Today I preached hands-free – that is, there were no pages to turn because I did not use a manuscript. This was the first time I had ever preached without a manuscript.
Several weeks ago after observing my friend Nate preach without any notes, I committed to giving paperless preaching a try (I described Nate’s process for sermon preparation in some detail here: Paperless Preaching – an appreciation). However, my own process of preparation for today’s sermon was quite different.
Briefly, my friend Nate writes a manuscript for his sermon about 10 days prior to the preaching date. Then, taking a section at a time and working over a few days during the week prior to the preaching date, he memorizes the sermon. Come Sunday morning he has a carefully crafted sermon that is delivered without notes. (For more detail on his process, click link above.)
That is not how I came about my paperless preaching today. Last week I was in my normal manuscript-writing mode when I hit a wall. The notes I had written were disjointed, and my ideas were just not flowing. I knew where I wanted to go with the sermon – I had a grasp on the main “focus and function” of the sermon, but I couldn’t get the words to work. I found myself getting distracted by detail – sentences, phrases, margins, grammar, etc. – and losing focus on the message I was trying to convey.
In a fit of frustration I grabbed my iPod and the microphone that attaches to it, and walked into the sanctuary. If I couldn’t type my ideas, perhaps I could get away from the keyboard and simply say my thoughts out loud, record them on my iPod, and in that way jump-start my manuscript-writing process.
I expected to record a few 2-3 minute reflections. Instead, I recorded a rather coherent 20-minute sermon. For a first draft with no notes, it was not a bad sermon. I listened to the recording, made an outline based on it, and then began the work of editing my notes to tighten the argument and clarify the flow.
And then began the rehearsals. This is only my first time preaching without a word-for-word manuscript, but I cannot imagine preaching without a manuscript without several rehearsals. When my sermon notes consist of short phrases written in outline form on two 5×7 index cards, it is essential to practice the transitions and segues. In my first two rehearsals I found myself, at times, going in odd directions. But after adding words and cues to my index cards, and rehearsing a few more times, my final two rehearsals were pretty similar. I felt confident that I was focused, organized, prepared, practiced, and ready to preach.
But I was also nervous as hell this morning. As the Gospel recessional music played, I got into place – just in front of the first row of pews rather than in the pulpit, and set up a music stand off to my right to hold my two notecards. I was in ready before the music was done, so I faced the altar and said a prayer – with my heart anxiously pounding. I hadn’t been so nervous for a sermon in a long, long time.
Overall the delivery went well. I found myself speaking faster than I had in rehearsal (at times too fast), and I walked/paced around less than I had in rehearsal (which is a good thing). Though I didn’t use a word-for-word manuscript, my phrases were well-rehearsed and familiar. A few unrehearsed phrases, words, and comments found their way into my sermon, yet each time appropriately connected to the outline. More importantly, there was nothing between me and the people with whom I was sharing the sermon. Usually I preach from a pulpit that is set at some distance from the people and at a hight of a few feet. But standing at the first pew and looking at people rather than at notes, I felt a much better connection with the people with whom I was sharing the message.
I received consistent feedback that this format was helpful, too, for the people in the pews. Several folks went out of their way to tell me that this sermon spoke to them in a way that other sermons had not. Many told me of feeling more connected, as if I was talking with them rather than at them. They told me that I seemed more natural, more at ease, in this format rather than when I was wed to a text.
More to say, but let me leave it at this: this was an awesome experience, and I will definitely preach without a manuscript (but with some simple notes) for my next few sermons. The personal connection that I felt – and that others reported feeling – and the more natural delivery style seem to help me in the task of conveying the Gospel. Conveying the Gospel – isn’t that the point of this whole preaching enterprise in the first place?
I worked harder at this sermon than I had at other sermons in the past. I did not labor over words and syntax, as I might in a manuscripted sermon. But I labored over the ideas and outline, and the presentation itself. Preaching without a manuscript is not the same as “winging it.” Not at all. I think it takes just as much – if not more – preparation than a traditional manuscripted sermon.
OK, it is getting late. Time to finish the dishes and go to bed. Thanks for reading. G’night.