After Ed Milliband went note-less and forgot the main points of his Labour Party conference address, some preachers have been quick to point out a cautionary tale for preachers. Use Notes! I'm not convinced that this is the lesson. After all, Emma Watson's recent speech - completely note-less - connected powerfully across the globe.
I'm not that interested in debates about whether to use notes or not in preaching. It seems to me that those kind of "how to" questions lie on the far side of a much more urgent discussion about the "what" and the "who" of preaching. Preachers everywhere have an opinion about the "how to" but I find that far fewer of them have done much serious thinking about what preaching actually is.
For what it's worth, here is an introduction to my theology of preaching (which is heavily indebted to Luther's threefold theology of the Word.) For me, preaching is Christ Himself heralded through human lips to needy sinners.
Jim Packer put it like this: “The proper aim of preaching is to mediate meetings with God.” Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “What is the chief end of preaching? To give men and women a sense of God and his presence.” If this is true about the "what" and the "who" let's make a tentative foray into the realm of "how to"...
Since preaching is mediating meetings with God, it seems pretty important that preaching have the quality of immediacy - that we are in the immediate presence of the living Christ whose word is being spoken as a divine summons. Would we agree?
I think most people would agree. But at that point some preachers want to say: "Exactly, therefore the preacher needs to get out of the way in the preaching process. They should put as little personality into their preaching as possible and simply let the Bible speak for itself." Here they advocate for careful preparation in the study and a fairly full script for the pulpit. I sympathise greatly with the intentions here, but there may also be a mistaken view of revelation lurking somewhere. You see it is a good thing that preaching comes through human lips because God's word is meant to meet us where we are. Human personality is not a barrier to the Word coming across - it wasn't for Jesus, it isn't for the Bible and it shouldn't be for preaching. We should never bemoan the fact that preaching is a human event. We must never try to de-personalize preaching in order to get out of the way of some pure, non-human word - there's no such thing. The humanity of the preacher is great - it's a bridge not a barrier.
But the impulse to clear away obstacles in preaching is right. We must do that. But here's a hunch, see what you think - it may just be that the school of preaching that says "let's strip things back and just give a well-prepared Bible talk" is the most guilty of erecting a barrier. You see it's possible to make the sermon itself a third thing in between the preacher and the congregation rather than it being the personal and immediate address of the preacher to the congregation. The sermon then is something the preacher brings to the service and uses on the congregation rather than being what the preacher is saying this very moment in the midst of the congregation. I remember - half a life time ago to be precise - being introduced to university lectures by a man who said "Lecturing is the process whereby facts from the lecturers notebook transfer to the student's notebook without passing through the minds of either."
Is it possible that preaching can end up like that? Preachers bring a pre-prepared sermon and ensure that it is delivered safely into the possession of the congregation - but it's possible for it to go through the minds and hearts of neither. On this understanding, the sermon is a thing passed from preacher to congregation, not the very event in which the preacher addresses the congregation with living power. Am I imagining that distinction? I don't think I am. I'm pretty sure you can sense it when the sermon is an artifice and when it is an address. I think we should do whatever it takes to make our sermons the latter and not the former.
Let me say straight away I am not advocating for preachers to make up their sermons on the spot. I do not think a "spontaneous" word is in any way more spiritual (and it's in many ways more dangerous) than a word you've laboured over for hours in the study. Work hard in the study. BUT... there are ways of communicating a carefully prepared sermon where the congregation feels addressed in the moment, and there are ways of doing it where the congregation feels like the preacher is behind double-glazing. "Notes or no-notes" is not the centre of that discussion - but it is part of it. It seems to me that moving towards greater freedom from notes is a move towards a greater sense of immediacy in preaching and therefore a move towards better preaching.
Of course "freedom from notes" doesn't mean you won't carefully craft a full sermon script nor does it mean you won't bring that to the pulpit - not necessarily. I'm not ruling out reading such a sermon word for word. My first 200 sermons were delivered in just this way. But it's interesting that I would be happy when people afterwards said they didn't notice I was reading a script. I worked very hard on making it look like I wasn't doing what I was doing. And often that effort took me out of the moment and fixed my attention on the mechanics of the preaching rather than the word being preached.
Anyway, I need to get back to my sermons for tomorrow. (See? I believe in preparation!) Let me conclude: Preacher, as you address a congregation, it matters little how full the script is in front of you - so long as you've prepared accordingly. What really does matter is that the congregation is in front of you and that you preach as though they are your focus, not some artifice called "The Sermon". Your sermon is not a tool you use to reach the congregation. Your sermon is God's word to the congregation coming through your own lips. It is the living word of God to your brothers and sisters in the here and now. Whatever you do about notes, make sure your preaching is that.