Preaching without Notes: Do Preachers Need Prompters?

There’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times about Broadway actors trying to learn their lines, especially when scripts are rewritten and changes are made to the dialogue.  Many actors insist a prompter sit on the front row or behind the curtain to whisper out forgotten lines.

Last season, one of my favorite legends, Angela Lansbury, used an earpiece during a Broadway play “It’s not something you ever want to do, but if we’re going to play important roles at our age, where our names are above the title on the marquee, we’re going to ask for some support if we need it,” said Ms. Lansbury, who is 84.

She went on to say, “In the early days of theater, there was a ‘prompt corner’ with a person ready to throw the line to any actor.  In the electronic age, some 80-year-old performers wear earpieces.  And all of us lose ourselves in a play at moments.  Laurence Olivier did at the height of his career.  This is part of theater.”

But another noted actress, Mary Martin, ran into problems with her earpiece.  It kept picking up taxi signals.  Must have made for some interesting dialogue!

Well, I prefer preaching with a minimum of notes, and so far, I’ve resisted having a prompter.  If I wear an earpiece, it’s only for sound checks, not sermon prompts.  I do hope I have an internal earpiece connected to the Holy Spirit, who is pretty good at prompting us as to what to say.  But, still, an effective sermon depends on good mental preparation.

I do often pencil little prompts or codewords in the margin of my Bible,  If I have extended quotes or passages, I’ll tack them onto the page with a little bit of scotch tape.  But for the most part, I minimize notes.

I have a lot to say about this, as preaching noteless sermons has been a lifelong study of mine; but the most basic fact to consider is this – the Scriptural text itself represents the sermon notes we need.  That’s the genius of expository preaching.  If one’s message unfolds naturally from the text in expositional fashion, the inspired paragraph itself provides the prompts.  One just works his way through the paragraph, coming to ideas as presented in the Bible in logical, sequential order.

When preaching from Philippians 4:4-7, for example, the outline is right there in the text itself.  Nothing to memorize.  Nothing to remember.

  • Verse 4 tells us to rejoice.
  • Verse 5 says be gentle.
  • Verse 6 commands us to prayerful instead of anxious.
  • Verse 7 promises that if we do those things the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.

So you have four verses, four points (or three commandments and a corresponding promise), and nothing to remember:  Be joyful, be gentle, be prayerful, be peaceful.  It’s all right there on the page ready to be unfolded.  The purpose of the sermon is found in the point that runs through the paragraph, and the major headings of the sermon unfold as one works one’s way through the passage in expositional fashion.

(I have a lot more to say on this subject, but I’ll have to consult my notes and get back with you later).