I Preached Without a Manuscript

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.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

24 thoughts on “I Preached Without a Manuscript

  1. Sounds good, and, yes, you were really prepared. I think that in some traditions, the pastor “wings it” ie, “relies on” the Holy Spirit. But it sounds like you were working with the Spirit in your preparation.

  2. My own method is to prepare a reasonably full manuscript, and then to strip it down to increasingly small series of dot-points and keywords. So it will start out being several pages of text, then it becomes a couple of pages of dot-points, and then it finally ends up as just a small list of points and key-words. This means I’ve basically memorised the structure by the time I deliver the sermon, and it frees me from having to rely on using a manuscript. I like this method, since it means I’ve worked closely through all the main points in my preparation, and I’ve also got ample room for spontaneity and improvisation as I’m preaching. You can often tell just from people’s faces that a certain point is still unclear, so it’s good to be able to respond spontaneously to this kind of impression. And it’s nice when people feel that you’re just talking, rather than performing a prepared script.

  3. Oh, I forgot to add: on the negative side, it also means I make a lot more mistakes, and have a lot more thoughtful/forgetful pauses, than I’d have with a full manuscript. But I reckon it’s worth the sacrifice!

  4. When I use the paperless preaching format I also have a tendency to speak a little faster than with a manuscript.
    But for me, whether I use a manuscript or not I have found that people generally like it when I am out of the pulpit. I still use the pulpit from time to time for those who are “traditional”, but like you said, I feel a closer connection to people when I am preaching from the floor.
    I am glad things went well for you yesterday.

  5. Glad to hear it went well overall. It is good that you tried something enormously different than what you are used to. I have to admit it would be hard for me to do but is also encouraging that you tried.

  6. re: your friend Nate, I admire his hard work, but it is really hard for me to imagine being ahead enough to have an entire sermon written out 10 days prior to preaching. In my first call, I had one week after installation. And then I had a funeral the friday before my first sermon.
    When I have preached without notes, I do not “wing it” but it also don’t write everything out. I do think that careful prepation is one of the keys to preaching without notes, but there are different ways to come to that.
    thanks for sharing!

  7. And to piggy back on what Diane said: I too can’t imagine being head enough to write a sermon 10 days out. But the problem I have is that a lot can happen in 10 days. I guess my question for you Chris, is how do you stay contextual when a sermon is writen that far out from the preaching date? I normally write my sermons on Thursday and practice them on Saturday, but there have been times when Saturday rolled around and I found the sermon was no longer contextual…so I scraped it and started over.

  8. This is good stuff – thanks for sharing. I’ve gone all over the map on sermon style: full manuscript, outline, notecards, memorization, you name it (everything except a total wingjob – I just can’t do that). My students here in campus ministry are very affirming the closer I get to them and the farther away I move from my manuscript. So it’s a discernment thing for me, I think – where do I feel the Spirit pulling me in terms of what I say and how I say it?
    I’m intrigued by the iPod mic – didn’t know such a thing existed! Now I must go gadget hunting…

  9. Why would you — or anyone — do this? What is the point of preaching without a manuscript? Everyone knows that it’s prepared. Yet I know several people who consider it a mission to speak without notes or manuscript.
    I personally take a sermon more seriously if it’s written down in advance (even when I trust the preacher). Of course, I don’t want the preacher eye-bound to the manuscript, but I don’t want to fear that she is going off into never-never-land without meaning to, either. And what if you have a major brain fault and really can’t remember what you meant to say? Even the coolest congregation is likely to feel bad for you — and uncomfortable. And what if someone is really moved by the sermon and wants a copy to send to a friend to whom it will speak perfectly?
    I honestly don’t mean to be snarky, but I really don’t get it!

  10. It seems to me that there is both advantage and disadvantage in using (or not) a manuscript.
    The whole thing for me boils down to the idea that preaching is an “event”. The sermon is not what is written on the pages of notes or manuscript, it was what is said in the midst of an assembled body of believers. This is why I never post sermons on my blog or give out copies of the sermon afterward. The Word of God comes to us in the hearing of proclamation, not in what is written ahead of time…in that way it is interactive. Just like the words of the Bible are just ink on a page until they are engaged in a substantive way, so it is with the sermon.
    I think the move that some make toward no manuscript is a move away from the rather stilted delivery often heard in Lutheran pulpits today. I’ve seen one too many preachers stand in the pulpit and read straight from their notes. At the same time, I think there can be a happy balance. One can have a manuscript or notes if needed, and still deliver with lots of eye contact and motion.

