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Preaching in the Moment

An interview with Bryan Chapell on manuscripts versus outlines.
Preaching in the Moment

Matt Woodley, editor for PreachingToday.com, had the chance to talk with Bryan Chapell about some changes Bryan has made in the delivery of his sermons. We hope Bryan's words will encourage you to think about your own sermon delivery.

Matt Woodley: You've made a major change in your approach to preaching. Tell us about how you've developed something new in your sermon delivery.

Bryan Chapell: Quick history: when I was first preaching, I was coming out of some years of competitive speech in which I'd been prepared to speak without manuscript or notes. And I was committed to preaching with very few notes, which often meant I took a brief outline into the pulpit. However, in my youth, I found out that taking a brief outline into the pulpit sometimes meant that taking a shortcut in sermon preparation was a consequence in a busy week of pastoring, and it allowed me to prepare less and less. As a result, I ended up repeating myself, or saying things that had worked well in a previous sermon. Unfortunately I wasn't going as deeply into the text or giving as much thought to the sermon as I believed it required, and my ability to speak well on my feet gave me license to do that.

So for years, I put myself under the discipline of writing out a manuscript, so that I would think through carefully everything I had to say. Then I would convert that to a pulpit outline from which I would preach. In that way, I had the advantage of careful preparation, but also freedom of delivery in the pulpit. As I moved into the presidency of Covenant Seminary, and I recognized spiritually everything that I preached was going to be reproduced in publications of one sort or another, then it became very advantageous to prepare manuscripts. That way, things I was preparing were used in multiple ways, multiple times.

"The more I speak naturally and transparently and humbly, the more they are feeling the Lord ministering to them."

The downside was because I was preparing often a pulpit ministry, [what] I was preparing for the pulpit … would be put in publication: I was writing the sermon with a divided purpose. One, I was getting ready to preach. But two, I was writing for reading, and that's a different task than writing for speaking. So I would always convert my manuscript back to a pulpit outline in order to be more natural in the pulpit.

The privilege I have now in my current church is that I am preparing my message with the primary goal of preaching. So even the way I put things down on paper is being shaped by what I plan to say more than what I plan for people to read. My sense is that makes me more natural in expression, but also more purposed in the preparation of my outline. I actually prepare a fairly extensive outline. It's typically three to five pages long. So I'm carefully thinking through everything I want to say. But I even put down on paper the shape of what I intend to say. If I plan on saying something with emphasis, I write it large. If I want to segregate it out as an illustration, I'll draw a circle around it. If I want to connect one thought to a previous thought, why, I'll draw arrows between the two. But in some ways, I feel I'm preparing outlines that are much more geared toward oral presentation. The speech experts out there know this is now referred to as oral mapping. You're in essence mapping what you're going to be saying. I don't really think of that when I'm doing it. I'm just thinking about "I want to emphasize this" or "I want to say this gently" or "I want to say this strongly." I just put it down on paper in a way that reflects [the] natural delivery I'm intending. I'm not trying to get every word down. I'm not trying to write it in great prose. I'm actually trying to put it down in ways that trigger my own thought processes and delivery processes in the pulpit.

So what led you to make this change? Do you think people were not connecting with it? Because it sounds like you did the manuscript writing for a long time.

I think I was spurred toward the change by a desire to sound less academic in the pulpit, to connect with people without a—this maybe sounds strange—to connect with people without a translation process. By that, I mean to say, "All right, this is the way I wrote it, but now I have to translate it to a way that is normal speech." So I'm trying to avoid that translation process and actually try to arrange my notes in such a way that they are directly purposed toward my delivery intentions.

Do you feel like you're more natural and conversational?

I feel like I'm a lot more conversational. I feel like I'm a lot freer. I feel that I'm more expressive, and I feel that I'm more purposeful in my expression. I also am probably much more colloquial. I have found, again, the advantage of saying things in common speech for my community. It doesn't have to be grammatical, but sometimes it's better that it's not grammatical.

There's the danger of being too stiff or too academic, but with this approach, there's another danger for the preacher—getting sloppy. So how do you avoid that danger while still trying to come off as natural and conversational?

