Podcast Episode 25 | 13 min
Manuscript vs. Notes
The pros and cons of the three primary approaches of what to take into the pulpit.
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Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com. Thanks for joining us on Monday Morning Preacher, a podcast by preachers for preachers. I’m here with our guest host, Kevin Miller. Hey Kevin, do you ever notice how we often start this podcast with a long, meandering intro that really has nothing to do with preaching?
Kevin Miller: Did you say we, because I believe that is you.
MW: You are an accomplice. So like I said, we’ve started with baseball pitchers, the movie Jaws, a quote from Stephen King, songs with the word heart in the title, and then somehow we bring it all back to preaching.
KM: It’s your spiritual gift.
MW: Oh, thank you. We’re going to do that again. But we’ve got to cut right to the chase, because today we have a very interesting topic that is going to take some time to unpack and that’s a really practical topic of what do you bring into the pulpit with you? Do you bring a whole manuscript, do you bring notes, do you bring a little bit of notes? What do you bring with you?
KM: That’s a good one. That’s a nerdy preacher question, which is the kind we like.
MW: It’s totally nerdy and I thought it would be like, “This is a not really a topic for a podcast.” But then I went back and looked at some of our PreachingToday.com articles on it, and preachers get kind of emotional about this topic. So we’re going to do a whole podcast on it. What I want to do here is analyze with strict objectivity, without interjecting our opinion, which is hard.
KM: Yeah, that may not happen.
MW: Well, we’re going to try. So analyze the strengths and weaknesses of three major schools of thought: Full manuscript, the no-notes approach, and a hybrid version where you bring in a moderate amount of notes. Then we’ll wrap and we’ll share our personal thoughts. Sound good?
KM: Let’s go for it.
MW: Okay, let’s start with a full manuscript. There are some preachers—they’re in the minority—but they really are sold on the whole full manuscript idea. Mark Mitchell is a preacher out in California, he is one of Preaching Today’s frequent contributors. He wrote an article for us titled, “Confessions of a Manuscript Preacher.” He thinks manuscript preaching has gotten a really bad rap. So he wrote this article advocating for manuscript preaching and there was, like, 20 comments from preachers on this, and they all went like this, “I was taught to preach without notes; it was very stressful. I used to take an outline to the pulpit yet I was missing many important ideas. Lately, I have been using a manuscript, I feel so much less stress and a freedom I have not felt in years.” That was an actual comment. So obviously manuscript preaching is not dead yet.
KM: No, it isn’t and it shouldn’t die because to me one of the big, big advantages of manuscript preaching is it gives you full precision and control. So if I am preaching on a highly controversial topic, the kind where I know like one misspoken phrase could blow a hole in the sermon, I always will manuscript. I did it, for example, when I got to Ephesians 5 and was preaching about submission in marriage, I did it again when the controversy about is the God of Islam the same as the God of Christianity and people in our church were taking sides on that. So when you need full precision you need a manuscript.
MW: That is one of its greatest strengths. The Mark Mitchell article I mentioned, a lot of the comments came from preachers who admitted, I’m an introvert, and they basically said the same thing. Having a manuscript allows me to relax in the pulpit. They don’t necessarily read the manuscript, but they want it close by and it actually helps them preach with more freedom, not less.
KM: Now, when you were pastoring out on Long Island you must have used manuscripts because I’d come in the church lobby and there’d be printouts of your last few weeks of sermons.
MW: Yeah, I wrote complete manuscripts. I didn’t use them in the pulpit but I love getting that precision, and another advantage of it is you have something that you can share with people.
KM: I saw people picking them up and taking them home, like if they missed the prior week they’d just pick it up.
MW: You could put it on your website, people can read it. Of course we’ve got podcasts and all that kind of stuff, but sometimes people like to read your sermon. So that is a strength of this approach. So Kevin, what’s the biggest weakness of the manuscript approach?
KM: Well, for me it came down to this. When I had a manuscript, I felt closely connected to my manuscript, but I just didn’t feel as closely connected emotionally with my people.
