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.
Some of the best preachers I’ve seen write out certain short segments of their sermons and then extemporize on the sections.
I teach more than preach and this is the way that I typically teach. The more information I have to share, the more regimented and lengthy the segments that I teach so that I can make the best use of time.
Most of my preaching is done on the mission field and I have had to preach virtually unprepared through a translator. I thank the Holy Spirit for his direction at the time, but I’ll suggest that the Holy Spirit works particularly well if I’m prepared. If I know I will have a translator, I will write out the sermon and edit it heavily to remove idioms and cultural examples that won’t translate easily, break larger ideas into small sentences, print Scriptural references in the target language out so that the translator doesn’t have to juggle a Bible and so that I can review how it was translated in the goal language ahead of time. (Case in point, that last sentence would be torture for a translator.) At home I have preached a range of anything from a simple outline to a full manuscript. Somewhere in between works best for me.
Blake Law says
As a recently-ordained pastor (trained at RTS Charlotte), I have gone from taking full manuscripts into the pulpit to preparing a detailed outline for the reasons mentioned above. During the transition, I started intentionally leaving out portions of my manuscript and inserting a cue to myself. The cue might be something like “Explanation of Blood Avenger” or “Illustration from Canoe Trip”, etc. Things that I knew I could speak on without notes. Doing a little of this made me want to do more.
Robin Jordan says
One thing that does not receive much mention in the debate over the use of a manuscript is the individual strengths and weaknesses of the preacher. I have a tendency to ramble and go off on a tangent or lose my train of thought when I speak extemporaneously so I use a “script” when preaching. I organize it into “thought blocks” and write it the way people speak and I do not read it word for word. I scan it briefly from time to time and then repeat the gist of what I have read, maintaining more than a perfunctory eye contact with the congregation. The use of a “script” enables me to stay focused and on track and to cover all the points that I wish to cover. I may add to what I have written in the “script.” or make other in-the-pulpit changes.
Daniel Harris says
This is really helpful, Michael. As an aspiring preacher and pastor I feel the temptation to write out everything word for word as a security blanket. I will try the detailed outline next time I have an opportunity to preach!
Personality is a big factor. I preach from a full manuscript; as does John MacArthur from what I’ve been told. I have tried many forms and techniques and have found I preach best from a full manuscript. I don’t read it except for a quote. Not all are Spurgeons or Sprouls and each must find a way that works best for them as it serve the congregation and themselves better.
I think you’d be surprised to realize that John MacArthur does not preach from a full manuscript. Phil Johnson has aptly explained John’s pulpit notes in a Shepherd’s Conference seminar session. I would say he is closer to this author’s description in his process for sermon development and then his notes for delivery.
Tim Campbell says
Can you give a reference to that shepherds conference – – would really enjoy listening to that
Dennis L. Horne says
Thank you for the article. For over twenty years I have preached from a full sermon manuscript. The key is to so familiarize yourself with the content to the extent that you are not simply reading the manuscript word for word. This method has been extremely helpful for my people as I have also furnished them with a handout to follow and complete. I do realize, however, “to each his own” — but with thorough preparation.
Then there is one one the most powerful sermon ever preached in America “Sinners in the hands of an angry God ” by Jonathan Edwards .A sermon that was read from a prepared script.
Thank you for this! This is helpful as I’m trying to transition from preaching from a manuscript. Do you have an example of what your detailed outline looks like?
James Guyo says
The answer to sermon how deliver the sermon is-it depends. Salvation is of the Lord and He will speak truth to His people even through Balaam’s donkey. I am not a native English speaker and so I prefer to write my sermon as If I am actually speaking and it works for me. Extemporaneous speaking requires fluidity in the language that one is using and also depends on how well one has mastered the particular doctrine that they are preaching on. Even though I read from my manuscript I almost always find myself expanding on what I had written down, but my manuscripts allows for safe landing and continuing from where I left off. If I were preaching in my native language I would need just my bible and I would be okay. And so, my two senses are that do what works for you, God is sovereign and His gospel carries power whether read or extemporaneated. Amen!
Paul DiBenedetto says
By your leave I have to take exception to this post. As one who makes his living working with public speakers around the world who work from full manuscripts I have some experience in this area.
Throughout church history we have examples of great sermons by preachers who worked from full manuscripts. How many reformed pastors, as well as many others, have benefited from reading the sermons of John Owens. As has been pointed out in the comment by TonyH16 “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was read, most likely in somewhat of a “bubble” delivery by Jonathan Edwards, but God used it in a mighty way in the conversion of sinners and in challenging believers. In both cases content IS king AND the results are undeniable. The very reason we have these resources today to study and gain benefit from is that they were full manuscripts.
