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.