During my first performance review at the church I previously served, I received a magnificent gift. But I didn’t see it that way at first.
It was a fairly standard review, talking through the various aspects of ministry that I was responsible for: pastoral care, administration, etc. In each case affirmation was given of things I was doing well, and places I still had to work on were identified. Once such place was preaching.
Speaking has never really been a problem for me. I was trained in the theatre, and had averaged 4-5 productions every year from 6th grade through my senior year of college. I had done drama and comedy, been the lead in musicals, and had learned what makes a great member of the chorus. I had studied and been achieved success in acting, directing, technical production, and writing. I had done a few professional shows and dozens of community, school, and summer stock performances. Also, thanks to some amazing seminary professors and apprenticeship supervisors, I had been trained to think about complex things and make sense of how they applied to an everyday lived life.
And so it was that my committee and I began talking about my preaching. I remember it vividly. At first, I was pissed (“Ego, table for one.”)
“It is clear to everyone,” one committee member said. “That you love to preach and lead worship. And everyone is very happy with what our services are shaping up to be, but I have found that when people start getting comfortable with something, they often stop learning and stretching themselves. We don’t want that to happen to you.”
So they asked me to take a moment and think about what I might work on in the next year regarding worship in general, and preaching in particular. It didn’t take me long.
I swallowed and confessed to them that “the idea of preaching without a manuscript scares me to death.”
They all smiled. “Then that’s your goal for the next year.”
I grew up in the Charismatic Fundagelical church, and, in that tradition, almost all sermons were 30-40 minutes long and preached exclusively from notes. I have had the privilege of witnessing some true masters of the extemporaneous sermon, women and men who could exposit a sermon in such a meaningful and immediate way that you thought the words were coming directly from heaven, to you, through a channel running through the preacher. It is a powerful thing to behold.
It is also intimidating. So intimidating that I had never really thought myself capable. In fact, the few times that I tried, I not only found myself preaching waaaaay too long, but I was never able to stay on point. I was all over the place. It was embarrassing, and so I stuck to the manuscript. But now, I had a clear goal that I was going to be held accountable for.
I struggled for the whole year to figure out how to preach in a way that not only honored the commitment I had made to the congregation to prepare a competent sermon, but also helped me to grow and mature in my craft. Here are a few things that I have found to be true.
Sermon structure should be based in the narrative of the text. The great thing about most of the passages we get to preach is that they are either stories themselves or they have a story about why they were written. We don’t need to impose an arbitrary plot line on a text. It’s already there, and usually in a convenient package of 2-3 basic movements. A simple, yet creative, retelling of the story with some basic explanation of the pieces and parts has proven to be the most popular format I have found.
Sooner, rather than later, you have to leave the pulpit. The difference between pulpit preaching and extemporaneous preaching is a matter of embodiment. Standing behind a hunk of wood inhibits that immediate creative power. I’m not saying you have to be one of those wanderers. Not at all, but movement is good – especially if you can get near the people you’re preaching to. There is a Body-Mind connection that is very real and if you give your body the space to loosen up and warm up, your brain will loosen up and warm up as well. You will be amazed at what occurs to you in the midst of preaching that you can then weave into your sermon.
The simpler, the better. We all know that the biggest decision a preacher makes is what not to say. This is especially true when preaching without a manuscript. Give folks a bit of Bible, a bit of theology, and what impact the lesson will have on an everyday lived life. Don’t complicate it.
Ease into it
Getting started is actually easier than you think: Next time you preach, do not write the last paragraph of your sermon. Literally, do not write the paragraph. When you are about to finish it up, save it, print it, and then take your pen and jot a small note or two (no more) about what you want to say to wrap things up.
That’s it. Starting small and easing into it is the best way to go.
Once you’ve done that for a few weeks, try this: take a quick glance at your scribblings and move out of the pulpit for the final paragraph. People will perk up. It’s kinda cool.
I’ll let others determine whether I’m actually good at preaching, but when I hear people say “Oh, I could never preach without a manuscript” all I can think is: Not with that attitude you can’t. You can do this. Speaking in front of people is a skill everyone can learn. If you are a preacher worth your salt, you have already done the hard work of preparation and discerning what God might want your congregation to hear. Now it’s just time to share.
And you don’t have to do this all the time. This is but one tool in the preacher’s bag. Just because I preach this way almost exclusively does not meant that you should or have to. Just like all artists, we have different styles. But, also like those artists, we have to know when it’s time to break out of the mold. I have to know when it’s time to get back in the pulpit because a text demands it, and you have to know when to wander.
Let me know if you’ve tried an of this and what has worked for you.