I recently came across some writings by Adam Clarke, posted on Craig Adams’ blog, which included the following statement on preaching …
Get a thorough knowledge of your subject: understand your text in all its connection and bearings, and then go into the pulpit depending on the Spirit of God to give you power to explain and illustrate to the people those general and particular views which you have already taken of your subject, and which you conscientiously believe to be correct and according to the word of God. But get nothing by heart to speak there, else even your memory will contribute to keep you in perpetual bondage. No man was ever a successful preacher who did not discuss his subject from his own judgment and experience. The reciters of sermons may be popular; but God scarcely ever employs them to convert sinners, or build up saints in their most holy faith. I do not recommend in this case a blind reliance upon God; taking a text which you do not know how to handle, and depending upon God to give you something to say. He will not be thus employed. Go into the pulpit with your understanding full of light, and your heart full of God; and his Spirit will help you, and then you will find a wonderful assemblage of ideas coming in to your assistance; and you will feel the benefit of the doctrine of association, of which the reciters and memory men can make no use. The finest, the best, and the most impressive thoughts are obtained in the pulpit when the preacher enters it with the preparation mentioned above.
I’m also reading American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists by John Wigger. In discussing one of the early Methodist preachers in America, Wigger writes …
Like all Methodist preachers, Watters preached extemporaneously, without notes (70).
My sense is that not only did early Methodist preachers preach without notes, they had a disdain for notes. Clarke calls those who use notes, or a manuscript, “reciters of sermons.”
During my preaching journey, I’ve moved toward using fewer and fewer notes. A couple of years ago, I wrote about this part of my journey. Right now, my sermon notes (usually) fit on a single 3×3 post-it note. But I’m still trying to get to the point where I use no notes!
While I’m not militant about the use of notes, I do think it’s important. I once heard John Maxwell talk about the difference between “speakers” and “communicators.” Speakers focus on the content. Communicators focus on the audience. The purpose of notes (especially manuscripts) is to cover all of the content. The objective in preaching without notes is to make a point and give a call to action, not cover all of your material.
If I understand Clarke correctly, he advises preachers to internalize the text (“your understanding full of light”) and be fully prepared, spiritually (“your heart full of God”). What’s not clear to me, though, is whether Clarke simply advises preaching without notes or if he’s saying that the message itself should be formed as it is being preached. In other words, how much of the sermon is formulated ahead of time?
He does talk about ideas and words coming together while preaching, but he doesn’t say whether or not he goes to preach with an outline or map in mind.
Clarke also appears to speak poorly of “memory men.” Clarke argues, “your memory will contribute to keep you in perpetual bondage.” He adds, “The reciters of sermons may be popular; but God scarcely ever employs them to convert sinners, or build up saints in their most holy faith.”
Those may be fighting words for those who rely on notes or manuscripts when they preach!
What do you think?