Preach the Manuscript: Ten Ways to Improve Sermon Delivery

jesusA few years ago I led an online class on the subject of preaching. As expected, we discussed all sorts of questions pertaining to preaching—sermon length, the use of illustrations, the necessity of expositional preaching, as well as how to preach Christ from the whole Bible. Among these conversations, we discussed the place for manuscripts over against using or not using notes.

In seminary, I learned from two gifted preachers who both taught that manuscripts were not helpful for preaching. For the first few years of pastoring, I followed their advice and brought into the pulpit four to five half-sheets of notes. This taught me how to preach to people and not just read notes. But a few years in, I deviated from their counsel and now manuscript all my sermons.

That said, I strive to preach the manuscript and not just read it. In using a manuscript, I value the clarity and forethought I can put into the message. And ultimately, that is why I change to a manuscript somewhere around 2011. At the same time, manuscripting does lend itself to a dry delivery. Still, I believe the benefits of manuscripting outweigh the costs, so long as preachers learn to do more than read their notes. To that end, here are ten things I’ve learned in preaching a manuscript that might help others who use a manuscript.

Ten Way to Improve Your Manuscripted Message 

1. Learn to preach without (or at least with minimal) notes.

Maybe this sounds counter-intuitive for preaching a manuscript, but I think it is vital. You can’t preach, if you only read your notes. Preaching is necessarily interpersonal, hence the reason why video-streamed services fail. Preachers need to see when the congregation is tracking and when they are not. In my experience, we can’t always trust our perception or an audience blank stares and scrunched noses, but we must try. And thus, even manuscript preachers, must learn to preach to people and not just disseminate information. And one of the best way to preach a manuscript is to learn how to speak and teach without a manuscript.

For example, I did not manuscript for the first few years I preached. Rather, I would prepare basic notes to jog my memory, Additionally, I was ultra-conscious of keeping my eyes on my congregation. This experience shaped the way I preach today, and it makes me uncomfortable just reading a page.

If you haven’t had this experience, however, you can still learn to teach with less notes. Just make sure your other teaching opportunities—Sunday schools, Bible studies, etc.—are not manuscripted. Use those opportunities to learn how to speak to people, to read the text and explain it, and to make connections with those whom you are speaking. Ideally, for those in seminary or who have little experience in preaching, you will have ample chances to teach classes or lead studies. These are the best places to learn how to connect with people over the text of Scripture. And when done rightly, it will help you in your preaching, whether you use a manuscript or not.

2. Make eye contact. 

Vital in learning how to preach a manuscript is learning how to make eye contact with those whom you preach. Practically-speaking, this means don’t spend too much time looking at your pages. But that is easier said then done. So how do you do it?

Personally, when I stand in the pulpit my eyes move across my congregation. In order: my eyes swipe across my notes, pick up a sentence or two to preach, and then return to the people. After delivering that sentence or two, I scan my notes again, and continue to look at the people.

Admittedly, preaching a manuscript will keep your eyes down more than preaching without notes. But there is a way to learn to preach a manuscript that makes regular eye contact. Reiterating #1, learning to make eye contact may come from teaching without a manuscript in other settings. Wherever your develop the skill, preachers can’t be afraid to look at the people they are preaching. Again, we are preaching God’s Word to God’s people, not just reading notes.

One more thing. In a church where the Bible is cherished, many people (not all) will have open Bibles that they are looking at too. This means they won’t be making eye contact with the preacher the whole time either. Indeed, this is not bad at all. In preaching, we should be looking at the text. This is one blessing of living in a literate society—we can put physically put our finger on the text. Good preachers will help people do that, so that eyes of the congregation are not transfixed on the preacher, they are focused on the Word.

3. Pray and be prepared to go off script.

The great advantage to preaching without a manuscript is that you are forced to connect with the congregation. The great weakness of manuscript preaching is that it can feel like the mission is accomplished when you finish your notes. This will happen, but it doesn’t have to.

