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Without a Manuscript?

F. Allan Story, Jr.

Something to the effect of the above was the incredulous query of a candidate for a year-long internship. He couldn't imagine himself ever preaching without a manuscript or taking an internship that required him to do so. He turned it down.

Why are some so committed to preaching from a manuscript? Some use a manuscript as a crutch out of fear that they might come to a point at which they didn't have anything to say. Some, though hopefully none in the OPC, use manuscripts out of a desire to impress hearers with their eloquence. These are unworthy motives. Others would claim that preaching from a manuscript is the only way to do justice to the importance of preaching. They want to take great care in the choice of words to convey great truths. They want to be precise about controversial doctrines, issues, or passages. The manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards show how hard he worked at crafting sentences that went beyond merely conveying information to the understanding to impressing these truths on the heart. Undoubtedly such motives are commendable. Still others preach from manuscripts because they were taught to do so and have never considered that it could be done otherwise.

Many in Reformed churches were taught in Reformed seminaries to preach from manuscripts. Those from some other Reformed seminaries were never allowed to do so. Many, perhaps most, of the greatest preachers preached without manuscripts. That Edwards, Davies, and Chalmers used manuscripts is evidence that it can be done well. Most of us have heard excellent sermons preached from manuscripts and also without manuscripts ever having been prepared. Does it really matter?

I'm writing with the belief that it can matter and that there is generally much to be gained by omitting manuscript preparation. But before writing in support of that approach, I want to make some qualifications. First, I would note that it is possible to prepare a manuscript and then not use it in the pulpit. This was what my seminary homiletics professor recommended. He advocated this as a good discipline for the first few years of ministry, and I'm not sure I disagree entirely. It gives practice and fluency with the words and ideas used in preaching. Secondly, I recognize that most proponents of manuscripts intend sufficient preparation or rehearsal to allow some freedom from the manuscript in the pulpit. Thirdly, I would agree that there are times when at least a portion of a sermon should properly be written, such as introductions or conclusions or areas which are especially delicate. Fourthly, I certainly intend no deprecation whatever of those who stubbornly stick to the awful hindrance of useless manuscripts. Basically, all I really want to do here is to encourage some who would have never thought of omitting manuscript preparation to give serious consideration to this approach.

I would suggest two reasons for not preparing manuscripts. Preaching without preparing a manuscript allows for better stewardship of time in the preparation of sermons. Preaching without a manuscript allows more effective communication in the preaching of sermons.

Stewardship of Time

Stewardship of time is almost by itself a sufficient reason to generally avoid preparing manuscripts. It is certainly true that preaching is the most important part of the calling of a minister of the Gospel, but there are other important components of a pastor's work, components which in occasional emergencies take the greater part of a minister's week. But the rule of thumb given by one New Testament professor of an hour of preparation time for each minute of preaching would surely limit the performance of those other duties-though it might also lead to shorter sermons!

The careful writing of a manuscript (and it must be careful if it is to produce any of the benefits claimed for manuscripts) requires a great deal of time. In comparison with not writing the sermon, writing it necessarily means that something else gets left out. Eating, sleeping, and family time are all necessities, though they may each be occasionally neglected. Prayer, study, planning, teaching, counseling, and visitation are all crucial aspects of pastoral ministry. Is this the place to cut in order to have time to write sermons? Where is the time to be found?

What too frequently seems to happen is that the time for manuscript preparation is taken from more important parts of sermon preparation. The need to write, often seems to preclude time for necessary reflection. Don't we understand the Scriptures better when we take adequate time to mull them over? We dare not rush our exegesis in order to write the sermon. A sermon that distorts the text is a poor sermon no matter how well written. But neither can we write before we have organized the presentation of the truths taught in the text, and that requires time also. And then adequate time needs to be given to thinking about the application of the truths taught in the text. Worse than omitting application would be making improper application, but that danger exists if writing begins too soon. In these senses, polished language may be the enemy of precision, even if precision drives the desire to polish language. Not preparing a manuscript allows more time for preparing the content of the sermon. Time not used in manuscript preparation is time gained for use elsewhere.

Effective Communication

I won't bother to deal here with criticisms of the poorly read sermon without enough preparation to make eye contact, etc. But I do want to underscore that continued preparation after the sermon is written is a recognized necessity of preaching from a manuscript, and that this preparation too takes time. Most who preach from manuscripts want to communicate effectively and do take time (if there's time left at this point) to read and reread and rehearse.

But all of the things we're supposed to do in public speaking come naturally when we're aware we have a message from God for the people of God, and we know what that message is. A studied understanding and feeling of the importance of the text along with a love for our hearers will make us eloquent naturally. Eye contact and voice inflection will be compelling. A mother doesn't prepare a manuscript to plead for her child. A young man doesn't prepare a manuscript to read as a proposal to a young lady (unless maybe it's poetry). Even the movies tell us that the lawyer who throws away his carefully-worded closing summation and speaks from the heart is the lawyer who convinces the jury. So it is with preaching.

