaching may develop in unexpected ways, but any improvisation will generally take place within the basic framework of the sermon.
An extemporary preacher should not seek to commit his whole sermon to memory. A prayerful and meditative reading of notes prior to preaching should be enough to impress the burden of the message on the mind and heart of the speaker. To be tied to a memorised recitation of a message is as restrictive as preaching from notes.
The big advantage of preaching without notes is increased interaction with the congregation. Eye contact can be maintained so that the preacher may react to the response of the people to his message. If someone looks a bit confused, the preacher can clarify his point. If some seem to be really helped by something, the preacher can elaborate on his exposition and seek apply the truth for the good of the people. If he is loosing the congregation, an illustration or maybe a provocative statement will regain their attention. Hopefully, the people will feel that the preacher is speaking to them rather than at them as this rapport develops during the message.
Extemporary preaching is not without its difficulties. It can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable. There is nowhere to hide. You cannot bury your head in your notes and steam on ahead when things aren't going well. It is a risky business that demands faith in God. Because you will not have prepared the exact words you are going to say beforehand, care must be taken not to slip into the same old stock phrases and cliches. Those who do not use notes in preaching should not draw attention to the fact before the congregation like a child saying "look no hands" when letting go of the handlebars of his bike. Kids who do that often fall off! The Bible-centred content, not the style of preaching is what matters.
Not all preachers are able to speak in this way. We should work with the gifts that God has given us. Jonathan Edwards famously read his sermons with great effect. But I believe that he determined to be less dependent on his notes after hearing George Whitefield's extemporary preaching. Whether we use no notes, few notes or lots of notes, Christ-exalting, Spirit enpowered preaching must be our aim, even if we often (or always) fall short of that goal.
Sometimes it may be necessary for mainly extemporary preachers to use some notes. When I was preaching on Daniel a few years ago, I had to use some notes for chapter 11. I couldn't get through all those verses about the northern and southern kings and queens of Greece without something on paper. I often use some notes for our discussional Bible studies too, as Bible study is different to preaching. Theological or historical lectures demand pretty full notes, but again, lecturing should be different to preaching.
Nothing is more exhilarating than preaching the gospel with freedom and spontaneity. Preaching without notes does not guarantee this sense of liberty, but perhaps, in the goodness of God, it may help.
See here and here for Martyn Lloyd-Jones on preaching.


Family Blogs said...

Thanks for this inspiration on preaching. My own experience is quite different, in that as I've gone along I seem to be using more and more notes. I think there's a danger of getting too tied down to them, and then becoming dependant on them.

You've kind of stirred my own thinking about going back into the pulpit without a sheaf for a time or two.

Guy Davies said...

May the Lord help you!

Isaac M. Alderman said...

How is it that Whitefield came to preach extemporaneously? was he influenced by Harris? i can't imagine Oxford was teaching an extemporaneous preaching class!

Guy Davies said...


Howell Harris began preaching by reading other people's sermons to anyone who would listen before he progressed to extemporary "exhorting" in the open air in 1735/6. Harris encouraged Whitefield to preach in the open air, which he did for the first time in 1739. But I don't know when GW stopped using notes while preaching.

If you search for Howell Harris on my blog, you should find a review of Geraint Tudur's biography of Harris.

Family Blogs said...

I wonder how you see the need and vitality of extemporary preaching in the light of the Proc Trust style insistence on careful craft, timing, and manuscript preparation for preaching?

As a young preacher I sometimes find myself confused by my having sympathy for their prioritising of preaching, and feeling a certain sense of malaise about their ideas of mechanical preparation and presentation. I'd love to know your thoughts.

Really enjoying your blog by the way.

Guy Davies said...


Thanks for your comments re the blog.

I attended the Proc Trust's EMA last year. Click on the "preaching" label at the foot of this post and scroll down until you get the entry for 3rd July 2006 for my impressions.

Family Blogs said...

Thanks for that. I find your analysis of EMA balanced and clear eyed.

Some colleagues here in Northern Ireland have been urging me to go along this year (for the first time), and your comments have helped. In December The Briefing ran an article by David Jackman on preaching which started a series. The next article (in the January edition) was 'On Becoming a More Passionate Preacher'. Perhaps the impoerative to proclaim that you highlight is begin to sink in with some.

Thanks again,

Gary Brady said...

Interesting blog and comments here. I do use notes but I knwo exactly what you're talking about Guy. Does it tempt you to skimp on prep?

Isaac M. Alderman said...

do you consider Wesley to be preaching extempore when he preached his standard sermons? it seems that they must have became memorized deliveries, almost like an actor in a play.

michael jensen said...

Hmm, the most passionate preachers I have heard since coming to the UK are in turn, an Irishman, a Welshman, and a Scot... now, why is that?

I really wish I had done more without notes when I had a preaching ministry. Now, when my sermons tend to be seminary chapel ones there seems to be a slightly differnt brief...

Guy Davies said...


I prefer the Banner Minister's Conference, where we get a good balance of solid exposition and deep theology, delivered with passion and power.


I still have to do the spadework of exegesis, consult the commentaries, develop a sermon structure and fill it out with exposition, illustration and application. Skipping on prep would be sheer presumptuousness. If I want to try to bring fresh and lively ministry to our people week in week out, I have to put in the hours in the study.


I'm not an expert of Wesley, but my guess is that he would improvise on his 'standard sermons' as he went preaching from place to place. An actor playing Hamlet has to memorise his lines and speak them exactly as they are in the text. He may put a slightly different emphasis on the words in each performance, but the words themselves will be the same. A preacher has a lot more freedom. Speaking for myself, the more times I preach a sermon, the more free I am to improvise with it in the pulpit.


The most powerful preaching I ever heard was a Welsh minister, Andrew Davies preaching to students while I was at the London Theological Seminary. He spoke on 2 Pet 1:13 "I will not neglect to stir you up in the memory of these things". He preached "Your task is to STIR THEM UP!" Well, he stirred me up.

Interesting point you make about Celts and passionate preaching. Maybe it is because the English tend to be less demonstrative, especially privately educated Anglicans. 'Stiff upper lip' and all that. I don't know, that was
probably my Welsh Nonconformist prejudices speaking!

More seriously, I can think of some pretty passionate English preachers, and of course there is Whitefield and Spurgeon!

dp23 said...

Just to say (as an occasional visitor) - (a) fascinating combinations of subjects on your blog! (Coldplay and Calvin etc!), and (b) thanks very much for this post on extempore preaching. An issue I have mulled over many times, but only got as far as reduced notes rather than no notes. Food for thought!

Guy Davies said...

Thanks DP23, you should drop by more often! ;-)

Unknown said...

Great blog and comments on an interesting topic!
Re: Wesley, I am a United Methodist Pastor in America, and I am not an expert on Wesley. But I think I remember that his Standard Sermons were written down after they were all preached. Probably as part of the library Wesley developed and published for his young itinerants.