Paperless Preaching – an appreciation

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing my friend Nate preach.  Nearly a year ago Nate made a commitment to preaching for one year without a manuscript or notes.  I’ve been very skeptical of the practice, mostly because the few preachers I’ve heard preach without notes were largely ineffective.  I also worry about the dangers of deviating from a carefully planned message.  I know that when I have deviated from notes in teaching situations I have, at times, gotten myself stuck in corners or in exploring issues that are not germane to the topic.

But Nate was different.  He was very effective.  From my seat alongside the altar – I assisted in the liturgy at which his daughter was baptized – I saw the faces of nearly 300 people glued to him.  And his words were intentional, not the stuff of impromptu inspiration or persona-driven schmaltz.  No.  His message was carefully crafted, theologically rich, and delivered engagingly.  More than half-way through his fifteen minute sermon he spoke of the God’s Word being written on our hearts by the quill of the Spirit dipped in the inkwell of the Cup and Font.  Those were some damn good prose linking the church’s liturgical life with the Word of God and the work of the Spirit – words spoken 9 minutes into a sermon delivered without a manuscript.

He also spoke from the floor, rather than from behind a pulpit or lectern.  Yet he avoided any temptations to wander around like a fool.  Rather, his feet remained planted in one place, while he was modestly – but appropriately – animated with his arms and body.

I was impressed.  He did not have any barrier between him and the people – no lectern, no pulpit, no papers.  It was just him, standing before his congregation, giving them a message of Good News.  And lacking the antics of motivational speakers and television preachers – who prance and dance and allow personality to eclipse proclamation – Nate delivered a substantive sermon with pastoral poise.

[Just a quick comment: I have always been a fan of preaching from a pulpit with a manuscript.  These reflections on Nate’s preaching notwithstanding, I do not think that the manuscript or the pulpit are inherently bad.  But I think that by their nature the pulpit and the manuscript create a distance between the preacher and the people, a distance many preachers – myself included – often minmize or fail to appreciate altogether.

Here’s an example from pastoral care that might offer a parallel: on my hospital chaplaincy I was encouraged to enter the patient’s room without a prayerbook or Bible in hand.  Why?  Because it would be too easy to allow these books – as important as they are – to create a distance between myself and the patient, to be a distraction to the face-to-face relationship I was called to initiate.  Rather than listen attentively to the other, I would be concerned with (or simply fidget with) the books.  (Also, in the hospital only a small portion of the patients were very interested in what these books had to say.)  Eliminating the books from my regular routine of pastoral care allowed me to focus more on the patient.  For the few patients who wanted to hear Scripture or have liturgical prayers said for them, I simply returned later with books in hand to offer that type of care.]

So I asked him how he does it.  On the Thursday ten days before the preaching date he writes his sermon.  That day is dedicated entirely to the task of sermon preparation.  He writes the sermon in manuscript form, word for word.  On the following Monday he memorizes the first third of the sermon, taking one to two hours to do this.  On Tuesday he memorizes the second third of the sermon.  And on Wednesday he memorizes the final third.  From Wednesday through Sunday, he will review the sermon several times, including in the midst of other tasks – while exercising, driving, etc..

What impressed me so much about his method – and which was evident by his delivery – is that he writes a full manuscript.  Most paperless preachers I know do not write a manuscript, but instead they draft an outline from which they rehearse many times (creating a virtual manuscript, I guess).  Writing the manuscript allows him to develop colorful and careful imagery, such as his line about the quill of the Spirit and the inkwell of the font and cup.

I will try this method for my next preaching date (which might not be for several weeks), for I saw just how effective it can be for the congregation.  Also, Nate tells me now that he can’t imagine preaching any other way, that he feels liberated to have a better connection with his congregation.  Effective delivery, better connection with the people?  This is worth trying.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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6 Responses to Paperless Preaching – an appreciation

  1. Wow…high investment, high yield.

  2. Pastor Eric says:

    I believe this type of preaching is a gift. Being a solo pastor serving two congregation I don’t think I have the time to pull that off. But I am exploring a different delivery method, one where I use an “outline” type format. So far I am liking it.
    btw…you have been tagged, Chris. Stop by my blog for the rules…and have fun.

  3. mamaS says:

    I’ve done it several times with an outline (from a prepared manuscript) and only once been brave enough (that paper is surely a crutch!)and well prepared enough to go entirely without manuscript or outline, but the results were amazing! I was able to connect with the people and they were connected with me. Whenever I preach from an outline, I get many more comments about what people liked, understood, didn’t understand, etc. whether I was in the pulpit or not. Its enough to convince me that it is well worth the effort to leave the manuscript behind. People listen better when we talk to them rather than read at them (even if I never look down at that manuscript).
    I’m looking forward to reading your reflections on how it works for you and your congregation.

  4. PS says:

    Very interesting! I think that the extreme on one end of the spectrum is when the pastor ends up reading the whole darn manuscript (we had an interim pastor who did this. He just couldn’t let go of any of the illustrations that had crossed his mind during the week. Akkk.) Then there are those who don’t seem to prepare at all because the spirit is suppose to speak through them completely. Unfortunately, that is often a hollow gesture. At least that is how I reacted recently when a pastor spoke at a funeral.
    When we were in Uganda, we heard preaching without notes that seemed to be somewhat more emotion than content, lots of yelling, the preacher not caring if the translator had finished her sentence before he started in again. I was called upon to speak briefly a couple of times and so that was without preparation, but I decided I could say just about anything as long as it was sincere because the people seemed used to some extemporaneous speaking without the content necessarily hanging together.
    But your friend seems to put in a lot of work to get the best of both methods.

  5. John Petty says:

    The great preacher, Gardner C. Taylor, uses the same method, i.e. writes the sermon, then memorizes.
    I don’t like the idea of not using the pulpit, however. I find preachers who “walk up and down the aisle” to be a titch pretentious, if you want to know the truth.

  6. Diane says:

    I would like to preach without notes. I have had some success with a shorter message (my Jazz sermons) but in that case I have to consciously NOT write a manuscript. In my current situation, I find it is so time consuming to try to memorize the manuscript… I did it a few times, but I stopped. Also, I just don’t get started ten days before and get the whole sermon written… that’s probably part of it.

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