Hands-Free Preaching

cliche. Image by Jasmine Bailey via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.  

I was a writer before I was a preacher. A colleague of mine, whose newspaper beat I stole, once said: “… of course I can’t turn a phrase like her.”

There is nothing quite like the perfectly worded phrase — a twist of irony, the perfect word for the moment.

There is nothing quite like seeing that perfectly worded phrase fall flat in front of a congregation on Sunday morning.

That was my experience the first few times I preached, leaving a career in sports journalism for seminary. I tried everything to make my manuscripts better: I was succinct, I was well researched, I was funny, and I was erudite.

Of course, funny on the page is not the same thing as funny in person.

Finally, while serving as an intern pastor in Las Vegas, I was given a challenge. Our two other pastors were accomplished preachers, and neither of them read from a manuscript. Our large congregation wanted the same from me.

“You’ve got to stop looking at that paper,” a formerly taciturn man named Scott told me.

Of course I resisted. I’d already adapted to using screens for my sermon, making images a part of my weekly message. Now I’d lose my words. The best thing I’d ever done was make words flow.

What I didn’t realize was two things:

  1. the words were inside of me, not on the paper; and
  2. the words weren’t mine at all.

The first time I preached without a manuscript, I carried with me a large notecard with tiny writing all over it. I basically crammed a written sermon onto one note card, front and back. The night before my sermon, I literally banged my head against the wall of my senior pastor’s office, and his African masks came tumbling to the ground.

I rehearsed in the mirror.

I awoke and went on to preach the best sermon I’d ever preached. I barely looked at the notecard. I was invigorated. I was hooked.

Scott loved it — and so did our congregation. I hadn’t realized how much they’d craved my eye contact, and what they perceived as greater authenticity. Simply by dropping my manuscript, I’d rounded second base before even beginning to preach. It gave me a huge advantage, and I would never look back.

I’ve preached hundreds of sermons since that day. Now, I don’t even make a notecard — instead relying entirely on images to carry me through the message — and occasionally Scripture text or key phrases.

I’m sharing this story with you because I want you to know that if this formerly dedicated writer can do it, you can do it, too. You can stop worrying and drop the manuscript. It doesn’t have to mean you’ll ramble. It doesn’t mean your sermon will be less weighty.

It also doesn’t mean you won’t have to prepare. It’s a different type of preparation.

I’ll share with you three keys to dropping your manuscript, and you will unlock a power in your preaching you may have never seen before — for the good of the Gospel.

Key 1: Leave room for the Spirit
No, I’m not talking about a youth group dance instruction. Rather, the most powerful part of dropping your manuscript means you have room to change your message on the fly. I consider this to be leaving room for the Spirit’s intervention, room I didn’t feel I had when using a manuscript. This is admittedly scary, but your first key is not to be scared of the holes or blanks in your message. Instead — pray. Pray that the Holy Spirit would fill those holes. Pray that those holes would leave you room to change according to your audience’s reaction. They’re liking this story: elaborate and make it longer. They’re laughing: spend more time on that joke. They are responding — sometimes this is as slight as head nods — to a certain phrase. Repeat it for emphasis, twice if needed.

Key 2: Use images
I recommend this even if your congregation doesn’t use screens. The saying is that a picture can communicate 1,000 words. Use this to your advantage. Even if I’m preaching somewhere that doesn’t have screens, I always make a PowerPoint presentation. I don’t use text, except for short 2-3 word phrases, or to directly quote Scripture. This helps me to use short, memorable phrases that people will take home with them. You can also ask them to turn with you to a Bible passage (or read it on their phones), and as you read it — again this leaves room for the Spirit to give new insight while preaching. I print out my PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentation in handout form, and I fold it and put it in a small book to carry while preaching. Lately I’ve been carrying Bonheoffer’s Life Together. Some pastors do this but carry an iPad rather than printing. I prefer a blend of old-school, and new-school — plus I like not having to rely on technology in case I end up preaching by candlelight.

Key 3: Have a preparation routine, and do nothing on Saturday
I know — revolutionary! But wouldn’t you like to have your Saturdays back (except those of you who have Saturday night service … sorry)! I always study/choose text and do a brief outline on Monday afternoon, as I take Fridays off. You could move this to Tuesday if you take Mondays off.

I pray and think over my outline on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when I often meet with worship planning teams and musicians. Your context may vary on who you meet with to plan worship, but I like to give time for getting others’ insights. Then, I make my Power Point slides on Wednesday or Thursday, and I pray over them and study/edit the rest of the week. I try to just glance at them and pray over them on Saturdays — nothing more. I also make sure at some point during the week to write up a short paragraph promo for my sermon. This helps me to distill the one key message within my sermon, and churches can use it in weekly bulletins or emails about upcoming Sunday worship.

The toughest part about dropping your manuscript? Trying it, and becoming comfortable with a new routine. If you can do those things, you can become a successful and dynamic non-manuscript preacher. Remember: part of what you’re doing is allowing the Spirit to speak within your sermon, even when it’s unexpected.

My final encouragement: seek out other preachers for support and guidance. Explore events like “Working Preacher Presents: The Craft of Preaching” conference Oct. 2-4. I’ll be leading a workshop there and would love to share more stories and insights with, especially going deeper into how to create the PowerPoint slides that become the backbone of your sermon.