Preaching without a manuscript

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.”

The Basics

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.

26 thoughts on “Preaching without a manuscript

  1. Chuck Campbell told me he’d fail me in a preaching class if I preached my final sermon for him from a manuscript. He’d been pushing me on this for a while. So I did it. And when I was done, he gave me permission to go back to a manuscript because he said he could see me reading the teleprompter in my head. But he told me to try it again.
    And I promised him I would.
    And I will.

    But here’s my problem. I post all of my sermons on my blog. And so at some point, I need to have a manuscript to do that.

    I will say that I’m less chained to the manuscript now than I was when I started, but I haven’t given it up. If I’m telling a story I know well, I will just type in “rocking chair story” or whatever, and then I’ll tell the story instead of reading it.

    Your ideas are helpful. Who knows. Maybe I’ll try it.

  2. I was inspired by the UMC head of staff I worked with back in 1996 – two sermons a Sunday morning, no notes, Gospel lesson often memorized and presented as such – wow! I left the pulpit later that year and rarely go back. At the same time, I now know that I can write a manuscript and they are very different from the non-manuscript sermons.

    Extemporaneous preaching is much like improv theater, it requires a significant amount of preparation before we walk into the sanctuary. It looks natural and free-flowing, but only works if you have become very familiar with your text and attend to the community with whom you preach. I love it! It works for me.

  3. The “leave off the last paragraph” advice is good. As it happens, I can never finish a sermon. I always feel it’s not ready to have a formal close, so I often walk up without a final paragraph. The cool thing is it allows me to adjust other content within the sermon “on the fly” as I feel the energy in the room.

    That said the real help for me was doing pulpit exchanges with an AME pastor in Illinois. Nothing like bold, mid-sermon feedback to get me off manuscript. But Susan’s word is key here. If I hadn’t been super prepared and with material to spare, that wandering among call and response would have been disastrous.

    • I was speaking once and someone responded. I wasn’t prepared for it and asked them what they said. Totally killed the moment. 🙂

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  5. Landon, I am going to going to argue the counter-point. But before I do, I want to preface it by well acknowledging that some of the best ministers in history have preached without a manuscript and there is no question that God gives some the gift of oratory and it is a special blessing for those that have it. And preaching without a manuscript is a skill many can also develop and it will surely connects with some parishioners in ways that preaching from a manuscript will not. But insisting a minister not use a manuscript denies the fact that God gifts some preachers with the gift of writing. It would be like taking someone who sings bass in the choir and say to them, “Now, to make you a better choir member, I want you to start singing tenor now.” I also have found that there is a temptation with non-manuscript preachers to ‘wander’ in their sermons. Now, manuscript preaching should never be reading. A minister needs to have that sermon in their head so the manuscript is near invisible to those hearing the Word. I always say what I write is only about 80% of what people actually hear. I improvise as I go. On top of this, manuscripts help a minister track what they have done so they can make sure they aren’t retreading messages (or simply giving the same message over again when that familiar Palm Sunday passage or such comes up). But, in the end, there is no right or wrong here. God gives different people different gifts. The only thing I balk at is when non-ministers think that only one way to present a sermon. In the end, it should be about content. But, again, I don’t think any of this is an issue for you. But I just don’t think pastoral committees require this with every pastor.

    • A few points of response:

      1) I hope I didn’t write that I was insisting that preachers not use a manuscript. I just know that many wish they could and it’s easier than they think it is.

      2) I agree about the gift of writing, but I would want to push back that writing and peaking are two different gifts. I wonder about the interaction of them. Is writing actually preaching? I’m not sure it is.

      3) “Wandering” is the result of being a novice or lack of preparation.

      4) Re: “Content” – This si where we will significantly disagree, IMO, I think. The act of proclamation is as much about the performance as it is about what is being performed.

      All in all, though, I want people to do what is successful. If that means not manuscript or behind a pulpit, then that’s what they should do. There is no one way to preach, but I do think there are better and worse ways to preach. 🙂

      • Glad you leave it up to individual preachers rather than issuing a final “this is how it is.” My two favorite preachers — Nadia Bolz-Weber, Barbara Brown Taylor — are both manuscript preachers. And can I put in a word for those of us who have a hard time with (physically) wandering preachers? Maybe its space-dependent, but I realize I spend tons of energy “following the bouncing ball,” and find it incredibly distracting. Whenever my husband and I visit a church with a ” travelling” minister we look at each other and whisper, “oh no, one of THOSE.” But in the end, if you have something to say, I really don’t care how you deliver it. And vice-versa.

