Chapter 6

Confessions of a Manuscript Preacher

I preach better when I semi-read a sermon.

I have a recurring nightmare. Having grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I'm kneeling in the dim light of the confessional booth. "Forgive me, father, for I have sinned."

The deep voice on the other side of the thin wall responds, "What sins do you wish to confess, my child?"

I'm startled. I know that voice. It's not the voice of my priest, but the daunting voice of my homiletics professor! I think to myself, I wonder if he knows. Feeling exposed, I go on and confess my sin: "Doctor, please forgive me. It's true. I do it. I do it every Sunday. I… I… I… preach from a manuscript!"

Okay, that's farfetched, but you get the point. Manuscript preaching isn't just marginalized, it's ridiculed. In most homiletics courses, preaching from a manuscript is considered a historic relic that's as useful today as an 8-track tape. If it's talked about at all, it's mentioned on a list of things never to do.

Experts give various reasons for dismissing the use of a manuscript. Most guilt-inducing is the claim that using a manuscript blocks us from being led by the Spirit of God. I once had a classmate share with me in dramatic testimony fashion that he'd vowed to God never to use a manuscript again! In his mind, to do so would be depending on himself rather than the Holy Spirit. His assumption seemed to be that for the Spirit to work he needed to be free from the straitjacket of prior thought.

Another reason for dismissing manuscript preaching has to do with delivery. People say that those who preach with a manuscript seem disconnected from the congregation. Their cadence is less natural. Being tethered to a manuscript prevents their own personality from shining forth. Their words seem to come less from the heart and more from the script. Who wants to come to church and listen to a lecture that has as much vigor as a high school civics class?

There is truth in both of these claims. If we are a slave to our manuscript, we certainly could be less sensitive to the Spirit's promptings in the pulpit. And if we use a manuscript poorly, reading word for word, we certainly will seem disconnected from the congregation. But neither of these things are necessary in using a manuscript, and so like Linus's blanket I still bring one with me to the pulpit.

The security of a manuscript quiets my nerves and actually frees me up.

I've learned I'm not alone. Effective preachers past and present have used manuscripts. What worked in Jonathan Edwards day won't always work today, but manuscripts have long been used by inspired African American preachers as well as many of today's most effective preachers. Recently, I have been worshiping at other churches while on sabbatical. Each of them are large churches with well respected pastors. In each case, the pastor skillfully employed a manuscript while preaching. These preachers believe the Spirit of God anoints not just their preaching but their preparation; not just what happens in the pulpit but also in the study, the results of which are a well-crafted manuscript.

The Advantages of Manuscript Preaching

I've found many advantages to preaching from a manuscript.

First, writing a manuscript can ensure we say things well. A well-reasoned argument and precisely crafted words and sentences are an asset in the pulpit. Duane Litfin states, "It is quite startling to see how often writing a manuscript can reveal problems with the speech we might not have seen otherwise. As we attempt to write out the speech in advance, gaps in our understanding and holes in our thinking emerge. Blind spots slip into view. Weaknesses in our grasp of the passage, or soft spots in our presentation of it, make themselves known. Without the step of preparing a manuscript we perhaps would not discover these problems until too late."

Of course, writing a manuscript doesn't mean we must use it in the pulpit, but having it in the pulpit can also ensure that we say things the way we wanted to say them. I'm much less likely to drift from my subject or add something that wasn't needed or I may later regret. Using a manuscript can also help me stay in my allotted time.

Second, having a manuscript allows me to relax in the pulpit. Because I'm not worried about remembering the next thing I'm supposed to say, more of my own personality can actually come out. Maybe this is because I'm an introvert. In his book Introverts in the Church, Adam McHugh argues introverts prefer preaching from a manuscript because we have a slower mechanism for word retrieval in public speaking (I think that means I don't think on my feet well). When my tongue is searching for the right word or phrase, I often come up empty or fall back on clichés. Someone has said, "A good sermon remembers itself." That may be true when it comes to remembering an outline, but remembering a well crafted phrase or a key transitional sentence coming out of an illustration is different. For these, the security of a manuscript quiets my nerves and actually frees me up.

