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The Manuscript Maze (part one)

February 2, 2007

What sort of notes, if any, should you take into the pulpit? Getting this right has the potential to benefit your preaching and your congregation. Getting it wrong can lead to disastrous results.

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Over the next four Fridays, I’d like to ponder this question some more: what kind manuscript (if at all) should we use in our preaching? It seems to me that there are four basic options:

1) Full manuscript – Writing out the sermon completely and taking it with us into the pulpit. This word for word option is still popular among many preachers.

2) Reduced manuscript – This is more than a bare bones outline, but not as extensive as a full manuscript.With this approach, preachers may write out a full manuscript before reducing it to the key sentances and quotes which they will take into the pulpit. Others who take this line never write a full manuscript but only this draft form. Possibly the most popular choice?

3) Basic outline manuscript – This is the basic outline of the sermon. It will at least include the main points and possibly also brief notes on subpoints, illustrations and application. This outline probably fits onto one page.

4) No manuscript – Exemporaneous. It was good enough for Spurgeon, who left his script behind in the study to preach only from his open bible. The reality, however, is that such preaching usually still follows an outline, but this is located in the preachers head not on a sheet of paper!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the strengths and weakness of each form. But out of interest, which do you use?

17 comments

  1. One seminary professor told us that using notes indicates that you do not trust God or prepare well enough. Despite that, I have used all four of the methods you describe. Most often I use a manuscript. Preaching without notes, which I do on occassion, does give a wonderful sense of freedom and contact with the congregation.


  2. For Sunday morning I use a full manuscript. For all other times I use what I used the previous 25 years of my ministry: a basic outline manuscript. The Sunday morning audience is so general that I feel I must constrain myself a bit to keep from running rabbits. I’ve found the writing an effective help in preparation but only have time to write one manuscript sermon a week. I never read my manuscript word for word and treat it the same way I would a one page outline with the exception that I doublecheck to make sure my pages are in order🙂


  3. I’ve had a seminary professor tell me that using a manuscript shows that we trust the Holy Spirit to work in the study during the week as much as in the pulpit on Sunday morning. Thought that was pretty good reasoning. I use an outline, I’ve found that if I write a full manuscript I tend to get a more complicated line of thought that ends up sounding like a lecture…but that’s just me, many folks use a full manuscript very well.


  4. I use a one page outline, though I have used all four over the years. Distilling the sermon into a memorable, concise, outline is a discipline that helps me be a better communicator.

    I enjoy your blog. Thanks!


  5. I use the reduced manuscript most often, but it really depends from sermon to sermon. I rarely go without notes, but occasionally.


  6. I’ve tried a variety of methods, but 2 years ago I settled on being a full manuscript guy. Before Sunday morning I know my manuscript very well, so I don’t look at it too often. I’ve had a lot of people in the congregation ask me how I preach without notes. With this method the full manuscript hasn’t been a barrier to engaging with the congregation.


  7. I tend to use what might be more of a cross between a manuscript and outline. I basically use a number of bullet points that I can use to reference during the sermon as well as keep me on track. This turns our to be multiple pages because of content and font size as I think it is important to be able to see what is written without too much effort.

    I think that the most important thing is not necessarily what method you use but that you use the method that best suits your personally. If I had a full manuscript I am sure I would more than likely tend to read more but I have seen Mark Dever who, I think uses a full manuscript, use one and he does a great job of not sounding like he is reading as well as engaging the audience.

    Also, what may impact this is how often you preach. As I am not the senor pastor I do not get to preach but every 6 weeks or so. If I was preaching through a book of scripture so was living with the specific text more than sporadically I may need less notes. This is also a good reason to preach expositionaly through scripture as then things flow together and what one did last week helps what you are dong this week.


  8. It seems that there can be effective preachers accross the spectrum. I listened to Voddie Baucham today, a very good preacher of the word and he uses no notes. John Piper, on the other hand uses a full manuscript. I have taken preaching at two different seminaries. The late Dr. Frank Kik (RTS) advocated a full manuscript. Dr. Wayne McDill (Southeastern) is for extemporaneous with no notes. He does, however, require that a manuscript be written, just not used. This ought to be edifying and fun.


