Tips for Extemporaneous Preaching from J.W. Alexander

James W. Alexander lived a fascinating life. Like his father, the Rev. Archibald Alexander, James Alexander served as an American Presbyterian pastor and professor. Unlike his father, Alexander also authored a number of hymns and translated others (including “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”). He even served as the president of a private social club for intellectuals.

Undoubtedly, Alexander’s life was marked by achievement. But our main interest in this article is his classic work on homiletics, Thoughts on Preaching. Compiling insights from his homiletical notes and letters, Alexander’s book is both fascinating and profitable for any modern-day preacher. And while the entire work is worth consideration, I found his tips for extemporaneous preaching especially beneficial. For this reason, I want to share with you just three tips for extemporaneous preaching I found in Alexander’s book.

Preach Extemporaneously Now

The first tip from Rev. James Alexander is to preach extemporaneously now. When I talk to young preachers of my age about preaching extemporaneously or without any notes, I often hear them saying, “I will eventually preach without manuscripts, but for now, I want to make sure my sermon is sound and correct.” It seems to me many preachers consider extemporaneous preaching as an advanced method of preaching that one can tread on only after he masters manuscript preaching.

However, Rev. James Alexander asserts young preachers to start preaching extemporaneously immediately. In his letter to young ministers, Rev. James Alexander writes:

"You have expressed fears as to your ever becoming an extemporaneous preacher, and I shall confine myself to practical advices. Many who have excelled in this may have had fears like yours. My counsel is that you boldly face these obstacles and begin ex abrupto. The longer you allow yourself to become fixed in another and exclusive habit, the greater will be your difficulty in throwing it aside."[1]

Accordingly, if young ministers desire to preach extemporaneously at some point in their ministry life, they must venture into it early in their ministry career. The beginning of their ministry career is crucial for many young ministers as it is the time when they formulate ministerial philosophy and practice. Like a strong oak tree that you cannot alter its form once it fully grows, it will take a tremendous effort for a preacher to shift his long-practiced method of preaching to another. Rev. James Alexander says well when he writes, “If I may borrow a figure from engines, the mind is geared differently. No man goes from one track to the other without a painful jog at the ‘switch’”[2]

Preach Extemporaneously as Yourself

Second, Rev. James Alexander also encourages young ministers to preach extemporaneously as their selves. Now, this obviously does not mean young preachers should disregard learning from other preachers. In fact, preaching is often caught than taught as young preachers watch and seek to emulate well-seasoned preachers.

Nonetheless, Rev. James Alexander clarifies that one of the most important characters of an extemporaneous preacher is being his true self. He writes:

"If there is any maxim which you might inscribe on your seal-ring and your pen, it is this, Be Yourself. As Kant says, every man has his own way of preserving health, so we may assert that every true servant of the gospel has his own way of being a preacher and I pray that you may never fall among a people so untutored or so straitened as to be willing to receive the truth only by one sort of conduit. Every genuine preacher becomes such, under God, in a way of his own, and by a secret discipline."[3]

While young preachers need to observe and learn from powerful preachers of our time, we must also remember we are not called to be Alistair Begg, Kevin DeYoung, Martin Lloyd-Jones, David Murray, John Piper, or R.C. Sproul. In fact, A. W. Blackwood described preaching as, “Divine truth voiced by a chosen personality to meet human need [emphasis added].”[4] As such, we must earnestly pray that the Lord will train and refine us as our own preacher for His kingdom and His people.

Preach Extemporaneously Without Giving Up

Last but never least, Rev. James Alexander teaches young preachers to persevere in extemporaneous preaching. In my opinion, many preachers resolve to full-manuscript or detailed outlines, not because they don’t know how to preach extemporaneously. In fact, Rev. James Alexander says, “I am perfectly convinced that any man can learn to preach extempore who can talk extempore, always provided he has somewhat to say…”[5]

Rather, I believe many preachers avoid extemporaneous preaching because they are afraid of making mistakes, forgetting or slipping words and sentences, thus embarrassing themselves in front of their congregations. Nonetheless, I believe our personal pride must not get in the way of better communicating the truth to our congregation. Most importantly, mistakes and stumbling are inevitable growing pain for preachers to become better preachers, whether you preach with or without notes. For this reason, Rev. James Alexander encourages preachers, “Don’t be discouraged if you fall down a hundred times; for though you fall you shall rise again! and cheer yourself with the prophet’s challenge, ‘Who hath despised the day of small things?’”[6]

A Concluding Call

Perhaps you are currently contemplating whether you should start preaching extemporaneously. Maybe, you are going back and forth between preaching with notes and without notes. Since I ventured into the road of extemporaneous preaching, it has been an interesting journey as I continue to discern the best way to further improve the art of extemporaneous preaching.

To that end, Rev. James Alexander’s tips on extemporaneous preaching have been very beneficial to me. And with these tips, he encourages ministers to preach extemporaneously to serve God’s people and build His kingdom. Rev. James Alexander encourages ministers, “Again, therefore, I say, begin at once… No one learns to swim in the sea of preaching without going into the water.”[7]

Seob Kim is a graduate of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a licentiate in the OPC.

Related Links

"7 Features of Peter’s Preaching" by Sam Waldron

"John Calvin: Method of Preaching" by Robert Ventura

"Pastor, Keep Preaching the Gospel to Yourself!" by David Prince

"Preaching for the Broken" by Mark Johnston

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon 


[1] James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching (Vestavia Hills, Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2009), 148.

[2] Ibid,.

[3] Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching, 160.

[4] John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons: Fourth Edition, 4th ed. edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1979), 3.

[5] Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching, 149.

[6] Alexander, 151.

[7] Alexander, 148.