Why I Decided to Preach Extemporaneously
Preaching is the most evident supernatural activity that Christians can witness on a weekly basis. Dr. Charles W. Koller bears witness to this as he writes, “Preaching is that unique procedure by which God, through His chosen messenger, reaches down into the human family and brings persons face to face with Himself.” When a preacher rightly divides and exposits the Word of God in the pulpit, God truly speaks to the congregation through His chosen messenger.
While most Reformed preachers would agree on the supremacy of preaching in the church ministry, many have different views concerning the method of preaching. For example, some may recommend a preacher to use a fully written manuscript, where one writes the content of his message verbatim. Some may agree that a preacher should fully write a sermon manuscript, but keep himself from depending on it on the pulpit. On the other hand, some may suggest a preacher memorize the manuscript and preach it from memory.
Since I learned to preach at seminary, I always used a full manuscript for my delivery. And I had many good reasons. As a Korean who learned English as a second language, I felt more comfortable writing out my sermons so I would know what to say in the pulpit. It kept me from rambling, and ensured I would deliver a message with carefully chosen words, words worthy of the message’s theological matter. For that matter, I also used sermon manuscripts to meticulously organize my thoughts and craft my sermon. As a result, manuscripts always helped to calm my nerves when I stood before the congregation.
And then, a few weeks ago, I decided to break away from preaching with a manuscript. Instead, I shifted to noteless preaching, or what is better known as “extemporaneous preaching.”
What is Extemporaneous Preaching?
To put it simply, “extemporaneous preaching” is manuscript-less preaching. John Albert Broadus provides a clear definition: “Free, or extemporaneous, speaking, without dependence upon manuscript or close verbal memory.” Accordingly, contrary to manuscript preachers who use fully-written sermon manuscripts, extemporaneous preachers utilize written outlines or no notes at all in the pulpit.
Understandably, the thought of venturing into extemporaneous preaching is intimidating to many preachers. I myself had known about extemporaneous preaching for a while, yet I never dared to dip my toe into the pool of the unknown, deeming that I would most certainly fail. So what changed my mind? Allow me to briefly share a few of the reason that convinced (and convicted) me to preach extemporaneously.
1. Historical Examples for Extemporaneous Preaching
It is a well-known fact that some of the most powerful preachers in the history of the Reformed Church preached extemporaneously. For example, John Calvin preached without any written manuscript or notes on the pulpit. He chose to do this in order to ensure the liveliness of his sermons. John Knox, who was certainly influenced by John Calvin’s preaching in Geneva, also preached without a fully-written manuscript. Likewise, many renowned preachers like Charles Spurgeon, Charles R. Brown, John Wesley, and R.C. Sproul also preached without a manuscript or with minimally written notes.
I certainly did not decide to pursue extemporaneous preaching to be like one of these genius preachers. Nonetheless, I was struck by how these compelling preachers recognized its effectiveness and power. Quoting Clarence Macartney, Dr. Koller writes, “In season and out of season, year after year, and to the average congregation, there can be no question that the sermon that does the most good is the sermon which is preached without notes.” With this sort of encouragement, I became convicted to preach extemporaneously in order to raise the passion and the liveliness of my sermon to the next level.
2. Relational Advantage for Extemporaneous Preaching
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I decided to venture into the practice of extemporaneous preaching is out of my deep desire to connect with my congregation. Dr. Joseph M. Webb comments:
“If one wishes to create and sustain the strongest bond possible between a given speaker and audience (congregants), that can only be accomplished when one preaches without notes... To prepare well and preach well without notes is to hold people tightly in one's hands. It is to command attention and not let go of it. Congregants are more than willing to give this attention. Time will stop for the duration of the sermon, and people will only look at their watches after the sermon is over.”
Many preachers can effectively and powerfully use their manuscripts. When I preached from a full manuscript, many people gave me positive comments concerning my passionate and energetic delivery. But despite such positive comments, I often lost the congregation because my eyes were naturally fixed on the notes in front of me. I knew the manuscript was hindering me from establishing a crucial bond with the congregation as I preached to them—and so I decided to break away from it.
