The Manuscript Maze (part three)

February 16, 2007

Last week we considered the chief advantages and disadvantages of full, written manuscripts. Today, we swing to the other end of the spectrum: extemporaneous preaching. This method has been favoured by some of the greatest preachers (such as Charles Spurgeon, and George Whitefield – pictured) and involves expositing God’s Word with nothing more than an open bible. As last week, let’s now evaluate some of its strengths and weaknesses.


1. It allows for maximum eye contact and enables the preacher to fully engage with his congregation. There is no danger of the preacher appearing impersonal simply because he glances to his notes from time to time. This advantage shouldn’t be underestimated, especially in a culture that values authenticity and good interpersonal skills.

2. Extemporaneous preaching forces the speaker to be natural. Since he hasn’t written out his script, there is no danger that he will ‘speak as he writes.’ His mode of expression is likely to be what is normal to him.

3. This approach may take less preparation time. Certainly it involves much less (or no) writing, which can be a most exacting process. That said, since the preacher has to have a good feel for the subject to speak freely on it, he may need just as much prep time in terms of reading, thinking and praying.

4. It allows flexibility to any changes the preacher encounters in terms of the congregation’s response. If there is evident confusion over a certain point, the extemporary preacher can immediately expand further till his audience seem to be grasping it. He may also move on more quickly to other material once he feels he has made his point plain.

1. For extemporaneous preachers who do little or no writing beforehand, there may be less clarity of thought. Clearer thinking can be an advantage of writing. It is also possible that the sermon will have less sensible order to it, since the structure may not have been ‘worked out.’

2. Expression may at times be less careful or sometimes ‘loose.’ There can, for the less gifted orator, be a greater likelihood of saying something in a less helpful way.

3. It relies on excellent powers of memory and good speaking ability. Not all of us are Charles Spurgeon when we get on our feet!

Well, these are my preliminary thoughts. Let me know if you agree, take issue, or have anything to add.



  1. Another con, (from someone who preaches without notes, but with extensive preparation): sometimes you say things you hadn’t planned at all on saying. I suppose you could do this even with a manuscript, but there’s something about being untethered from notes that lends itself to saying something off-the-cuff. I’m rarely happy about these moments.

  2. Just a thought about “Pro #3”: I know a preacher who always preaches extempore, and who always has a full set of notes! My hunch is that excellent note-less preaching is a product of extraordinarily thorough preparation, and a healthy dose of gifting!

  3. John Calvin preached without notes, according to Steve Lawson, in his book ‘The Expository Genius of John Calvin’. Calvin knew his material, and wanted to be free from notes so that he could focus on his congregation. I have been encouraged by this to try preaching less dependant on notes, and I’ve been surprised that it’s not as difficult as it might seem. I’ve even been told that my messages without notes seem like the message is in my soul.

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