If you preach a manuscript, it is important to remember that preaching the Word of God to the assembled people of God is a holy moment. It cannot be replaced by or reproduced by a podcast, watching a service at home, or even preaching to group of people who are not the local church. Yes, all of those things are edifying and Spirit-led, but speaking biblically, they are not the same as delivering God’s Word to the saints assembled at Mount Zion. As Hebrews 12:22–24 says, that happens when the local church meets.

So, pray for your preaching and be prepared to react to the people. Watch facial expressions. Preach to the people who are there and not for the nameless others who may watch or listen later. Be prepared to go off script to clarify a point or add an application. Similarly, be prepared to cut out a section because you have gone too long. Don’t be a servant of your manuscript; be it’s master. And mastering how to preach a manuscript requires learning how to preach, not just read, the manuscript you have. And this begins with praying for the preaching event.

4. Pace yourself.

In addition to making eye contact (#2) and seeking the direction of the Spirit (#3), it is important to avoid monotonous preaching. This is true for all preachers, but especially those who might use a manuscript. Personally, my pace of speaking is rather fast. And I have found the faster I read my manuscript the worse it is orally. Over time, I’ve had to learn how to pace and vary the pace of my preaching.

So, here are a couple ideas. Find a rhythm and a cadence that matches your speaking style. Don’t just read your manuscript, look for ways to emphasize the words you are saying. Some words should be louder, some softer. Some places should be faster, others, especially detailed exposition, should be slower. Overall, there should be places where the pace quickens, and places where it slows.

Remember, you are not preaching at a regional ETS meeting for trained academics, you are preaching to people you know and love. Therefore, your passion for them should make you labor to find ways to impact their hearts. Pacing yourself in your preaching will help.

5. Exult.

Closely connected to your pace is your passion. Those who read their manuscript without passion and those who preach passionately without substance are fraternal twins. Both miss the point of preaching.

Preaching, as John Piper has called it, is “expository exultation.” This means that we are called to do more than disseminate information. We are to be the lead worshiper when we preach the Word. Those who preach God’s Word must first delight in the Word themselves. And then, they must bring that joy, or sometimes sorrow—not all Scripture is meant joyful—into the pulpit.

As fallen creatures, we can fake anything. I am not calling for theatrics here. I am suggesting that the greatest protection from preaching a boring sermon is to not be bored yourself. If you are a preacher, you should be riveted by the Word of God and the God of the Word. And you should not step into the pulpit until, your heart is sizzling with a vision of Christ in his Word.

Again, this applies to all preachers, regardless of the notes they use or not. But for manuscript preacher, it is vital to be mastered by the Word and its glory. For there is no other way to truly do expository exultation. Again, this should be our aim and our prayer.

6. Write your manuscript with lots of white space on the page.

Moving from the personal to the logistical, you should find a writing style that preaches. When I first preached a manuscript my notes were single-spaced, paragraph-laden pages that approximated an academic paper. Very soon, after losing my place too many times, I adopted a writing sytle that looks like a string of tweets.

Rarely, will I put three lines together. Usually, I have a string of one or two sentences, separated by a space, and then another line or two. Here’s a recent example.

This kind of “paragraphing” helps me develop a rhythm and cadence in my writing that transfers to preaching. To be sure, this way of writing consumes more trees in the end—I usually have twelve to fourteen sheets of notes—but it also protects me from prolix, complicated, overly-long, verbose sentences—like this one.

7. Edit. A Lot.

If you are going to manuscript your sermon, then you will need to dedicate a lot of time to writing it, and an equal amount of time to editing it. Every week, preaching a manuscript means writing a rough draft, and then going through it multiple times to smooth out the language. Indeed, if you write a manuscript and then go to the printer, you are missing a crucial part of the preaching process. Every week, I write one sermon and then rewrite it.

In that process, I am making every sentence simpler, punchier, and more direct. I am trying to move written words into words that can be spoken. Indeed, I am not ready to preach until I have effectively rewritten the sermon.

Additionally, it may help you to learn how many words will cover your time. For me, a 40 minute sermon is about 3700 words. Most weeks, I hit about 4200 words and recently I have gone longer, but I have also begun including the Scripture text in my notes too. However you write your sermon, let the word count be a guide. It will protect from going too long (or too short), and it will help you balance the points you are making in your sermon.

