Whether Write Makes Right
In February I published an article on extemporaneous preaching. Since then, I’ve received various comments and had a number of enjoyable discussions. But in all of these interactions a common question arose:
“So Seob, do you really think extemporaneous preaching is the only right way to preach a sermon?”
While I’ve enjoyed switching to extemporaneous preaching, I don’t think it is “the only right way.” In this article, I’d like to look at the other side of spectrum: full manuscript preaching.
Some preachers have not only encouraged extemporaneous preaching, but also discouraged the use of manuscripts. For example, Spurgeon wrote:
"As a rule, do not read your sermons…. The best reading I have ever heard has tasted of paper and has stuck in my throat. I have not relished it, for my digestion is not good enough to dissolve a piece of writing paper. It is better to do without the manuscript, even if you are driven to recite. It is best of all if you need neither to recite nor to read."
Those who discourage manuscripts offer a few different reasons. First, they argue that extemporaneous preaching enhances the liveliness of the sermon. When he is not chained to a manuscript, the pastor is able to move and think more freely. Second, they argue that the extemporaneous preacher connects better with the congregation. When his eyes are constantly fixed on a manuscript, the preacher fails to establish a crucial connection with his listeners. Finally, the proponents of extemporaneous preaching suggest that preaching without notes encourages a preacher to rely on the Holy Spirit. Indeed, standing in the pulpit without a manuscript, the preacher cannot help but rely on the Spirit’s enabling power to speak.
The heart of the matter comes down to this question: Can manuscript preachers also be lively, connective, and Spirit-dependent in their sermons? Some would say “no,” but I believe the answer is “yes.”
Lively Preaching with Manuscripts
There are many manuscript preachers who prove that full manuscript preaching can be as lively and animated as extemporaneous preaching. John Piper, John MacArthur, and Steven J. Lawson are prime examples of this. No one can deny that their lively manuscript preaching has nourished many saints intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. This suggests that method of delivery does not determine the liveliness of a message.
If this is true, then how does a manuscript preacher deliver a lively sermon? Certainly, dynamic tones, gestures, and movements in the pulpit play their parts. Yet I believe Broadus gives us an insightful answer regarding the foundation of a lively sermon. He writes in his book, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons:
“A second requisite for being an effective preacher is a vital Christian experience… George Whitefield, who was a preacher of unusual fire and zeal, prayed regularly, ‘O Lord, give me a warm heart.’ Such a prayer would be in order for every preacher. Nothing can substitute for a vital, growing experience.”
The liveliness of the delivery is not ultimately dependent on the style of delivery. Instead, it depends on a preacher’s daily communion with his triune God, and his personal experience of the truth he will proclaim to his congregation. Therefore, a manuscript preacher’s heart must be captivated by the truth as he prepares his message. If he knows and experiences the truth of his message, he will naturally preach a sermon in a lively manner.
Connective Preaching with Manuscripts
Compared to an extemporaneous preacher, the depth of connection that a manuscript preacher can establish with his congregation is limited. The latter’s eyes are often focused on his manuscript, and this hinders him from sustaining an eye-to-eye connection with his congregation.
Notwithstanding, there are a few practical ways that a manuscript preacher can maximize his connection with the congregation. For example, he can try to break his eyes away from his manuscript at the end of sentences. He may also utilize pauses to look at the congregation between the train of thoughts. Ideally, this preacher would also familiarize himself with the content of his sermon, allowing him more freedom to break away from his manuscript.
Most importantly, a manuscript preacher can establish a deep connection with his congregation through perceptive applications. Applications are a powerful relational component of a sermon. When the preacher draws out an effective application, the listener feels “He’s speaking to me! He’s telling me something for my own spiritual benefit!” Accordingly, a manuscript preacher can familiarize himself with the applications of his sermon so that he can speak to the congregation eye to eye.
Spirit-Dependent Preaching with Manuscripts
Simply put, the manuscript preacher depends just as much on the Holy Spirit as the man who preaches extemporaneously. This is true as he sits in his office reading, thinking, writing, and praying. And even after he’s crafted his sermon, the preacher must still be receptive to the Holy Spirit’s immediate guidance during the message. Albert Martin explains in his book, Preaching in the Holy Spirit:
”We come into the pulpit with that which is homiletically neat and clean, and rightfully so. We are not paid to be sloppy and imprecise preachers serving up disorganized homiletical talk. However, as we begin to preach and we experience a fresh measure of the immediate assistance of the Holy Spirit in the act of preaching, the moment of truth comes. We know that if we follow the present impulses of the Spirit of God on our minds and hearts, we may well be destroying some element of the neatness of our previously prepared sermon…. This is the very point where we must be gripped with the passion and determination to “preach out” what the Spirit of God is giving us, rather than merely to “preach over” what was previously prepared.”
The manuscript preacher must not be enslaved to his sermon manuscript. Since the Holy Spirit gave a manuscript preacher His illumination and guidance as he prepared a sermon, the preacher must also be receptive to the Spirit’s immediate guidance during the delivery of his sermon.
Most importantly, a manuscript preacher must depend on the Holy Spirit by remembering his utter insufficiency in preaching the Word of God. In other words, despite his beautifully constructed sermon, a manuscript preacher must recognize that he cannot open people’s eyes to see, ears to hear, and mouths to savor the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul cried out in his letter to Corinthians, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things (2 Cor. 2:15-16)?” A preacher’s end goal must be the salvation of souls and the edification of God’s saints. And such glorious goals can only be achieved by the Holy Spirit, who uses the preacher’s message.
Tools for One Purpose
I’m not convinced that it's worth arguing over which method of preaching is “correct” or better than the rest. After considering and reading various materials on the subject, I think a preacher must view both manuscript and extemporaneous preaching styles as tools. A handyman must be well-acquainted with various tools for his occupation. Likewise, I believe a preacher should be comfortable utilizing both manuscript and extemporaneous preaching styles as their tools.
At the same time, I also believe a preacher may develop and utilize a style of preaching that works for him. Afterall, Phillip Brooks defined Christian preaching as, “Bringing of truth through personality.” Correspondingly, a preacher must understand his personality of preaching and continue to develop the gift that has been entrusted to him.
So, can a preacher preach effectively with a manuscript? Absolutely.
Seob Kim is a graduate of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a licentiate in the OPC.
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Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon
Broadus, John A. On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons: Fourth Edition. 4th ed. edition. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1979.
Brooks, Phillips. Lectures on Preaching, Delivered before the Divinity School of Yale College in January and February, 1877. New York : E.P. Dutton & company, 1877. http://archive.org/details/lecturesonpreach00broo.
Martin, Albert N. Albert N. Martin. Preaching in the Holy Spirit , Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Reformation Heritage Books, 2011. E-Pub.
Spurgeon, Charles H. Lectures to My Students: Practical and Spiritual Guidance for Preachers, Vol. 1 Aneko Press, October 1, 2020. Kindle.
 Spurgeon, Charles H.. Lectures to My Students: Practical and Spiritual Guidance for Preachers (Volume 1) (p. 201). Aneko Press. Kindle Edition.
 John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons: Fourth Edition, 4th ed. edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1979), 14-15.
 Albert N. Martin. Preaching in the Holy Spirit (Kindle Locations 677-685). Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition.
 Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, Delivered before the Divinity School of Yale College in January and February, 1877 (New York : E.P. Dutton & company, 1877), http://archive.org/details/lecturesonpreach00broo, 5.