  11. I hear what Dwight is saying, but what he missed is that Chris does indeed write the sermon in advance, but learns it well enough to not need the manuscript in front of him. If someone is so moved by the sermon that they want a copy, it sounds like Chris can provide one for them easy enough.
    As LP said…preaching is an event and the delivery is indeed important. But I believe what is being missed is that each preacher is gifted in different ways. Some are gifted (and comfortable) not having a manuscript in front of them and some are not. Instead of focusing on HOW the sermon is delivered, focus on WHAT is being delivered.
    But my question (and concern) still remains…when a sermon is written 10 days in advance, how does one stay contextual? Do you allow yourself to update your sermon in the midst of practicing it?

  12. LP brings up the essential truth that proclamation is an event, not just words on a page, which we do well to remember. Could it be that clinging to one style or the other is in some way a misplaced idolatry of means?
    LP doesn’t post sermons – I do. Neither of us is wrong in this; we simply approach the event of proclamation differently. Insisting that one form be the required form for all preaching strikes me as most un-Lutheran (kinda like CCM, but maybe I don’t want to bring that up here 🙂 ).

  13. Great comments. Just to clarify . . . I did not write a manuscript and then whittle it down to notes. My friend, Nate (about whom I wrote in an earlier post) writes a manuscript and then memorizes it (and he did an excellent job the day I saw him preach). But I’m not sure that’s my route.
    And also, I did have two 5×7 notecards with detailed notes on one side. I set them on a music stand by my side.
    I really like LP’s comment about the sermon being an event. Wengert/Lathrop make the same point about church as an event in their book, “Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluraistic Age” (about which I blogged here).
    More to say, but I’m late for a VBS meeting . . .

  14. How do you know when you are a Lutheran?
    When CCM creeps into a conversation about preaching almost 10 years after its passage!

  15. I’ve been preaching without a manuscript for 9 years now, and its because I am in a congregation where a high percentage of the folks do not read well (over 25%). I found that standing before this congregation with paper between me and them sends two strong messages before I ever open my mouth: 1. I am different from you. 2. I THINK I’m better than you.
    Preaching without a manuscript requires deep preparation, and creative partners who can call me on my laziness if I become lazy. I begin work on a sermon every Tuesday morning. I use the technique of having 4 “blocks” to each sermon, so even if the details change in each block the ultimate point is made.
    I have heard similar comments to the ones Chris shared: preaching without a manuscript makes it more immediate, more connective, and more honest, especially as it is heard in this context.
    Thanks for the conversation.

  16. I have heard powerful sermons delivered with and without manuscript. One of the most amazing I ever heard was an off-the-cuff sermon preached by my partner at a nursing home. I was as amazed by this gift as much as I was by how precisely he delivered the Gospel. I have also heard garbage delivered by both means.
    I can’t do this, preach without manuscript, and my classes in preaching required we do it anyway. I agree, it takes lots of preparation. I must have a manuscript in front of me when preaching. For one thing, when I compose a sermon, I choose carefully the words and cadence and phrasing as I proceed. Sermons at their best in my tradition are the deliverance of the Gospel in poetic prose. For another, being more introverted, a manuscript gives me a sense of calm so that I will not have to resort to doing it off-the-cuff, which would be disastrous. And finally, frankly, I don’t have the time it takes to prepare in this way, with already too many other things rolling around in my head to put this on top of it all.
    The sermon is indeed an event, nonetheless, I am thankful for their preservation and distribution after the fact, for in my tradition, they are also an incredible source of theology and edification after the fact. Thank God we preserve the “event-residue” of such events; our Scriptures are replete with such.

