Preaching From a Full Text

This week I received an e-mail from my friend Chris Skilton:

I have never preached from a full text nor write one. I’m a few pages of notes person and find it very hard indeed to speak from a full script”.

By contrast, today I always preach from a full manuscript. I used to preach from notes – but no longer. Who is right?

Chris Skilton is in good company. I have framed on my office wall the original notes of a sermon preached on Sunday 4 January 1874 by the Victorian ‘prince of preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The notes are written on the back of a small envelope, 4” by 3”. The full text was taken down by shorthand and eventually occupied eleven pages in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.

The great Scottish preacher of a past generation, James Stewart, wrote in his book Preaching, published in the old ‘Teach Yourself’ series:

The minister of the Gospel is essentially a herald of the most magnificent and moving tidings that ever broke upon the world; but how shall he make the world feel the living urgency of the message if he is perpetually fettered and shackled by the tradition of the read discourse? If you dispense with your manuscript, and preach freely from a single page of notes, your sermon may indeed lose something of artistry and literary expression; there may be gaps and broken sentences – occasionally even murdered grammar…. You may lose some polished idiom or nicely rounded phrase; you may perpetrate many an abrupt and violent anacolouthon. What matter if you do? Take courage: you are in good company. Are there no anacolouthistic sentences in the New Testament, beginning one way, ending another? In any case, what you stand to lose is more than compensated by the gain in personal grip, in directness and urgency and reality, in the immediate impact of mind upon mind and the living encounter of heart with heart.

And yet, I would dare to maintain, that as far as I am concerned, I am a much better preacher when I have a full manuscript before me. I believe that my sermon is clearer, simpler, and more precise, because I have spent time crafting the sermon, writing it carefully word for word.

True, there are times when I depart from the script. I am not bound by my script. And yet I am not convinced that my ‘excursions’ necessarily improve the sermon.

Certainly, I do not read the sermon in a measured fashion. It is not an essay. It is a sermon, which needs to be preached – and if necessary to be preached with passion.

The very way in which I lay out my sermon indicates that it is not an essay. There are no solid paragraphs. When a sentence ends, the next sentence often begins on the next line. There are gaps galore. The sermon is set out for preaching.

Although I do not memorise my sermon, it is very much part of me. An hour before the service I am in my office going through the sermon, marking the sermon with a bright yellow highlighter.

By the time I stand before the congregation I know my sermon inside out.

The manuscript is not a barrier between me and the congregation. It is rather a vital means of powerful communication. To my surprise I have discovered that many of my listeners have no idea that I have a full manuscript before me. They assume that I am just using notes.

Today I cannot imagine preaching without a full text. For me, the exercise in writing out the sermon in full, is part of my commitment to excellence in ministry.

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