When I developed an extensive outline—when I say four to five pages—there's a lot of research. Because I'm preparing an extensive outline, I am carefully thinking through everything I'm saying, but not also spending the extra time to put it in academic prose. The consequence is I actually have more time to do research and to actually think carefully about what connects with people. The time savings in my mind right now is not in research: the time savings is in preparing a paper for publication that I do not have to do now. Instead, I can very much focus on what communicates well now, and that actually gives me the opportunity to research well and communicate well without the extra time that's needed to just hone it for a publication.

I also will take that extensive outline and convert it even smaller, to a pulpit outline, in order to free myself even more. But I don't feel comfortable these days without the extensive outline that requires the research and careful preparation of how this leads to that.

This could be a whole separate article, but the whole process of outlining a sermon is, of course, an art form, and I think a lot of preachers really struggle with that. Do you have any advice about that?

I am guided, I think, by principles that lots of people will know, but I really depend upon now. One is I still put major ideas in the left hand column, because I know that's where my eye will fall first in a natural reading pattern. I still create an outline that's very visible … . I've used symbolization for years now [so] that my eye, just with the shortest fraction of a second glance, [can] recognize what's on the page, because I bold-face main points and I circle illustrations and I star applications. And my eye … in a fraction of a second picks that off a page because I've used standard symbolization for years.

Finally, I all the more am committed to what I call "key word structures," where I word main points in particular in parallel phrases, with key word changes. And by that, I am trying to create shortcuts for me. I just glance at the main point and I know what it is, but I know I'm going to emphasize the words that change in that parallel phrase. And so I have to memorize very little to have the outline jump off the page at me, because I've got parallel statements with key words usually underlined … that just jump off the page when I glance at the sheet. The consequence is people often ask me how I preach without notes, and the reality is I don't preach without notes. I just have learned to write them in such a way that I have to barely glance at them, and it jumps off the page at me.

Can you share an example of this approach to outlining?

Again, every system has its own eccentricities. At the stage I am … [with] the privilege I have for preparing for preaching, I'm not typing these things out these days. I'm actually committed to that imprinting notion of "I write it out on a page." I do it with my hand and my ink, and I have that. I have this kinesthetic understanding and imprinting. If my body's involved at all the levels and, as I said, if I want to say things strongly, I write them large. If I want to say it with a certain emphasis, I may write it large or small or to the right or to the left. Nobody's going to understand it but me. It's just the way I'm communicating with myself. But I actually don't do it off the computer these days. I'm writing to myself, handwritten outlines. And then, believe it or not, for my staff—because they have to prepare it for the congregation—there's an application I use to take a scan of that. Then I send it to our team, and then they prepare questions off that for the small groups that are doing sermon-based small group study. But I'm actually not typing it out these days. I'm writing it out in a way that communicates to me and then scanning it to our team.

What would you say to other preachers about being willing to grow and change, even if you've been preaching the same way for a long time?

I'm trying to listen to what people appreciate in what I do. The reality is I've been a seminary president for a lot of years, and now I'm speaking to a congregation that's a huge mix of engineers, professionals, farmers, retail workers: a huge mix of people. The consequence is [if] I sound like an academic, I will be separating myself from people. So I get the most appreciation with people feeling I am speaking with them rather than at them. I'm speaking in their terms, not in my terms. I'm speaking in a way to communicate to them and not to make them respect me. The more I speak naturally and transparently and humbly, the more they are feeling the Lord ministering to them and the more the gospel is helping them, rather than becoming distant to them. So my change, I think, is governed by a desire to be a pastor and not an icon. Am I a feeling at times that I am walking without a net? Yes.

But at the same time, I've always felt that part of effective delivery and pastoral communication is taking a risk on behalf of the people. That's not just in the content of what you say—saying hard things when it's necessary—but not being so refined and prepared that you're not conscious of a situation or even responding to it as you're preaching. The reason I've always used a pulpit outline and not a manuscript in the pulpit is I have felt the need to keep connecting with people and responding and reacting to them and the Spirit, even when I'm in the pulpit. I've never wanted to be trapped or constrained by the manuscript—what I've said or thought or written prior to the moment. I do believe that preaching is a redemptive act, and I want to be sensitive to what's happening in that moment. So even though I may be walking the tightrope without a net, I've not been uncomfortable with that, though there are certainly moments of discomfort. But overall, I have been rejoicing in the freedom of being able to do it in a way I feel very committed to.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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