  17. I don’t want to put words in Dwight’s mouth (or comments), but I think he’s saying, not only that he respects the sermon if it is written down beforehand, but also, since everyone knows you wrote it down before, what’s the point of not using the manuscript? Are you trying to fool people that you are just speaking from the heart when in fact the sermon is not “off the cuff”? just checking on that.
    I am a writer, and I really like writing out a manuscript. I don’t “read” it, though. But I think all the comments on all of the other methods, and I think people are concerned about what best communicates the message you are trying to convey. And I think that is a healthy concern.
    As far as the “sermon event”, I do believe that is true: but I am not legalistic about “never” giving out a sermon if people ask. I also enjoy the sermons of Martin Luther, even though I was not there for the original “sermon event.” I do think that the previous poster is right, that there might be some “event residue.” 🙂

  18. i think you have to trust the Spirit on this. i preach from the pulpit w/a manusript that i know – and yet if it is midweek Lenten service i use no notes; no pulpit and am in the aisle… is it memorized? no. rehearsed? yes. however… this is tricky b/c some weeks you have demands (funerals and such) that eat up vast chunks of time.
    every preacher has their own “style” and i think whatever is natural for the preacher and most importantly conveys the gospel is the way to go. Sadly, many preachers either using manuscripts or free-stylin’ just are NOT good public speakers and would truly benefit from a basic speech/communications class. where you learn structure, content, gestures, expression, voice projection and enunciation!

  19. I’ve read all the comments; good stuff. I agree with LP (I usually do) about preaching as an event. I get a little uncomfortable when call committees ask for tapes of sermons. Not sure what to do about that. I don’t understand the obsession with preaching w/o notes. I’m almost fifty years old and I don’t memorize. Call me lazy, stupid, or whatever else. I learned to preach at a Baptist college in the 80’s where the norm was to preach from a detailed outline. When I was on internship my very educated congregation seemed to like it when I used a manuscript. The thought of writing a sermon and then memorizing it seems like a really vain waste of time, but whatever works. I often write manuscripts for funeral sermons, mainly because of not having the time to work it up with the outline. The other instance is if I’m having a hard time with the text it helps to pound it out on the keyboard. Sometimes I find some right-brain stuff that way that wasn’t getting through, like the ongoing controversy over CCM…jk, LP that was for you.

  20. I preached one time without a manuscript. I did it on my internship. It was fine. Here’s my thing… I am a really global thinker. I mean, really global. If I were to try to preach without a manuscript, I’d be up there for three hours, telling stories about my hometown, my grandmother, talking about books I’ve read recently. There’s always too much to talk about. Although I’d like to stand up and talk about Jesus all day, it makes sense to limit it to chunks that people can digest. (Sorry for the weird analogy). It’s a way of disciplining myself — that’s what I’m getting at… It’s also a way to think about individual words that I want to use. I think they’re important.
    A couple years ago, I took a class at Luther Seminary about extemporaneous preaching (I think that’s what it was called). It wasn’t about speaking without a manuscript. It was a way of crafting a manuscript and then rehearsing it, in a way, so that it became very familiar and changed the delivery. It was great stuff for me.
    Mostly, though, it’s the discipline that’s important. And we’re all about discipline, right?

  21. First I will admit to preaching from a manuscript. I type it all out but it is in my oral style of writing not my written style. The two are very different.
    I am a lover of good language, well chosen words and creative writing. The problem with preaching without any kind of manuscript is that the language is often repetitive and sloppy. My former colleague used the word “profound” so often in his preaching that it stopped having any real meaning for me.
    I agree that it is important not to be tied to the physical text, but I also think that we should choose and use our words with care.

  22. Also, when I was a teaching parish student, my supervisor used to beat us if we didn’t have a manuscript.

  23. In my former congregation I started out preaching from a manuscript then, found that after a few reads, out loud, I could completely walk away from it and preach extemporaneously. Was it the same sermon? I don’t know. Someone to whom I’s emailed a copy prior, thinking that I might be gone and he would read my sermon to the congregation, commented that I had managed to recreate the manuscript almost completely.
    Now, after a 3 year hiatus, I’m doing the interim thing and can’t seem to make the move off the paper and I’m not sure why not. Some days I think I’d like to, and other days, not so much. In any case, it’s what God does with what’s been said, whether or not it’s been said with a piece of paper between you all.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: