When it comes to the question of how to preach, there is no shortage of books, articles, and blog posts offering advice and guidance. And once you start sifting through these materials, it becomes apparent that there is no shortage of disagreement about the particulars of the preaching task.
With that broader context in mind, I am hesitant to jump into the fray over preaching methodology. But, there is one question that my students keep asking me, so I thought it would be worth addressing. And that question is, “Should I preach from a full manuscript?”
By “full manuscript” they mean they write out their sermon exactly how they would preach it, word for word.
This is a particularly common question amongst seminary students because (a) they are getting conflicting advice on the matter, and (b) they are often a bit fearful about that first preaching experience.
But, I think progress can be made on this question if one important distinction is maintained, namely the difference between writing a manuscript and using a manuscript. The former is a very helpful and worthwhile exercise (particularly for younger preachers). The latter, in my opinion, can seriously hinder a preachers development as well as the effectiveness of their delivery.
The benefits of writing out a full manuscript are many. It forces the preacher to think clearly about each of their points and how to develop them, it helps the preacher think through transitions between points (something often overlooked), it helps keep the sermon within the desired time limit, and the exact wording allows for more theological precision.
And, on top of all of this, a full manuscript allows a preacher to retrieve their sermon several years later and preach it again without wondering what he originally said.
But, when it comes to using a manuscript in the pulpit, there are serious drawbacks:
1. It (almost) inevitably leads to “bubble preaching.”
Having seen countless seminary students use full manuscripts over the years, they almost always (there are a few exceptions) end up reading it. If you have the full text in front of you word for word, and you are already worried about what you are going to say, then reading it is a foregone conclusion.
And when a preacher reads a manuscript, it almost always leads to what I call “bubble preaching.” This is when the preacher is in his own little bubble, going through his message line by line, with virtually no connection to the outside audience. Sure he gives the token eye contact, on cue every seven seconds or so, but no one really feels a vibrant link to the person as he is preaching.
Bubble preaching is when a preacher could be in the sanctuary completely by himself and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference–the delivery would be exactly the same.
Of course, there are always exceptions to this concern. Some are so exceptionally gifted that they are able to read a manuscript without sounding like they are reading a manuscript. Others are able to have a manuscript in the pulpit but (in superhuman fashion) resist the urge to read it.
If these exceptions apply to you, then feel free to keep using a manuscript. But, for the rest of us mere mortals, we will need an alternative.
2. It overly prioritizes content.
Let me clear, when it comes to preaching content is king. As preachers we have a message to deliver and we need to get that message right. But, concern for content can so dominate a sermon, that there is little consideration given to how (or why) people receive the content. We are not doing our jobs if we get the content right but it is never heard due to poor delivery. Good content doesn’t matter if no one is listening.
Preachers who are able to break out of their bubble, make real eye contact, and engage with the congregation, can be, paradoxically, more effective in delivering their content than those who use a manuscript.
Given a choice between perfect word-for-word delivery in a bubble, and an imperfect delivery outside the bubble, I will take the latter.
3. It slows a preachers development.
Standing up and reading a manuscript every Sunday prevents most preachers from learning to speak extemporaneously. It gives a preacher less opportunity to learn to speak on his feet. Why are such skills necessary? For one, as noted above, I think such skills make him a more effective communicator that is more directly engaged with his congregation.
But, such skills are also necessary because a pastor does not always have a manuscript in front of him when he is required to speak outside the puplit. In a counseling situation, for example, where a pastor is applying the Word of God to a particular issue, he cannot prepare a manuscript in advance. He must learn to communicate clearly, cogently, and persuasively, with no manuscript at all.
Or perhaps someone asking him questions in a Sunday School class that require on-the-spot answers. Or perhaps he is witnessing to his neighbor and has to explain important doctrines on the fly. None of these situations allow him the luxury of a manuscript, and yet he must speak.
Someone might object that they don’t have the skill set to speak more contemporaneously. Fair enough. But, the question isn’t whether you have the skills now, but how you will develop those skills in the future. And those skills won’t develop by sticking with a full manuscript.
4. It misunderstands the difference between written and oral communication.
One of the major drawbacks of writing a sermon is that very few people can write a sermon in the kind of language that can effectively be preached. What makes for effective written communication is not always what makes for effective oral communication. Indeed, they are often like two different languages–the pace, the style, the cadence, and even the vocabulary can be notably different.
This is why reading a sermon manuscript rarely works. Reading simply doesn’t sound the way preaching sounds. It sounds, well, like reading. They are two different genres.
In light of these four concerns, I might suggest an alternative to a full manuscript. Instead, I encourage my students to use a detailed outline. This is more than the single (small) page of notes that Spurgeon would take into the pulpit. (When asked whether he wrote out his sermons, Spurgeon famously quipped “I’d rather be hung”!).
No, unlike Spurgeon, I am talking about multiple pages of detailed notes. And such a detailed outline, I would argue, demonstrates concern for both content and delivery.
On the content side, the outline provides the necessary prompts to carefully explain the theological and textual issues at hand. Moreover, the fact that the outline is detailed (and not just broad bullet points) still allows a pastor to go back to the manuscript later and know what he preached the first time around.
On the delivery side, an outline does not allow for easy reading like a manuscript. Indeed, one cannot just read an outline (least they become non-sensical). Thus, the preacher is forced to articulate the point more fully in his own words. And this helps develop a preachers public speaking ability, not to mention his connection to the congregation.
Of course, merely having an outline does not prevent a preacher from keeping his head down, stuck in his notes. But, at least he is not required to stick his head in his notes (which is largely the case with reading). An outline at least creates more natural opportunities for eye contact and congregational connectivity.
In the end, the decision about using a manuscript is not an easy one. There are great preachers who use full manuscripts. And there are great preachers who do not. And so people will reach different conclusions about this issue.
But, I still have to give an answer to my students. They want to know what method is the most effective in developing preachers. Not writers, but preachers. And the answer to that question, I am convinced, is not to be found in full sermon manuscripts.