To Memorize or Not To Memorize

I went to see a performance of an actor performing a straight scripture presentation.  He was a good performer and commanded the stage well.  But after a while I found my  mind drifting. When he finished reciting scripture, he told a story about his own life and totally drew me in.  He was so much more interesting to listen to when he just shared his story than when he was quoting from a book of the Bible.

I left feeling conflicted.  I actually felt a bit of guilt at having lost interest during the presentation of scripture.  I mean, this was God’s Word after all! I also pondered why I found his story more compelling than his actual performance.  My conclusions:

  • When he was reciting scripture he sounded “memorized.” And while I am an advocate for memorized lines, I don’t like it when a performer sounds memorized. Memorized lines, be they in a play, scripture, speech or sermon, should sound natural and conversational. To the audience it needs to sound like you are saying these words for the very first time. (For a great example of an actor performing scripture and sounding natural check out my associate Steve Wilent in According to John.)

    Steve Wilent in According to John
  • When he told his story, it felt spontaneous and authentic. I didn’t get the feeling it was a script. Since it was his story, he knew it well so there was no danger of not knowing what to say next (as in a forgotten line). I cared more about what he had to say because it was more personal.

In my previous blog I addressed memorization from an actor’s perspective. Actors must memorize lines word for word in a script.  But what if you are speaking or giving a sermon? Does that text need to be memorized?

The answer…. it depends.

If you are a speaker who is giving the same, or mostly the same, speech or sermon to different groups on a speaking circuit, you will probably want to memorize it.  Truth is, you probably have memorized it… maybe even without trying.  You will work with the text and wind up saying the same thing over and over again.  This can actually be a very good thing… providing you don’t start to sound memorized! You will also learn and tweak your presentation as you gain experience. You learn, for example, that phrasing a sentence a certain way gets a better response (a laugh, applause, or stunned silence).

But what about those of you who are pastors coming up with a new sermon every week? While a few of you may actually memorize the sermon, most of you don’t. My hat’s off to you who come up with new material week after week.  The challenge before you is to present your material in a compelling way. Since you are not memorized by rote, there is not much danger of your sounding memorized.  But neither do we want to see you simply read to us with your focus on your notes instead of your audience.  It is important that, while you may not be memorized, you need to really know your material. So in a sense some of the rote memorization techniques of reading the material over and over again can certainly be of benefit.

I am always impressed with those pastors who can deliver a powerful sermon without notes!  I chatted with one of them recently about how he does it.  As a storyteller, it was no big surprise that much of the technique he employed involved translating the text into story. Much of the memory technique involved linking images to the text and thus allowing the pastor to be note-free and greatly enhance his ability to connect with the audience.  This video helps to explain the memory system he uses:

Actors, comedians, and professional speakers all know the value of rehearsal.  In talking to pastors I find that many of them also rehearse their sermons, and… many of them don’t.  I can usually tell the difference.  I know you are busy people, but  I encourage you to find the time to rehearse your sermons.  In our increasingly entertainment-oriented culture, with our increasingly shorter attention spans, your challenge is to hold our attention.  To do that effectively takes practice!

Pastors, do you memorize your sermons?  What tips can you share for effective sermon presentations?

8 thoughts on “To Memorize or Not To Memorize

  1. Rebecca Swets says:

    I agree, Chuck, with the “sounds memorized” stuff. When you are presenting scripture (lower case on purpose) to an audience as part of a skit/play/presentation/sermon, if you memorize it, make it your own. Speak with your own voice, your own words…and the folks listening will hear the scripture and not realize it’s SCRIPTURE.

    I’ve always been able to memorize stuff off the “top of my head” for short term, but when it comes to presenting a talk/sermon, I never memorize that. I just use a short outline, with a couple of cogent sentences to keep me going, and focus on the Lord, not the worries of “Am I being boring?” or “Am I not getting to them?”. It’s not my job to “get to them”; that’s God’s job 😉

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  2. Sheri says:

    As one who has been memorizing Scripture with the same person for the last 15 years, I can totally relate! I find that my own memorization is much more effective (and long lasting) when I make it conversational. Voice inflection at the proper time makes it sound exciting and memorable. On the other hand, when we go to church are we truly looking to be “entertained”? Perhaps we should be changing OUR mindset and looking for how God can speak to us today. If I’m really listening to the Lord, I’m going to be spoken to regardless of how the message is delivered. My problem with pastors who just get up and read their sermon is that it’s not believable. I feel like they don’t really believe what they’re saying. Probably a judgment on my part. But that’s why I don’t go to those kinds of churches.

    Reply
    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Great comment Sheri. I agree with the “changing our mindset” or attitude in listening to God. And “when we go to church are we truly looking to be “entertained?” … if we look at entertainment as “holding attention” then I would say “YES.” Not in the sense of a “show” but the speaker needs to prepare and know the material well enough to give an effective presentation. So in that context, I do want to be entertained!

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      1. Bobbie Helland says:

        Would it be better to say ‘engaged’ rather than ‘entertained’?

        Reply
        1. Chuck Neighbors says:

          Perhaps for some… it depends on how you define the word. “Engaged” probably plays better in “Christianeese” but I don’t have a problem with the word entertainment. It simple means to “hold attention,” and in our entertainment oriented culture it becomes a bit of a necessity. The language of our culture is one of entertainment, and I think the church needs to speak the language.

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  3. Steve Wilent says:

    Well, thanks for the plug Chuck! I’ve got two points to add on this chore of memorizing. What helps me a great deal is that age old acting phrase…”What’s my motivation?” As cliche as that sounds it’s very true. Take a second and ask yourself, “Why am I saying this?” “How does it relate to what I just said and how does it relate to what I am going to say after it? This process also helps your memory. Knowing why you are saying something gives it a memorable purpose. The other aid to memory is emotion. Ask yourself, “How does this make me feel?” or “What emotion is appropriate for what I am saying?” If you are complaining about something, then frustration might be the emotion and that emotion helps you to remember your words. It’s as though your brain says, “Oh yeah, this is what I say because it’s where I get impatient.” When I first sit down to memorize a Bible passage or a script I will often write in the margin the emotion that should go along with the words. It may change as I rehearse, but at least I have a starting point to work from.

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