  9. When I first started preachign I just used an outline but after listening to John Stott suggest a full manuscipt I switched to that approach. For me, it has proven very helpful. I think the sermon through much more clearly when I write it out completely. I make the main points and outline stand out with bold text and/or go over it and highlight the main points. If I look down at my notes the outline jstands out but the full text is there also. The result for me has been that I am not dependent on the manuscript but I can return to it if needed. An additional plus is that I can go back to an old sermon and find the full manuscript helps me regain the benefits of previous thinking and study. Then I can more effectively rework the sermon especially when other ministry demands compress my preparation time. All that said, the main benefit for me is in the process of writing it.


  10. One more thing — I find it crucial in the writing to think orally not as if I were writing an essay but rather in light of the fact that I am preparing a message to be preaced. I sit and type and sometimes actually speak out loud as I go. I don’t think manuscipts work well if the preacher reads the manuscript or if process of writing itself results in a written style instead of a style that intentionally serves the spoken word.


  11. When I first started preaching I just used an outline but after listening to John Stott suggest a full manuscipt I switched to that approach. For me, it has proven very helpful. I think the sermon through much more clearly when I write it out completely. I make the main points and outline stand out with bold text and/or go over it and highlight the main points. If I look down at my notes the outline stands out but the full text is there also. The result for me has been that I am not dependent on the manuscript but I can return to it if needed. An additional plus is that I can go back to an old sermon and find the full manuscript helps me regain the benefits of previous thinking and study. Then I can more effectively rework the sermon especially when other ministry demands compress my preparation time. All that said, the main benefit for me is in the process of writing it.

    One more thing — I find it crucial in the writing to think orally not as if I were writing an essay but rather in light of the fact that I am preparing a message to be preached. I sit and type and sometimes actually speak out loud as I go. I don’t think manuscipts work well if the preacher reads the manuscript or if process of writing itself results in a written style instead of a style that intentionally serves the spoken word.


  12. I tend to use either a full or a reduced manuscript. However, I’m finding myself being too reliant on it. I’m learing I need to force myself to do something that forces me to walk into the pulpit simply prepared to preach, not deliver my manuscript. I think the discipline of the manuscript draft is very good. But to strict adherence to it seems to be (or at least has the potential to be) killing my effectiveness.


  13. I, too, have used each kind in the pulpit. My wife tells me that no notes or limited notes is when she thinks I am a better preacher. So, I trust her. Our wives are a good resource for us. We can ask her and she can perhaps help us discover the style that is most effective for us (again, different for each preacher).
    🙂


  14. Thanks for the post, I find it very interesting to read about other’s method of using notes (or not using). I have mostly preached (though I am a fairly young preacher) with a reduced manuscript, and have tried a couple of times with a basic outline. I have a hard time going with the whole script, as I tend to rely on it too much. Besides, I dare not going without notes purposefully, I don’t trust my memory that much.
    I’ll write some more in 20 years or so, to share my rich and long experience. Please keep your blog going until then.


  15. For anyone considering “preaching without notes” I highly recommend “The Power of Speaking God’s Word” by Wilbur Ellsworth. In essence, the book argues that the oral word is qualitatively different than the spoken word and advocates preparation of the sermon with this in mind.

    I love this sentence (p.130): “The great purpose of the oral craft is to create a sermon inside the preacher in all its fullness so that when the moment to preach comes, the text of Scripture in all its meaning and significance pours forth from the preacher with purpose, clarity and order, passion and imagination, so that the hearers know that they have heard from a servant of the word of the Lord.”

    And Colin, thanks for all your work; this is a great resource!


  16. […] Maze (part two) February 9th, 2007 Last Friday we began a new short series entitled “The Manuscript Maze.” For consideration today, we’re going to think about the pros and cons of using full […]


  17. […] The Manuscript Maze (part four) February 23rd, 2007 Our fourth and final week of the Manuscript Maze brings us not so much to a conclusion, as simply to the third main method people use. At the end of […]



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