  6. Great topic. I heard William Carl show us how he teaches preaching students to memorize pretty much word for word from a manuscript. He uses modern brain theory and stuff to make it work. I spent a year working on it and it went pretty well. I now do a modified version. But for sure, when I get my head out of the page things usually go better… The pulpit is now hid in the far reaches of the chancel. I use a music stand.

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  8. I’m not sure about the point that preachers need to “get close” to the congregation. I filled the pulpit a few weeks ago at a church with an early, informal service in the fellowship hall and a traditional service in the majestic sanctuary and elevated pulpit. I felt much “closer” to the congregation when I could stand in one place in an elevated pulpit. The informal setting where I was free to walk around constrained me vocally.

    You’re opening up a good conversation here about the tools of preaching: the voice and the body. When is a preacher compelled to make the body the primary tool, and when the voice? I’m almost completely dependent on my voice, and use my face and my hands to supplement that. Situations that require more physicality make me very uncomfortable.

    • I’ll push you on your retort regarding proximity: Like all performance, one has to know what effective blocking is, but I wonder if the preacher’s feeling of the performance should be the privileged one.

      Right – I’m wanting better overall performance from preachers and using the full range of body and voice will get us to that. What I fear, though, is that preachers will not even try to stretch themselves and declare that the body is of lesser value.

  9. Thanks Landon. As a philosophy major trained to make a point in everything I write, I feel a similar (healthy) compulsion in preaching. I have been a writer and manuscript preacher since Seminary. Now that I am preaching about 1x per month at our local church in pastoral interim, I am trying to slowly move away from it. I still write it completely but I hold the script very loosely in rehearsal and therefore in preaching. For me, I wasn’t convinced by the feedback of a committee, but my wife. She affirms every time I preach that the best parts are when I step away from the pulpit, train my eyes on the congregation and speak from what I know and believe, thus letting the Holy Spirit really speak through me in that moment. I want to keep moving this direction – as long as I commit to spend at least as much time in preparation each week. (Derrick Weston pointed me here.)

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  11. Thanks for a nice article. I think a lot depends on the style of the service and what you are doing with the sermon. For Sunday mornings, I preach from my manuscript from the pulpit. I find that the manuscript is the best tool to explain and explore some tricky theological concepts in depth with the exactly right and precise wording. –Using a manuscript also has the added advantage of you being able to simply hand it to someone who asks for it immediately after the service. People really appreciate that.
    But at our once a month Sunday Evening Benefit Concerts, where the atmosphere is much more informal, I will give my brief “talk” from the floor with only an outline. –Greater connectivity is what is needed at that service rather than theological subtlety.
    Perhaps the benefits and the differences can be best described with a cooking metaphor:
    Preaching from a manuscript allows you to create a complicated recipe from scratch and write down and explain all of the steps and the ingredients in the right order so that people can follow it, both then and later.
    Preaching from an outline is like making somebody a sandwich. Simple, satisfying but not too complicated to understand or duplicate.
    I think the church has opportunities and situations suitable for both types of preaching. Because sometimes people want a Black Forest Cherry Torte and sometimes they just want you to make them a Ham and Cheese Sandwich.

  12. Who is the benefactor of preaching? Who is the receiver of the message? It is not the audience…the congregation? As a congregant, I prefer a preacher who connects with me through a conversational speaking style, eye contact and body language. Otherwise, I can read the manuscript at home while drinking a cup of coffee. I prefer not to be read to from the pulpit. I want to hear a preacher deliver the sermon in such a way that reading a manuscript alone just can’t measure up. Audience members want to see energy from the pulpit. Reading exerts less energy than moving around and speaking converstaionally. Audiences are used to seeing speakers connecting through eye contact much like TV news reporters. Most people would switch the channel if news reporters read 90% of the news. The congregation may not have a physical remote control, but they certainly have a mental remote that is switching channels faster than the preacher can say Amen. Ultimately, a preacher’s focus should be on connecting with the audience more than which manuscript style of preaching he/she prefers.

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