True passion on the part of the preacher is obvious to his hearers, and it conveys to those hearers something of the importance of what he's preaching. But polished language may well be the enemy of passion. No doubt undisciplined passion can lead to infelicitous speech, but passion affects hearers beyond what mere eloquent words can do. We seem to be wired to gauge the importance of what a man says by how he says it. Well-practiced, polished words may be made dramatic, but at the expense of the appearance of the actor's craft. This looks like artifice. Read that, artificial. If we appear to be acting, we become less believable. When I hear intentional and artificial variation of pitch, pace, or volume, I think (usually rightly) the speaker is thinking more about rules for public speaking than about the significance of the point he's trying to make. But such variations are natural when they come with in-the-moment, on-the-fly composition of sentences. Passion, sincerity, concern, compassion, and horror are more easily conveyed when really present in the speaker when he speaks than they are if are he writes and then reads or recites with even the best of preparation.

A further issue of sermon effectiveness has to do with freedom during the preaching of the sermon. Certainly the Spirit can, and often has, used manuscript-based preaching to work effectively in hearers. Certainly we believe that the Spirit works through means and that preparation for preaching is an important means that the Holy Spirit blesses. But there are dangers in using this as an argument for manuscripts. First, if the Spirit has blessed sermons that suffered from the defects of dependence on manuscripts, he has also blessed sermons that were not written at all and were preached by men without natural eloquence, sermons with the frequent use of the non-word "uh," sermons that didn't have smoothness in their flow. Secondly, we understand that there is a difference between not preparing a manuscript and not preparing for a sermon. Both manuscript and non-manuscript preachers make use of means and depend on the Spirit for blessing. But I would ask the question whether we believe that the Holy Spirit works in the preacher only in his preparation and then during the preaching of the sermon works only in the hearers. Calvin, Pierre Marcel, and Lloyd-Jones argue strongly against such an idea. The preacher who doesn't preach from a prepared manuscript is able to modify his sermon if the Spirit sheds new light on the passage during the preaching itself or even if new understanding comes in the shower on Sunday morning (do you hear personal experience here?). Without a manuscript, there is freedom to modify a sermon based on who is present that morning or what the morning's news might be. There is freedom to meet the eyes of individuals in the congregation and to gauge the response of the congregation. Are they paying attention? Are they confused? Contact is in every way amplified. Impact is generally greatly enhanced.

Dealing with the Fear Factor

I understand the fear factor. I remember the first time I delivered five consecutive days of thirteen and a half minute devotionals on the radio. Although I normally preached to my congregation from notes, I was afraid that I would not be able to speak to a cold microphone. I prepared a manuscript for each day and practiced and rewrote so that I could finish exactly in the allotted time. It nearly killed me—after all I still had to preach on Sunday! I saw that this was not workable. The next time, I prepared well, made careful outlines, and prepared introductory and closing sentences, and of course I thought about what I would say, but I skipped the manuscript. It worked! It worked with no visible audience. When we preach, we generally preach to those who know us and whom we know, and, with the freedom that comes from not being tied to a manuscript, we can get feedback from the congregation about whether they are really following what we're saying. We can talk to our wives or kids without a manuscript. We can carry on a normal conversation quite adequately. We don't stumble over our words. Sometimes we're even eloquent. Why should we fear preaching without a manuscript?

When you thoroughly know and understand your text, when you understand its main message and the applications of it, when you have fed your own soul with all of that, you can preach without a manuscript. Jonathan Edwards used a manuscript in his preaching until George Whitefield visited Northampton during the Great Awakening. At Whitefield's prompting, Edwards ceased preparing manuscripts for every sermon, and his manuscript sermons show transition to outlines and then to simpler outlines as the years went by. It is possible to make the change. It may be helpful to remember that Jesus, Peter, and Paul didn't use manuscripts.

When I was in my first pastorate, in a small Alabama town, I was with the Episcopalian rector when he was asked if he would pray for a need that had just arisen. He declined because he didn't have his prayer book with him. What do you do if you open your Bible at the beginning or just before the beginning of a worship service and realize you left your manuscript at home? You don't decline to preach, and you don't leave the service to go home and get the manuscript. Wouldn't it be better to preach without a manuscript intentionally a few times before that happens? And if it hasn't happened yet, remember you're getting older (once again, the voice of experience!).

Conclusion

Give it a try! But you may need more recommendation than mine. Read John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry;[1] Robert L. Dabney, "Lecture 23: Modes of Preparation," in his Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric;[2] J. W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching, Letters 7-9;[3] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, part 4, chapter 5, section 2.[4] Most have written at greater length than I have here, and usually with more balance. Appendices 1 and 4 of Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Preaching[5] have an excellently balanced discussion. Read those, but try it.

Endnotes

[1] John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry ( 1847; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993), 141-2 in context.

[2] Robert L. Dabney, Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric ( 1870; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979).

[3] J. W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching: Being Contributions to Homiletics ( 1864; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 147-65.

[4] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry ( 1830; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 286-96.

[5] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 329-39; 346-9.

F. Allan Story, Jr. is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. Ordained Servant Online, January 2011.

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