MW: Yeah, I would say that is the biggest potential down side. Now again, people like Mark Mitchell would advocate that you feel more relaxed so you have more connection, but it’s definitely a potential down side. Okay, let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum, the no-notes approach. Now, just a clarification. No notes doesn’t always mean no notes.
KM: So why are you calling it no-notes if it doesn’t mean no notes?
MW: That is a good question. Let me inform you, grasshopper. Obviously you’re bringing your Bible into the pulpit so you’re bringing written material with you. It’s really the almost no-notes approach. Let’s say you have a quote. You’re probably not going to memorize the quote, or there’s some statistics or you might have maybe five or six words for an outline, or something like that. And another qualifier, it doesn’t mean no preparation. So we’re not talking about just coming up in the pulpit and winging it and trusting the Spirit. All of these approaches involve a lot of work in sermon prep. So none of them is a shortcut. So having said that, Kevin, name the greatest strength of the almost no-notes approach.
KM: Well, I think it’s pretty obvious. It gives your sermon a more direct and conversational style. And here’s the thing: For most Americans today, that feels to them more “authentic.” Now, to me it’s insanity that we’re judging the authenticity of the preacher based on the amount of notes in the pulpit; that doesn’t make any sense. But the reality is, I think, that most of our listeners today prefer fewer notes or preferably none.
MW: For me the biggest advantage of the almost no-notes approach is eye contact. The more the better. Our preaching prof friend from Gordon-Conwell, Dr. Jeffrey Arthurs, says, “Humans send and decode scores of messages with the eyes.” So this approach maximizes eye contact between the preacher and the congregation. Kevin, let me ask you a question though: How do you pull this off? What is involved in getting to the point where you can use almost no notes?
KM: Well, you need to be clear on your ideas. Not just the one big idea but the sub ideas. And you need to know what order they’re going to come in. Then the words will come in the moment, but you’ve got to be crystal clear going in of what the ideas are and the order of those.
MW: So there is actually a lot of sermon prep. You’ve got to be very clear, you’ve got to be very well organized, and then using a few words as prompts.
KM: For me, Matt, one of the downsides of no-notes can be no structure. The sermon can start to wander. And in my case, for example, I found that my transition suffered when I tried the no-notes.
MW: It also leads to what I call Woodley’s First Law of Stupid Preaching.
KM: I didn’t know there was a Woodley’s First Law.
MW: There is now. I just made it up.
KM: Man, first you were making up statistics, in a previous episode, and now you’re making up laws.
MW: Most of what I say is true. Here’s Woodley’s First Law of Stupid Preaching: The less notes you bring into the pulpit, the higher the likelihood that you will say something that you will regret, that you will wake up on Monday morning and think, Wow, was that every stupid, I can’t believe I said that.
KM: You know, the Monday morning regret I have—I’ve had that, of course—is more the: I left it out. Darn, I wanted to say that, I thought that was so fabulous, and because I didn’t have the notes I skipped it.
MW: But there’s also Woodley’s corollary to Woodley’s First Law of Stupid Preaching, which is the less notes you bring into the pulpit the more likely you may say something brilliant in the moment.
KM: Well, that all depends on who is doing the preaching, doesn’t it? Wink.
MW: That’s true. Good point.
KM: Okay, but let’s go to that last approach. So we’ve talked about manuscript, we talked about no-notes. So this last one is the sort of hybrid some notes, or what do you call it?
MW: Hybrid approach, I guess, or just moderate amounts of notes. Maybe a couple pages of outline, detailed outlines. So our friend, Jeffrey Arthurs again, he calls this approach the best of both worlds. He says, “This method enables you to remember your points, lends itself to oral style, yet can employ occasional lines of exact wording, it prompts spontaneity.”
