Preaching without a net
How ditching the manuscript has made things better.
I am a writer; I always have been.
I mean, obviously, right? This is a substack newsletter and a secret public journal, both of which are written mediums. And over the last however many years, I have written countless papers, articles, sermons, blog posts, and so on. I even wrote a book that was published by a real live publisher. By pretty much any measure, I am a writer.
But I am also someone who thinks through writing. Putting pen to paper—or, at least, fingers to keyboard—is how refine my ideas, organize my thoughts, and give some sense of finality to my opinions. Taking the words in my head and writing them down, in some weird way, makes them more real. And that’s all the more true once I hit publish or send or whatever puts those written words in front of other people.
And that has always carried over into preaching. While there have been occasional exceptions, I have pretty much always thought through my sermons by writing them down, playing with the words, getting everything neatly organized and exactly right, and then preaching them.
Until this year.
This year, I ditched the manuscript. I started slowly, still putting fingers to keyboard, letting the written product be the finished product, and then preaching an imperfect copy from notes. But now, a few months later, I think through the sermon over the course of the week and preach it without notes.
And that has helped a lot.
First, going without the manuscript has freed up a lot of time.
There is more to crafting a sermon than writing. We need to spend time with the scripture, read commentaries, research current events that connect to the scripture, develop stories, and so on. But writing—the actual act of sitting at a keyboard and typing—is an exclusive thing: you can’t type and drive, or type and walk the dog, or type and do most other things. And that means that writing a sermon manuscript is an exclusive thing. For me, it made all of crafting a sermon into a thing that needed its own special time. Usually about a day. Sometimes more.
I still spend time with the scripture, read commentaries, research current events, and other things that require exclusive time. But the ‘writing’—developing the stories, crafting the segments of the sermon, putting them in order, choosing the touchstone phrases, and so on—can happen while I do other things. I now write my sermons while I walk the dog, cook dinner, clean the bathroom, or whenever. And I write them, especially, on my commute: a half-an-hour each direction several times a week opens up a lot of time to think through them.
And I can use the time that has opened up elsewhere for other things like home visits, volunteering, and visioning, which is incredibly freeing.
Second, I am connecting to by congregation better.
The congregation that I serve holds worship at 9:30 on Sunday mornings. I don’t know if I am a night owl or an early evening pigeon, but I am definitely not an early bird. And being in performance mode at 9:30am—especially is Saturday was a hard day or Saturday night was a hard night and I’m a little more tired than usual—is hard. That meant that there were mornings when it felt more like I was standing behind the pulpit instead of at it, reading a sermon instead of preaching one, speaking to myself instead of the people in the pews.
I no longer preach from behind the pulpit. Instead, I preach from the space in the center of the chancel—the space between the pulpit and the lectern—and I can use the whole speed. I also no longer have to look down at a manuscript, but can more regularly make eye contact with the people or look through my mind’s eye at the scene I am describing. In short, I have so much more space—both literally and figuratively—to preach.
Third, I am more spontaneous.
One of the challenges of a manuscript is how easy it is to be held hostage by it. Before worship each Sunday, I could spend a little bit of time making small changes; and, of course, I could choose to go off script (and I sometimes did). But, in general, once the sermon started, I felt a pull to follow the script as much as possible. And I don’t think that was a bad thing; but I do think that it was unnecessarily limiting.
Now, I approach the moment of preaching with an outline in my head and some touchstone phrases that I want to hit (and that often run through a section of the sermon or even through the whole sermon). But if I want to move, drop, or even add a section a few moments before worship—or, if I want to spend a little more time exploring an idea in the moment—I can do that. And, hopefully, it’s not too noticeable when I do.
Beautifully, people in my congregation have noticed these things.
I follow the acolyte out of the sanctuary at the end of every service. Then I stand there and greet people as they file out of worship and head toward the coffee and snacks in fellowship hall. And a number of people in that line have commented about how much they enjoy the new-for-me style of preaching. More importantly, people seem more able to tell me what they liked about the sermon and what it made them think about. And that is absolutely wonderful.
I know that this style of preaching isn’t for everyone. It isn’t for all preachers and it isn’t for all listeners. And it might not always be for me. But I am happy that I am trying it; and, if you are a person who preaches, I highly recommend that you try it, too.