To Manuscript Or Not to Manuscript?

That is the question that every preacher must ask, and he must answer that question for himself in accordance with the wisdom of the Spirit. I know plenty of faithful fellow preachers on both sides of the question. Even so, here is my experience attempting to answer the question.

I began my pastorate eight years ago by writing out each sermon, but I would whittle those notes down to a 2-3 page outline, essentially to make sure that I was able to say certain points exactly as I wanted. I read somewhere that Spurgeon did something similar, writing out his sermon fully but taking only a bare outline into the pulpit. He would then go back and edit the original manuscript by comparing it with a shorthand dictation that was taken while he actually preached. Who wouldn’t want to imitate Spurgeon, right?

The conclusion of 2016, however, sealed the death of my manuscript writing for a season. In October, my father was rear-ended by a semi and spent the next several months in recovery. In November, my father-in-law’s cancer returned, this time in his peritoneum. By God’s grace, my father is still alive, and my father-in-law saw the beatific vision in August of 2018. In the middle of both things, our first daughter was born, like a shower of grace (especially for her two grandfathers!), in March of 2017.

It would be easy enough to justify that period of time as simply being too busy to write out my sermons. I mean, we were new parents, and both of our fathers were facing major challenges. Yet the truth is that my writing began to stall before the end of my first year (2015). At first, I began with writing the outline, thinking that it would help speed up drafting the manuscript, but soon it fell away entirely, since it was easy enough to simply preach from the outline. My family shake-ups in 2016 only sealed the death of my sermon manuscripts; they did not cause it.

In his book, The Preacher’s Catechism, Lewis Allen talks about how a preacher can break the Eighth Commandment by stealing time away from sermon preparation, which can be reflected by ditching manuscript writing. He then adds this note:

I’m not against preaching without notes, and I do it from time to time. My observation on preaching without notes is that it (a) impresses the congregation to no end (and risks becoming glory-theft, as listeners are impressed that you can do it) and (b) can be a cover for having done little rigorous work with the text. If you work hard in the study and then preach with no or few notes so that people are edified, brilliant. But note the dangers. (151)

Reading those words was like being a deer in the highlights; they reflect my experience perfectly. Writing out a sermon is laborious work, and people are not nearly so impressed by that work as they are when preaching without notes. Yet as Allen says, it is far easier to get away with “having done little rigorous work with the text” when not writing a sermon manuscript beforehand.

I began writing out my manuscripts on-and-off again in 2018, and since the end of 2018, I have continued to manuscript and to preach from my manuscript. I continue to do so because it forces me to engage the text more rigorously. Writing, after all, demands clarity (or, at least, an attempt at clarity).

Through that clarity, I have found that it helps to keep me much more focused. I certainly do go “off-script” to greater and lesser degrees each Sunday, but sticking to my manuscript has cut down on much verbal wheel-spinning. Indeed, my sermons are largely 10-15 minutes shorter, simply from having clarified and condensed my thoughts beforehand.

Of course, I aim to look down at my notes as little as possible, making certain to read the faces of the congregation in the moment. Some things communicate well in written words that are very clunky and wooden when delivered from the pulpit. By the grace of God, I am still learning what those things are. Overall, however, the point still holds that the simple act of writing forces the clarification of thought, which is what every preacher should strive toward.

Preaching from a manuscript has also been a great help in controlling how long I preach. My internal preaching clock (I have yet to meet a preacher without one) is set to 40-45 minutes. Each sermon hovers around that time. Yet on some occasions, such as Christmas of last year, I wanted the sermon to be around 30 minutes. Thus, I gave myself a tighter word count for the manuscript, which greatly helped me to achieve that goal.

My sermon manuscripts have also been helpful to the community group leaders at our church. You see, our community groups are structured so that they meet to further discuss the text of the sermon, and our group leaders have certainly benefited from being able to reference back to my notes, since scanning a page for something is much easier than scanning an audio recording.

So, that’s where I am on the manuscript question.

Again, I know that there are preachers who can preach without writing out their sermon, while still engaging in that rigorous work with the text. I’m not that guy. It is far easier for me to write an outline and just preach. Writing a manuscript forces me to slow down, to linger over the text, and think carefully through what I am to say from the pulpit. The work is hard and often unimpressive, but the pastoral aim is to shun the easy path and to turn as many people’s eyes toward the glory of God as possible.


One thought on “To Manuscript Or Not to Manuscript?

  1. Tom

    Grateful that you returned to a manuscript!

    I remember as a child hearing that the best pastors completely memorized their sermons, using neither manuscript nor outlines; and it was considered lazy and undedicated to use any aid other than an open Bible.

    A good half century before digital recorders, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, highlight and copy & paste, this was in the days when the only audio recorders were reel to reel, and due to cost and complexity, audio recorded sermons were out of reach for practically everyone. A sermon point missed was completely lost, preventing any review.

    Of course, one could take notes, but only selectively unless you knew shorthand; and even note-taking can result in missing an important point while attempting to capture the previous one.

    Although I don’t take notes during the sermon and never want to be an Athenian, a new-to-me significant and meaningful sermon point may trigger interrupting contemplation and/or a mental rabbit chase.

    So, for all the above reasons, your manuscripts are most beneficial personally and as a participant in our mid-week community group sermon reviews. Pasting it into a word processor document gives me the opportunity to re-read it and highlight those significant and meaningful sermon points and are a great benefit for personal and group use, as is your practice of sometimes inserting a link to previous sermons or series.

    So while thanking you for your hard work, “as unto the Lord” in preparing a sermon each week, I must disagree with your assessment that it is ever unimpressive. It is to us rather, as is the work of your fellow elders, an obvious labor of love to the Lord, and of the souls of His people. May it for each of you result in joy.

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