Preaching Articles

Sermon Manuscripts

Preachers aren't actors. We don't have to memorize our "script," although many effective preachers take a 12-page manuscript into the pulpit. Likewise, pastors aren't stand-up comedians. We aren't required to "take the stage" armed only with a few thoughts scribbled on a piece of paper, though many good pulpiteers use only a simple outline. There are merits and drawbacks to both of these radically different approaches. A full manuscript allows you to craft more pregnant phrases that tend to stick in the mind of the hearer. The manuscript approach protects you from tangents that might lead you away from the main points of the text. The downside to a manuscript is that you are tempted to interact more with your notes than with God and people. It’s harder to follow the prompting of the Spirit when you are locked into a specific direction.

Using Outlines

The benefits of an outline are that you keep the big picture in front of you and tend to consistently move in that direction. Using fewer notes means that eye contact and interaction with people will happen more frequently. Many folks who use outlines say they go into the pulpit with a sense of freedom and confidence that they might not get with a manuscript. The downside of an outline is that it is easy to miss important details of the text. Outline preachers tend to preach longer because they are tempted to chase thoughts that occur to them in the preaching moment. Also, off-the-cuff humor and illustrations are usually underdeveloped and might not convey your intended meaning.

Something In-between

I use something between an outline and a manuscript. I write out certain parts of the sermon verbatim. The parts are phrases that I think will help expose the text, phrases that will stick with people. I often close the sermon by leaving people with questions to chew on. When I do this, I write them out very carefully and usually project them on a screen to focus the congregation on the questions. But I also step into the pulpit with bullet points that highlight the big ideas I want to communicate. This allows me to keep the sermon moving forward in a logical flow, and more importantly, leaves room for me to hear from the Lord in the "preaching moment." I can camp out on a particular verse or skip a particular illustration as the Spirit leads. There is not a prescribed biblical manner for preparing and delivering your sermon, which means you have freedom to explore your particular style as you prepare a sermon and proclaim the gospel. You may enjoy taking a look at this blog series by Josh Harris, where he posts the preaching notes of several well-known pastors, showing you what they take with them into the pulpit.

Darrin and Amie have been married since 1993. They have four children: Glory was born in 2000, Gracie was born in 2002, Drew was born in 2006, and Delainey was born in 2009. In 2001, Darrin and Amie moved to St. Louis and planted The Journey. Pastor Darrin's first book, Church Planter, was released in August 2010, and his next book For the City, written with Matt Carter, is set to be released in spring 2011.

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Rev Michael Wilhite

commented on May 14, 2011

I think it really all depends on what you are comfortable with. I personally use a full manuscript because I find that I chase rabbit trails too much when I don't. A manuscript is the only thing that keeps me on track in my preaching. I know some don't like it because they think it's too restrictive and I understand that. I once thought that too. But remember this: if God will visit you in the pulpit, He'll visit you in your study time too. I can have confidence that when I write a manuscript, God can lead me how to write it just as much as He can lead me in preaching it "in the moment".

Steve Shepherd

commented on May 14, 2011

I have been preaching 45 years. I use a manuscript as well, but it's only four pages long. I practice every sermon out loud at least twice before I preach the message to my people. My practice is to preach my morning sermon by 5 or 5:30 on Sunday mornings. I try to saturate my heart and mind with the message. There is no substitute for good preparation. I want to please God and edify my people.

Rich Thomas

commented on May 14, 2011

I use what I call and expanded outline. It has a bit more detail than a simple outline, and at some points looks like a full manuscript. I feel that this method works for me, and allows me better contact with my congregation. I don't think there is any one way that will work for all preachers. And the most important element to any message is waiting on the Lord, and preaching what He gives and leads us to.

Reverend Keith Moreland

commented on May 14, 2011

I guess I must be different. I study my sermon during the week. I make a short manuscript out of an outline that I first develop. I read and read the manuscript, which winds up being all of the points that i want to say put together. Then I only take my bible with me to preach. I usually walk around the front of the sanctuary and sometimes down the aisles, so I guess it might be awkward to carry around the papers. If I need to reference a scripture, then I have it bookmarked in my bible for easy access. Sermons average 20 minutes, sometimes a little longer. After 20 years and no complaints, something must be going right. I think that each person is different, and the way we use our "tools" to present will always be different. But I love the ideas and the pro's and con's listed here.