I do not want my congregation to leave the church merely with an impression; I want them to leave with a connection. As Dr. Webb has already explained, this can only be done when you constantly maintain eye contact with your congregation. That is one large reason why I am convicted to preach extemporaneously. I stopped using the manuscript for the sake of gaining the relational advantage of extemporaneous preaching.
3. Spiritual Benefit for Extemporaneous Preaching
Finally, I also resolved to preach extemporaneously because I wanted to transfer my trust in the manuscript to the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that I did not trust in the Holy Spirit when I preached with a manuscript. As a matter of fact, I always labored to thoroughly marinate my sermon preparation and delivery in the Holy Spirit. As I prepared my sermon manuscripts, I prayed to the Lord that He would grant me sharp insight and the right words. Before I stood on the pulpit, I always sought the Lord earnestly, praying that He would grant me His unction and cause me to wholly trust His Spirit in the act of preaching.
However, when I entered the pulpit, I often noticed how my trust in the Holy Spirit shifted to trust in my manuscript. For example, having a manuscript in front of me often assured me, “I have done my homework. I have my work in front of me. I know what I am going to say. What could possibly go wrong?” At the end of the day, I found myself putting more trust in my sermon notes than the Holy Spirit in me.
Extemporaneous preaching cultivated in me the heightened sense of my utter dependency on the Holy Spirit. I believe Spurgeon aptly describes the change that I experienced:
“In order to [attain] the holy and useful exercise of extemporal speech, the Christian minister must cultivate a childlike reliance upon the immediate assistance of the Holy Spirit. ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost,’ says the Creed.”
Accordingly, when I decided to preach extemporaneously, I did not spend a day without conscious and earnest prayer to the Holy Spirit. I also have a deeper sense and need to walk with the Holy Spirit and pursue godliness in my daily life. Most importantly, as I enter into the pulpit, with only my Hebrew and Greek Bible by my side, I consciously “lean into” the Spirit, trusting in His power. “I believe in the Holy Ghost,” says the Creed.
Convicted to Preach Extemporaneously
Above are the few reasons that convicted me of preaching extemporaneously. I certainly have a long journey ahead to be a well-trained extemporaneous preacher. Venturing into this realm of the seemingly-unknown was like learning to crawl again. I have a long way to go, and many more sermons to preach, as I learn and grow in the discipline of extemporaneous preaching.
Though the ground is hard, Dr. Steven J. Lawson’s word encourages me to keep on plowing:
“Your abilities should never remain stationary. Either you are progressing, gaining greater precision and power in the pulpit, or you are regressing. There is no standing still. You are either growing in your gifts as a preacher or reverting. If you are satisfied with where your preaching is, you are surely drifting backward, whether you realize it or not.”
Accordingly, I have decided to step into extemporaneous preaching. And
Through the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, I have resolved to preach without notes. May my preaching be fashioned in the demonstration of power and Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4), all for the glory of Christ.
Seob Kim is a graduate of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a licentiate in the OPC.
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 Charles W. Koller and Michael Quicke, How to Preach without Notes, Repackaged ed. edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 13.
 John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation & Delivery of Sermons, New (26th) ed. / edited by Edwin Charles Dargan.. (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1908), 432.
 Koller and Quicke, How to Preach without Notes, 37.
 Joseph M. Webb, Preaching Without Notes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 25, 118.
 C H Spurgeon (Charles Haddon), Lectures to My Students (Pasadena, Tx.: Pilgrim Publications, 1990), 165-6. Emphasis original.
 Steven J. Lawson, Called to Preach: Fulfilling the High Calling of Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2022), 157.
Broadus, John Albert. A Treatise on the Preparation & Delivery of Sermons. New (26th) ed. / edited by Edwin Charles Dargan.. New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1908.
C H Spurgeon (Charles Haddon). Lectures to My Students. Pasadena, Tx.: Pilgrim Publications, 1990.
Koller, Charles W., and Michael Quicke. How to Preach without Notes. Repackaged ed. edition.
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007.
Lawson, Steven J. Called to Preach: Fulfilling the High Calling of Expository Preaching. Grand
Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2022.
Webb, Joseph M. Preaching Without Notes. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001.