In human history we have the same. Who would have wanted Abraham Lincoln to have extemporaneously uttered words like “Eighty seven years ago our founding fathers formed a new nation in Liberty, with the purpose to create all people equally …” No! “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In what is considered a rather brief speech of 272 words, Lincoln toiled over the wording, to convey the debt owed to “these honored dead,” the ones from whom ‘we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” It has been said that the Gettysburg Address “will live among the annals of men.”
Another example would be Sir Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators in history. No one would accuse him of speaking “in a bubble.” He moved a nation and the world through his speeches to win a war that some thought impossible. What is less known is that Churchill read every speech given before Parliament. One time asked how long he took to prepare for a 45 minute speech before parliament, he responded a minimum of 18 hours. That included both preparing the speech, and practicing the speech. Churchill dedicated significant time and effort to the practice. He worked from full manuscripts that he wrote in what he called his “Psalm form.” The manuscript indicated to him timing and cadence. He inserted instructions to himself on gestures to make, on when to raise or lower his voice, etc. And who can argue the result?
These are just a few short examples to make the point that full manuscripts do not necessarily lead to the results indicated in the post. Rather, lack of practice, poor execution, and lack of honest feedback all lead to the results you indicate.
There is one more reason I take issue with the nature of the post. It is something which has been lost in the training of young ministers today. Today’s ministers are more concerned about being “relevant” and less about being a preacher. Too many ministers today adopt a “teaching” style, rather than understanding the difference and importance of “preaching.” Christ adopted both styles at various times. In the more intimate, give and take atmosphere he used a teaching style, usually a question and answer methodology. But in the public square he “declared” the message. think of the Sermon on the Mount. He declares “Blessed are …” This is the nature of preaching. A different example of this would be a king’s herald, walking into the public square, opening the scroll and announcing in his loudest voice “Thus says the King …” There is no intimacy. There is no give and take. There is no argument and discussion. There is the declaration of an important, life or death message. Oh that today’s ministers might learn to be this type of messenger for the KING of Kings and LORD of Lords! When this dynamic is understood, it explains why Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was so powerful. In a week in which we’ve seen Kent Dobson, the successor of Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan declaring that he is stepping down from the pastorate because he has always been “drawn to the edges of religion and faith and God.” He has stated that he doesn’t know “what we mean by God anymore …” The world needs clear, careful, and powerful PREACHING of the Gospel. And full manuscripts, when utilized properly, actually help to do so.
I appreciate your post. In my most recent series I have been writing a full manuscript and taking it with me into the pulpit. The temptation to merely read the manuscript is real and I have been fighting it. At the same time, I tend to add too much extra material when I don’t have manuscript with me. Do you have any suggestions for fighting the tendency to wander and ramble when using an outline instead of a manuscript?
Full manuscript didn’t hinder Piper in any of these areas.
Eric Price says
This article contains some helpful advice for using a manuscript in the pulpit and how to write it for the ear:
Surely, using a manuscript has some inherent dangers, and it is easy to do poorly. Using a manuscript is certainly not for everyone. As my seminary preaching professor said, “For some people, a manuscript is limiting; for others, it is freeing.” I started using a manuscript after my first couple of sermons and have done it ever since. But I make sure to write for the ear, write it in large font so that it is easily readable, and practice it several times before stepping into the pulpit.
While I do think one should use a manuscript with caution, I also think it is worthwhile for young preachers to at least consider it and give it a try. Some may find that it actually helps them be more relaxed, clear-headed and articulate in the pulpit. I think a lot of it depends on the individual preacher’s personality and giftedness.
Others have already stated this, but it is important to keep a focus on your gifts and abilities. I have a stuttering problem, and really can’t go off script because of it. I’ve tried in the past and it just didn’t work. When I read the stuttering doesn’t present itself nearly as much, and when it does, I am able to focus on it better and overcome it quicker. I just started using a script this past year, and it has helped my ministry tremendously. That being said, it is still something I struggle with because I don’t want to sell God short. After all, He was able to take Moses and turn him into a man “powerful in speech.”
A.J. Baker says
I like to write out a full manuscript, because, like the author stated, it helps me to think my thoughts out in a linear way. Further, I have found that even if I don’t “read” the manuscript, I have at least thought out the thoughts and how I was going to say them, as I wrote the manuscript. Also, I have a tendency to get distracted, and I have found that I can read a few lines of the manuscript to get myself back on track. I am a manuscript guy; I can’t fight it!
Ryan Lake says
I write a full sermon manuscript for my own benefit, then I read over it thoroughly and sometime even “practice preach” it as I’ve taken to calling it, to see how it sounds but when it comes time to preach it to an audience, I know the content and I speak from memory and just have the manuscript with highlighted areas of greatest importance just in case. All I usually need is my sermon outline to make sure I stay on track. But for someone without practice I can see how they may come to rely on the written content.