This is especially true on those mornings when emotionally I'm not at my best. Recently I spent the night in the trauma unit of an emergency room with my 18-year-old son. He'd been in a serious car accident with several friends. Thankfully, they all came out of it with minor injuries, but it was an emotionally exhausting night. I got home at about 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning, and within two hours I was on my way to church to preach two sermons. Having a manuscript to preach from was a crutch without which I couldn't have stood on that difficult morning.

Third, having a written manuscript makes it easier for your church to offer printed sermons for further personal study and use in small group Bible studies. At our church we upload my full sermons to our church web site promptly, and each week we offer a printed sermon from the previous Sunday for those who want to take it home for further digestion or even to pass it on to friends. We have further edited some of these messages and used them as "position papers" that deal with issues and questions that are frequently asked by inquisitive disciples.

How to Use a Manuscript with Skill

The key to using a manuscript is using it well.

First, you must write for the ear. Your message isn't meant to be a literary achievement, but rather a personal word from God. Robert Jacks's book Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear is a must for manuscript preachers. Academic lectures are full of therefores, indeeds, and in conclusions, but we rarely talk like that. When we write for the ear, we'll contract words: don't instead of do not, can't instead of cannot, and wouldn't instead of would not. We'll also avoid using that as a connector. Instead of saying, "Jesus said that He was the Way…" we'll say, "Jesus said He was the Way.…"

These may sound like small things, and they may tweak some of what we learned in freshman grammar, but it will make a world of difference in keeping your listeners engaged. When I'm finished with my manuscript, I always say it aloud. I want to test how it sounds to the ear. When I say it, does it sound formal and stilted? Is this the way I would normally talk to people?

Second, don't read your manuscript word for word. This means you must know it well enough that you only need an occasional glance at the page and can still maintain eye contact with your listeners. Obviously this means reading and rereading your manuscript before preaching. Don't try to memorize it, but internalize the flow and train your eye to where the material is on the page so you don't struggle to find your place each time you look down. Most of the time, when I glance at the start of a paragraph, I know the essence of it, and I've nailed down the phraseology well enough that I don't have to read it word for word. It will also help a great deal if you arrange the material on the page in such a way that it's easy to pick up. Use a large font size, plenty of spacing, and bolded type to help you pick up your key points. Some preachers only use the top half of the page to avoid having to look too far down (bobbing their head) and to keep their line of sight closer to the listener.

I've found I need to follow certain parts of the manuscript more closely, while others I hardly use at all. For example, when using a personal illustration, I try not to use my manuscript. I want to relive that story, and to do that I'll often move out from behind the pulpit and speak in a more direct and personal way. I also often do this at key points of application.

Third, when reading the Bible, read directly from the Bible, not your manuscript. I've seen manuscript preachers never even open their Bible because the words of their text are printed in their manuscript. Some don't have a Bible with them at all! But for me, there's something about reading the text from a Bible in my hand. This also gives me another opportunity to move out from behind the pulpit and address people directly as I read from God's Word.

Fourth, don't let your handling of the manuscript be a distraction. Obviously, when using a manuscript, you have to turn the pages. That can be a distraction if you don't do it well. I've seen manuscript preachers, each time they turn a page, lick their finger, use awkward pauses mid-sentence, and make more noise than the crying baby in the back of the church. The bottom line is, you don't want the manuscript to be a distraction. So I use plastic covers over each page in a loose leaf binder. This allows me to turn or slide each page quietly. Some manuscript preachers like to keep two pages of text in front of them, which of course minimizes the number of times you must turn the page. Perhaps most important is knowing your manuscript well enough that you can anticipate what's ahead and not pause or even look down while turning the page.

Finally, remain sensitive to the Spirit's prompting while using your manuscript. He directed you in the writing of your manuscript, and he can direct you in the preaching of it as well. There are times when he will nudge you to say something not in your manuscript. It may be an added insight into the text that doesn't occur to you until you're reading it publically. It might be an image or story that comes to mind, or even another passage of Scripture that strengthens your point.

Manuscript preaching isn't for everyone, but neither is preaching without one. My hope is that you will use the method that fits your own personality and style, as well as that which serves your particular church the best. If you do that, by God's grace even your homiletics professor will be proud.