8. Listen to what you write.

Closely related to editing is listening to the words you write. When I write my sermon, I write with my ear to the keyboard. And when I edit, I read the words aloud to actually hear how they sound.

In all phases of writing the sermon,  I’m thinking how will these words convey sound doctrine through words that sound pleasant, not painful. By manuscripting I am trying to combine the strength of writing clear, careful sentences (that take time to develop) with punchy poetic verse that is more free-flowing.

Indeed, if you are going to preach a message that impacts hearts and stirs up the affections, you need to give careful attention to your words. In most cases, long, laborious sentences have a way of losing and confusing people. Therefore, what you might say in an essay should be avoided in a sermon manuscript. Instead, you should focus on language that enlivens and captures the attention.

Ultimately, learning how to listen to what you write will help you preach a manuscript and not just read a paper.

9. Rehearse.

The need to rehearse is true for all preachers no matter what kind of notes you use. While preaching should not be compared to play-acting, there is drama in preaching. And the better prepared we are to deliver God’s Word, the more we will remove barriers for people hearing God’s Word. Lest we think rehearsing the message focuses attention on the preacher, it is actually the preachers responsibility to smooth out his sermon beforehand, so that his verbal errors are not hindrances to the Word.

Practically then, I will read over my notes once or twice on my computer, reading them out loud to hear how they sound. In that time, I am constantly thinking about how I can shorten and clarify and punctuate (think: make more punchy) my sentences. Then, after I print the sermon I will read with pen in hand the sermon again in order to smooth out any final blemishes.

In this process, I am familiarizing myself with the content, and I am listening for how it sounds. Again, I am editing. And I am looking for ways to make the point clear and to avoid unnecessary confusions. This is why I manuscript. My head is much clearer in the study than in the pulpit. And while there may be moments of Spirit-led lucidity in the pulpit, I believe more of those moments exist in the study. And in the study, it is important to study and to rehearse and to pray.

10. Be yourself.

Finally, be yourself. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God, I am who I am.” At the end of the day, all preachers will have to give an account for their doctrine and their lives (hence 1 Tim. 4:16). This is true with respect to how we live (see 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5), but it is also true with what we preach and how we preach.

Clearly, we should not copy the notes of another preacher. (I’ve written about that here, here, and here). But neither should we mimic the “moves” of other preachers. We will inevitably be shaped by the pastors and teachers we have heard, and we should not chide ourselves for that. But ultimately, true freedom in the pulpit comes when we are no longer serving the men who are master preachers. True freedom comes when we can preach the Word in confidence—confidence in the text and confidence in who we have been made to be.

For some preachers, this will mean not preaching a manuscript. But for others, it will include a manuscript. And if you are in the latter group, then you must learn how to preach the manuscript. Be yourself, but be a preacher, not just a reader.

An Invitation for Preachers

What I have said above are ten things I’ve learned about preaching over the last decade. I am sure there are more. If you have any helpful additions, please put them in the comments. One of the most helpful things we can do as preachers is to spur each other on in living lives worthy of our calling and to help one another study God’s Word and preach it with passion. If there’s anything that has helped you do that, please share.

For now, I’ll sign off and get back to the task of preparing to teach and preach. Wonderfully, Sunday comes every week. And as a pastor, one of the great joys is learning and growing, failing and improving, in the calling of heralding God’s Word. As finite and fallible followers of Christ, we will never attain perfection in our preaching, but we can improve. And I pray these ten ways to improve manuscript preaching might resonate with you and help you hone your preaching.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

2 thoughts on “Preach the Manuscript: Ten Ways to Improve Sermon Delivery

  1. As a recipient in the pew, as a writer of theological topics, and as a person adverse to public speaking, I am always amazed at the vision, education, preparation, and delivery of a Sunday sermon. This is why our pastors are to be respected and honored for their labor in the Scriptures. In one way, I’m jealous for time you have (or make) to mull over God’s word, but at the same time I would not want the responsibility of preaching every week. It’s hard enough for me to write the occasional blogs that I post. So, I give thanks for those who take up this calling and pray for their protection and betterment.

  2. Pingback: Preaching Post Roundup (October 28, 2021) | From Text to Sermon

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