In Defense of Manuscripts

In the last few weeks, a few prominent preachers have blogged on the pluses and minuses of the outlines, notes, and manuscripts that preachers take into the pulpit with them.  Neither seem to have a very positive view of manuscripts (fully written sermon notes). To be fair, their criticisms of manuscript preachers would cause me to stand against  it as well.  For example, they suggest that manuscript preachers have a great temptation:

  • to not follow the leading of the Spirit;
  • to be more worried about getting through what’s written than connecting with the people;
  • to have sermons with too much preparation;
  • to be overly reliant on the paper in front of them.

Of course, we can see where these things could be potential dangers. But one preacher seems to suggest all of this is an increasing problem. To be honest, I’d like to know what preachers he listening to!   In my experience, I have encountered the opposite.  Being on vacation or visiting family, I find the preaching rambling, vacuous of serious content, poorly exegeting the text in favor of  easy humor and a less-than-transcendent feel to the proclamation of the Word.  All of this comes with those not looking down very often in their preaching–in other words, no manuscripts.

Yet, is that kind of preaching because of the length of their notes?  Well, maybe.  But I doubt it.  I think the greater problem is that we have many poorly trained pastors in general.  We have men preaching the word who have failed to be gripped by it themselves and understand very little of what the text is actually saying.  Instead, they’ve jotted down some notes in a sincere effort to meet felt needs, but which in the end leaves the people of God malnourished.  At the same time, if the previously mentioned preacher is correct, we now also have those who want to come to the pulpit and give a running commentary on the text, rather than preach with passion and authority, convicting and encouraging God’s flock with the power of the gospel.

So, why do I type up a full manuscript?  Well, I did it on the advice of another preacher whom I admire.  But to be honest, I can’t remember who it was anymore!  I think it was  from Derek Prime at a Basics Conference, but I can’t be sure.  Anyway, whoever it was said that he was given that advice as a younger preacher–specifically, to write out every sermon for the first five years.  The belief was that, in doing so, you’d have thought through exactly how you wanted to say something at least once.  That meant you didn’t have to fumble around for words or worry about getting distracted.  As time went on and the preacher became more familiar with his task he may leave off the full manuscripting.

To be honest, I have found this approach and reasoning very helpful.  Yet, I am also not chained to it.  I type up my manuscript, then go over it with a pen, making notes on Sunday mornings before I preach.  By this time, I’ve read through my sermon at least three times and I have it more or less memorized.  I take the manuscript with me in the pulpit, but I’m only glancing down to keep myself on target and read specific sentences.   I also feel great freedom to stay longer in one place, add another verse to quote, give another illustration, go deeper in my application, etc.    But, I’m not sure I would feel that freedom without the discipline of writing everything out at least once.

All of that being said, I think we can also all agree that the measure of a preacher isn’t really what kind of notes he brings into the pulpit with him.   Every style has drawbacks as much as it has value.  In the end, what matters is the preacher himself. Regardless of what he takes with him into the pulpit on paper, he had better also bring a humility before God, a right understanding of the Word, a reliance on the Spirit, a desire to exalt Christ, and a love for the church.   If that is true of the preacher, then whether it’s a bare outline or a full manuscript before him, he will be a blessing to the kingdom of God.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Manuscripts

  1. Dwaine Kaiser says:

    I received very similar advice when I first began to preach, that is write out a manuscript, and have continued the practice even though I have been preaching for almost nine years now. I write out a full manuscript and while I would not say I have it memorized, I feel comfortable that what is there is reasoned and “connecting” the dots so to speak. I have found that it does keep a few of the “rabbits” off the trail when I wander away and in that sense serves as guardrails to keep from getting away from the point of the text. Having said that though I do not find it limiting, meaning I still find considerable freedom to add or subtract Scripture that I have studied but maybe did not feel would ‘fit’ when I wrote the manuscript. In that sense I do not find the Spirit limited because I have written a manuscript. It sometimes amazes me how after I have preached a message I have said an awful lot that was not on the page, yet the point was not lost or obscure.

    I do not have a problem with those who preach from an outline or even do not have any notes when they go into the pulpit. But I would concur with you that those I have heard who that is their ‘style’ have often not really fed me or often stuck to the point of the passage. That does not make it true always of course, but it is just my own observation. I think your concluding paragraph is excellent, for in the final analysis whatever accompanies the pastor/teacher into the pulpit it better be the Holy Spirit and he needs to elevate Christ or that preaching is for naught.

    Just my two cents worth though. God Bless.

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