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Why I Manuscript in My Sermon Prep

My old sermon notes next to my recent sermon manuscript.

Today I pulled from my shelf a Bible given to me by my father during my first semester of college. In it I found several old sermon outlines I preached during my time in school. I was immediately struck by the difference between those old sermon notes and the ones I use today. My old notes were handwritten, one-page outlines mostly composed of phrases, alliterated points, and Scripture references. There wasn’t one complete paragraph I could find in any of them. Illustrations were simply noted by the letter “I” with circle around it, followed by a word or two (e.g., man with dog, broken bicycle). This epitomized my sermon preparation. I would study, take mental notes, scratch a few things out here and there on a scrap of paper, then proceed to write a sermon outline from which to preach. That was it. I continued this simple process through seminary, my first full-time position, up to my initial years at my current church, Clear Creek Community Church. If memory serves me correctly, my first sermon at CCCC was preached from something akin to a 5×7 note card on which was written a rather scant outline.

It was a good process. It was efficient (I don’t like to over-prepare). It fit my preaching style (I am an extemporaneous preacher). I felt it would serve me well for the long-haul and yet, today, I employ a preparation process whereby I manuscript the entire message (though I still preach from an outline). Why? Initially, it’s because I admired the preaching of my Senior Pastor Bruce Wesley. He manuscripted his messages and would preach the lights out! I thought I could possibly get better as a preacher by doing the same. Today, I see at least three reasons why I like manuscripting messages in the sermon prep process while still preaching from an outline:

#1: Manuscripting refines my thinking.

In the editing process I’m better able to see how different sections interact with each other. Does my illustration really support what I’ve just spoken? Is this the best place for it in my message? Am I saying too much here or not enough? You may be able to do this to some degree with a generalized outline; however, a manuscript affords me greater clarity about my thought process in putting a sermon together. I don’t have to debate what I’m thinking at each point in the message, the manuscript shows me what I’m thinking. In fact it does so in great deal in addition to what, if any, changes need to be made.

#2: Manuscripting sharpens my speaking.

I think saying your sermon aloud is invaluable. What you hear in your head as you read your notes can be very different once you speak out your sermon. When I speak though my message it helps me see where different elements of it may be too chunky or too thin or just right. A manuscript allows me to work as closely as possible to the message that actually gets preached on Sunday. I can hear in detail, for example, how a phrase sounds. Can it be rewritten for greater effectiveness? Is this the best way to communicate what I need said? Are there more memorable ways of saying this? I also find manuscripting keeps from from rambling, chasing unhelpful rabbits, or being incoherent in the pulpit. Honestly, it helps me from being lazy. I can’t say, “Well, I’ll just figure out how to say that on Sunday.”

#3: Manuscripting is better stewardship.

In my early years, being invited to speak at other churches was always an exercise in frustration. I would pull out my sermon notes and, because they were in sparse outline form, were essentially un-preachable. I would read something like “Illustration: Man with Dog.” That was it! Manuscripting filled in the blanks. It took out the guesswork and blank stares that went with my meager sermon outlines. It made me a good steward of all the hard work I’d put into preaching. Manuscripting allowed me to not only re-preach messages but to also use that content in future endeavors (e.g., training material, seminars, etc.).

Once again, I don’t preach from a manuscript. I don’t bring one into the pulpit (I take a really big outline with me). I’m still a rather extemporaneous speaker. More often than not I prefer flow to precision. And while it’s more time consuming, using a manuscript in the sermon prep process has been more rewarding. Try it. See if it refines your thinking, sharpens your speaking, and is a better way to steward the gift God has given you.

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

5 thoughts on “Why I Manuscript in My Sermon Prep”

  1. Yancey, good post. I manuscript and have often felt somewhat guilty for doing so, mainly after seeing gifted preachers go for 45 minutes, not losing my interest once, and never glancing at a note. But like you I find that manuscripting crystallizes thoughts and actually keeps me from rambling.
    ** Unlike you, I do take mine into the pulpit, but I find that I don’t read it unless I want to get the wording of something exactly how it came in the prep time.

  2. Thanks for the reflection Patrick. What’s funny is that over time my outlines have grown in their thickness – they’re basically mildly stripped down manuscripts. I treat them as you describe your preaching.

  3. Thanks for the post Yancey. I’d love to see the outline that you take to the pulpit. I’m currently trying to find a balance between a full manuscript and a modified outline.

  4. Thanks for the post as well and I agree with Michael – would love to see what you carry to pulpit… I did outlines in past as well and now manuscript and reduce to preach from .. thanks!

  5. 10 years ago I was taking Steve Lawson to the airport in Samara, Russia after he’d preached a series of powerful expository messages to a packed house of Russian men. I asked, “Can you suggest one thing in prep that would help me become a better preacher?” He said, “Write it out, by hand, word for word, beginning with ‘Take your Bibles and open…’ all the way to ‘let’s pray’.” Best advice I’ve had since seminary!

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