Preach What You Write: Why I Use a Manuscript

This may not be of interest to any of you (always a great disclaimer), but here are some thoughts on sermon prep that I put together for my good friends' new website.  

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Preaching is a weighty task. 

It certainly isn't our only pastoral responsibility, but it's one of our most significant. The weekend service is something of a cultural anomaly. People reserve time in their schedules to gather, sit down, and listen to the explanation of an ancient text. And they hope God will use this to transform them into Christ's image. We have no opportunity quite like this one. We must steward it well. I don't want to dishonor God's name, or waste people's time.  

In order to be a faithful steward, I've found it helpful to write a detailed sermon manuscript.

Not surprisingly, Eric Mckiddle (the guru of pastoral excellence) has already posted on this topic. I heartily agree with his 5 points, and recommend you read his article. I'd like to expand on his points with a few of my own. Here are 5 reasons I write a detailed sermon manuscript.

1. Words are weighty. 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov 18:21). If you're a competent preacher (or, you're just lucky), people will remember your "big idea". They won't, however, remember some generic concept, but the actual words you employ to articulate it. And if you say something inaccurate, overreaching, or needlessly offensive, that is what they may very well remember. The words we use are vehicles; they can move people towards truth, or away from it. We should be precise both conceptually and linguistically. By crafting a detailed manuscript, we give words their due weight. 

2. You will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).

God judges our words more strictly than those of others. He calls us to promote sound doctrine, and refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Hopefully, our people will critically evaluate our teaching in light of Scripture (Acts 17:11). But in all likelihood, many of our people will form their interpretative assumptions on the basis of our teaching! Therefore, you must seek to be self-correcting. By writing a manuscript, you can subject your sermon to rigorous scrutiny before actually preaching it. Judge your words, that they may not be judged (Matt 7:1-5). 

3. The internet has a great memory.  

At least some of your sermons are probably floating through cyberspace. I'm tempted to think that the spoken word has a shorter lifespan than the written word. But this is no longer so. If people want to find out about your ministry, or hear what you think about a controversial topic, they'll listen to one of your sermons. It's sobering to think that there's a permanent public record of my thoughts on such a wide array of subjects. And this makes the manuscript so valuable. If you are confident in what you've written, you can preach it confidently.  

4. Most people don't speak well extemporaneously. 

Because of my personality, I naively assumed preaching would come naturally to me (I'm extroverted, I'm loud, and people occasionally laugh at me). But when I began preaching, I soon realized that my communication style wasn't very effective or engaging. There's a vast difference between monologue and dialogue. When you're having a conversation, you expect interruptions, diversions, run-on sentences, and parenthetical statements. We develop speaking habits through conversing. But we carry these habits into the pulpit, where they can turn against us. I considered myself a good conversationalist. But this didn't make me a good communicator. I had to learn to sharpen my thoughts, think in a linear fashion, and eliminate junk words and phrases (e.g. "you know," "like", "really", "I mean,,," etc.). Great communicators  are profound and provocative, yet concise, clear and memorable. If you wish to speak this way, you must learn to write this way.  

J.C. Ryle once said, "Have a clear knowledge of what you want to say. Use simple words. Employ a simple sentence structure. Preach as though you had asthma! Be direct. Make sure you illustrate what you are talking about." 

Writing a manuscript will help you follow his advice. 

5. You're giving the Holy Spirit more (not less) to work with. 

Manuscripting may feel rigid, or constricting. People sometimes object to such rigorous preparation on the grounds that it quenches the Spirit. I don't, however, see any conflict between careful preparation and Spirit-prompted improvisation. To the contrary, the discipline of manuscripting actually improves our homiletical improvisations.   

A helpful analogy comes from music. While listening to jazz, one might assume that the musicians are unbridled by any musical conventions or structures. But anyone who has played jazz knows this isn't the case Yes, the musicians are improvising. But they operate within a framework that gives them greater creative possibilities. A skilled jazz musician knows the nuances of music theory. She knows of all the possible voicings, intervals, and modes at her disposal. And she's developed incredible dexterity by playing scales for hours on end. Her masterful knowledge of the framework gives her a far greater array of improvisational possibilities than the average musician. 

In a similar way, extensive knowledge of your sermon's content will improve your improvisational skills. When you have deeply internalized the words of your sermon, you know which improvisations will fit, and which won't. You have already thought deeply about the point you wish to express, and how you wish to express it. So in one sense, the Spirit has more material to work with. 

Much more could be said about this. I realize that the writing process is time-consuming (as is the internalizing process). Perhaps I'll address these practical matters in a future post (or, I'm sure the guys at GCYM can find someone more qualified to address them!). 

I don't think every pastor is obliged to follow this advice. But I've benefited tremendously from this discipline.