KM: One advantage of it, in my mind, is that in a sermon there are certain areas where you really need the precise crafting of words, like your intro, your conclusion, I think the final sentence of the sermon should be crafted. There are certain precise theological distinctions that you have to get the words just right. But there’s a lot of parts of a sermon where you don’t need that level of precision, so if you have a few notes to get you started you can do it.
MW: That’s very good. So up to this point we haven’t discussed our approach so Kevin, give us the details about how much you write out, how much you bring into the pulpit and why.
KM: I’ve actually gone through phases on this.
MW: I think a lot of preachers do.
MW: Yeah, we were interviewing Bryan Chappell, one of our favorite preachers, and he talked about the three phases he’s been through. He was in phase one, a brief outline phase, but realized that he skimmed over a lot of stuff. Then phase two was his manuscript phase which he enjoyed, but he said, I was writing for the eye and not the ear. Then phase three, what he’s doing now, is what he calls the extensive outline phase which is basically the hybrid stage, and he finds a lot of freedom in that now. So how about you?
KM: My first phase in preaching, which I did for about half of my preaching life, was manuscript and it really worked for me because I’m a writer and think best that way. It also worked because I wasn’t preaching every single week and so I had the time. But one day my friend Craig Brian Larson, former editor of Preachingtoday.com, dared me here in the office. He had just finished reading this book called Preaching without Notes, and he said, “You know what, Kevin? I’m starting to do this and I love it, and I dare you to go to preaching without notes.” And being the vain male that I am, I had to take his dare. I wasn’t going to let that double dog dare go down on my watch. So I tried it and I did lose about 15 percent in precision, smooth transitions. But the level of connectedness to the people was way up, and that was with me using maybe half a page of notes. So where I am now is two pages of notes, and that gives me enough control of the flow, but it’s not enough that I can sit there and read it, so it keeps me in a conversational zone.
MW: Perfect. Hybrid.
KM: Yeah, I guess I ended up at the hybrid. So what do you do?
MW: Hybrid, all the way.
KM: How did you go to hybrid, because you were manuscripter before?
MW: I was total manuscript out at Three Village Church.
KM: You were the poster boy for manuscript.
MW: I was. Well, I was writing a manuscript, but then bringing very little into the pulpit. Okay, so that was my style. I was in Three Village Church, it was a very academic community, university town, a lot of professors, a lot of grad students, so I wanted to be really intellectual, really precise, all that kind of stuff. Then I got sort of hybrid and then I started at Church of the Resurrection. It’s a large church, it’s a big stage, and so you want to be precise, so I started writing manuscripts again. But then I realized I was writing for the eye, not the ear. So this is what I do now: I actually record all of my sermon notes. I dictate it on my phone throughout the week as I think of ideas.
KM: When you’re talking into your phone like that, do people move away from you in stores?
MW: Well, I try to do it in my study.
KM: So you dictate?
MW: I dictate to myself. So what I have a lot of notes already that are written for the ear.
KM: Oh, that’s brilliant.
MW: Well, Ken Shigematsu, pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC, got me onto this. He kind of dared me to do this. I love this approach. I’m finding a lot of freedom to just speak it, and then it’s pretty much ready to form into a really detailed outline and then I bring semi-detailed outline into the pulpit.
KM: When you stand up to preach, how much do you have with you?
MW: I probably have about a page and a half of notes.
KM: Okay, that’s about what I do, a page and a half, max two pages.
MW: That allows for some precision and gives you some freedom. Here is what I would challenge our listeners to do. I think both of us experience this. People challenged us to try something. Let’s say you do not write manuscripts you never have. Sometimes try writing a manuscript, see what it’s like.
KM: Okay, yeah.
MW: If you write manuscripts, try not to. Try different styles and see what works best for you.
MW: Matt Woodley is daring everyone who is listening to this podcast.
MW: I dare you. Woodley’s Second Law of Excellent Preaching.
KM: Didn’t you already have two laws? Oh, you had one law and a corollary.
MW: Try something new. So preachers, we encourage you again: Try something new, trust God to use you, and find the style that works best for you.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).