Preaching By Heart: A Q&A with Ryan Tinetti

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If preaching can be a greater joy for myself and my people, who after all have to put up with us preachers, that is a win in my book. And I think preaching by heart can help to accomplish this.

Craft of Preaching is excited to announce a regular column from author Pastor Ryan Tinetti entitled "The Preacher's Toolbox." Pastor Tinetti will be giving tips and ideas to help the preacher continue to hone his craft of proclaiming God's Word. To launch this series, we offer this Q & A with Pastor Tinetti about his marvelous book, "Preaching by Heart: How Classical Practice Helps Contemporary Pastors to Preach without Notes."

What led you to write this book?

A: It grew out of my own frustrations with sermon delivery. I have always enjoyed writing, and thought I was writing fairly good sermons, but it seemed like the message was not connecting with the congregation like I wanted it to. I felt like my preaching was too forced and did not do justice to the good news I was proclaiming. The straw that broke the camel’s back was one Sunday when a well-meaning parishioner said to me, “Pastor, you have good things to say, but you sound like you’re reading something on NPR.” That really took me aback and put me on a path to trying to find a better approach.

What does it mean to preach by heart? How is this different from memorizing a sermon?

A: It comes down to what your goal is. The goal of proclamation is connecting God’s Word to the hearts of His people. What I call “preaching by heart” is when you have the core content of the sermon so internalized you can deliver it in the conviction of the Spirit without the aid of notes. You are not trying to have a word-for-word reproduction of a pre-written text, but more what Carl Fickenscher calls a “thought-for-thought” proclamation of the message in real time. In my experience, this approach best facilitates a connection with God’s people.

Memorizing a sermon, on the other hand, is simply committing to memory the words of a manuscript—what my friend and mentor Rick Lischer refers to as “preaching from the teleprompter in your head.” It does not necessarily connect better to the hearers because you are doing the high-wire act of trying to recall your text. Not to mention how the practice of committing your sermon to memory each week—which I have done at varying points in my ministry—is an exhausting task. It is not sustainable, in my opinion, whereas preaching by heart is very much so. It restored my joy in preaching, to be quite honest.

What is a memory palace and how does it aid in the proclamation of the Word?

The memory palace, or Method of Loci, is an ancient mnemonic technique that uses places and pictures to help you speak without notes. It uses places by leveraging our spatial memory. Think of the way you can “walk through” your house in your mind. That becomes the canvas, the backdrop, for your message, and forms its structure. Then it uses pictures by conjuring up vivid and even ridiculous images to associate with the particular points, arguments, content, etc. of your speech or sermon, and plotting those throughout the parts (or “rooms”) of your place.

I think of the memory palace as a 3-D, virtual reality outline. Using the technique, I can be both well prepared to preach, with a clear idea of what I want to say and where I want to take the hearers, while also being natural and conversational in the pulpit and not feeling like a constipated robot.

And I should add that the memory palace is nothing new. Even its application to preaching has been around since the early days of the Church, but it was largely lost in the last couple hundred years. So, I feel like a kid who has found this incredible tool that has been collecting dust in the back of the garage. I happen to think it is still useful, and I want to share it with other preachers.

So, I feel like a kid who has found this incredible tool that has been collecting dust in the back of the garage. I happen to think it is still useful, and I want to share it with other preachers.

At the Craft of Preaching, we will often hear people say sermons should be led by the Holy Spirit and not “crafted.” They will cite Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:1 where Paul says he did not preach with “lofty speech or wisdom.” Your book seems to suggest that, in fact, rhetorical methods are quite useful for the development and proclamation of a sermon. How do you respond to those who see such resources as problematic?

The first piece I ever wrote for Craft of Preaching, about three years ago, I entitled “Against Homiletical Docetism.” What I was trying to get at in that article is how it is a false dichotomy for someone to say, “Because I believe in the power of the Word, I don’t believe in rhetoric.” It is disingenuous. In fact, when Paul makes his statement in 1 Corinthians, it is in a tour de force passage of rhetoric. His point, there and elsewhere, is we do not want to be hucksters of the Gospel. We are not like the Sophists, who are all style and no substance. To the extent that we craft our proclamation, then, using the tools of rhetoric, it is in service of God’s truth. Augustine is big on this in On Christian Doctrine, especially Book IV. Also, Philip Melanchthon was a professor of rhetoric, as were many of the Church Fathers.

I recently came across a great quote from that erstwhile Lutheran, Richard John Neuhaus. He wrote, “Our final reliance is on the promise that the Word shall not return void; our present obligation is to employ and refine every gift in our possession as we help in sending it forth on its mission.” That hits the nail on the head, does it not?

I am a preacher who uses his manuscript as a crutch. I am not glued to it, but it is always there. What advice would you give someone like me who is hesitant to preach without a manuscript?

I would say, first of all, take heart. To paraphrase Paul, neither manuscript preaching nor preaching without notes is anything, but only faith working through love. Pastors have enough to feel guilty about, I am certainly not trying to add one more thing—to myself or anyone else.

But for those who are feeling like I was and want to start to wean themselves off the manuscript, I would say it is absolutely possible and easier than you might think. As a first step, start structuring your manuscripts using a place you know well, and break up the parts using its different rooms. For instance, you might use your house, and the introduction of the sermon will be your foyer, the next section will be your living room, and so on. Then rehearse your sermon by actually walking through your place and practicing your delivery of each part. You will find this simple practice starts activating your spatial memory and you will be able to “feel” the message imprinting itself on your heart and mind.

Then, the next week, take one section of the sermon and simply sketch out its core content rather than writing it out all the way. See if you can preach that section with some simple cues instead of a fully written out passage. Start doing this with more sections until you can do it with the whole sermon. You are well on your way.

At the end of the day, just give it a shot. Preachers tend not to give themselves, or the Holy Spirit, enough credit. No, your preaching will not be perfect. Let us be honest: Neither is it perfect when you painstakingly write out every jot and tittle. There is always something you could have improved. This side of the eschaton, we do our best and leave it to the Lord. But if preaching can be a greater joy for myself and my people, who after all have to put up with us preachers, that is a win in my book. And I think preaching by heart can help to accomplish this.