Pat Cook

commented on May 14, 2011

I agree with Mr. Wilhite. I use a manuscript because I know that I tend to follow bunny trails as well. Not to say that I never stray... If I had a conversation with someone during the time I finished writing the message and the preaching of it, and it works in the message, I'll use it. Or if God added something while I was praying over the message that morning, I'll use it. But RARELY will I add a joke off the cuff, because they tend to convey things I don't intend.

Chris Jordan

commented on May 14, 2011

Full manuscripts are good for study and to keep in a file, but I have never been comfortable in the pulpit with it. Though taught that method in seminary, my temptation was to look and speak to the paper and forget the people. (I have the same tempation if I have too many notes on the screen). While there is no excuse for ever entering the pulpit unprepared, I believe that a pastor should bring no more than he feels comfortable and confident with to remind him of what God has taught him in his study. Personally, I use an expanded outline with color-coded sections (green for scripture; red for main points; blue for illustrations; and black for further explanations of the text that I want to remember). At a quick glance, I am reminded what's next. I also type my notes using 2 columns on landscape view. Then I print and fold, placing this in my bible, using a rubber band to hold the notes in. That way anytime I look down, I am looking into the bible. This teaches the people that the Bible is where the answers are. This has been my working method for many years.

Barry Lewis

commented on May 15, 2011

Over the years, I have used everything mentioned in this article. I have done full manuscripts, 4 highlight bullets, and everything in between. When I feel the very strong prompting of the spirit during my study time or when I feel that God has actually given me the exact words that my congregation needs to hear, then I write a Manuscript. Some times when I am preparing for a given Sunday the Spirit directs me late in the week to shift my theme, scriptures, or other main portion of the sermon. At those times, I end up taking simple bullet points, a long list of scriptures, lots of prayer, and rely heavily on the Holy Spirit to keep me on point and out of the bunny holes. My sermons are rarely longer than 20-25 minutes. I have always been fascinated by the many different ways that God has chosen to prompt me, in my study time, at the pulpit, on the drive to visit a member of my congregation, or even during the drive to church on Sunday.

Steve Baker

commented on May 15, 2011

Your Comments

Jeff Strite

commented on May 16, 2011

I preach from a manuscript (for the sake of my team that puts my notes on the overhead), but that doesn't stop from going down "bunny trails" if I feel led to do so (which tends to drive my team to distraction on occasion). I hop down those bunny trails because I feel they are needed to clarify the sermon, or to relate better to my audience. It has been my conclusion that every style has its merits and the only valuable objective is to explain God's Will to Man, and to bring Man to God.

Rodney Wise

commented on May 16, 2011

Everyone has their own style that is best for them, but I find a manuscript is necessary for one reason. What if I wake up on Sunday morning with the flu and I simply can't preach. With just a small outline that means there is no sermon that day. If I have prepared a manuscript, an elder can read it from the pulpit and the Word of God still gets applied to the people even though I am not there. I learned this lesson after a bout with cancer and year-long chemo treatments. Thanks be to God that was 6 years ago, but I now always place a manuscript in the pulpit on Saturday--just in case.

Richard Hopper

commented on May 17, 2011

I too have used most of the methods described here and I have to admit that in my latter years of preaching that a manuscript feels like a ball and chain. I tended to read it instead of preach it. It's true that it is easier to get sidetracked when preaching from a outline as there is not as much structure to help with the preaching process. However in each instance the Holy Spirit has been present and when I rely on Him to do the heart work with the words given to me by the Father then it's all good. I simply want to be used by God and be the messenger He has called me to be.

Michael Morton

commented on May 18, 2011

I use a manuscript ninety-eight percent of the time. The biggest complaint I hear concerning aging preachers is that they ramble and forget where they are in the middle of their sermons. I can preach a much tighter and more meaningful sermon using a manuscript. I also preach out loud my sermon between 5 and 6 AM every Sunday morning. I try to do it fast to check for flow. One other positive for me of using a manuscript is that I always know how long I am going to preach. I know how fast I talk (wpm) and all word processors have a word count. I can tailor my sermon length to a particular Sunday service. God leads me a lot better in preparation as I prepare a manuscript the speaking from notes. All that said, my best pastor friend can use 1/2 of a 3X5 note card and delivers consistently excellent sermons.

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