Preaching from a Manuscript is Not Heresy

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

I have a recurring nightmare in which I am in a courtroom on trial.

The prosecution and defense lawyers have presented their closing statements eloquently and passionately. And then the judge pronounces judgment. “Guilty! Guilty of preaching straight from a manuscript!” The crowd cheers and the guards drag me out to my punishment–non-stop confirmation class! Then I awaken in a cold sweat. And I think to myself–Is preaching from a manuscript really such a sin?

Perhaps you’re shouting emphatically “yes” right about now. Well, it is not polite to shout, and besides, you’re probably one of those preachers who has memorized the gospel of Mark in its entirety, or, for purely recreational purposes, rattles off the value of pi to thirty seven places. But never the less, I’m here to convince you “document detractors,” and even more so my fellow memory-challenged colleagues that reading your sermon from a manuscript, when done well, is every bit as effective as preaching from your head while wandering all over the sanctuary. No shame in it!

This task won’t be easy, because, truth be told, I too enjoy listening to a sermon delivered without notes, by an animated, knowledgeable, and passionate speaker. It’s exciting and moving and memorable, most times. And it’s hard to argue for manuscript preaching when all my training has emphasized the desirability of the “sans paper” mode of homiletics.
But one can still get all the above from a “read” sermon, and more. I can inspire and stir emotions and proclaim the gospel when I preach from what I have painstakingly put down on paper. But most of all I can be true to my own personality, rather than denouncing who I am and trying to be something I’m not, nor necessarily need to be.

So, those who preach from a manuscript, read on to garner the wealth of my experience as one “chained” to the word. And please, preachers without notes, do allow me a moment of your time to suggest that “reading the sermon” is not a sin, a heresy, or less Spirit-led. You might even try it sometime!

Manuscripts in the Bible…
“Jesus spoke from his heart (without index cards)–and that’s proof enough that preaching without a manuscript is the best method.” I’ve heard that many a time. But Jesus is God’s Son. He is the Word, so that isn’t a fair comparison, in my opinion. Even Jesus wasn’t beyond reading from the scriptures, if nothing else. In Luke 4:16ff, he enters the synagogue at Nazareth and he is handed the scroll of Isaiah, which he stood up to read.

Elsewhere in the New Testament people read the proclamation to listeners. After years of oral renditions of the stories, they were put down in writing–to preserve them. Earlier than that, Paul’s letters were widely distributed, and were read in their entirety to the fledgling churches, and later, to others.

Of course there are plenty of instances in the Bible in which Peter or Paul (mostly) get up and preaches a humdinger of a sermon with only the Holy Spirit with them in the pulpit. So there’s proof going paperless is strongly supported in the Bible. Or–is it the presence of the Spirit in the preaching event that’s really the key? I’m going to go with that. Inviting the Holy Spirit into your process is vital. Of course you knew that and are already doing it through prayer, meditation, mutual conversation, discernment, and just living your pastoral life. So here’s some practical advice.

Reading Sermons is an Art…
The best way to begin is to write the way you speak. Now this is nothing new–others have noted that there is an obvious difference between the vocabulary, the phrasing, the cadence, and the linearity of a written sentence and a spoken rendering of the same idea. For instance:

Spoken word – I’m hungry.

Written word – Having skipped breakfast this morning (Sunday) due to my anxiety over preaching from a manuscript, and, having then done just fine in proclaiming the Word (soli deo Gloria!), now I can fill the emptiness of my stomach–which is good–since I’m famished!

Now that’s exaggerated of course, but you get the idea. Short sentences, with few if any parenthetical sidebars or participle-laden clauses are what you need to aim for. And if that dangling preposition in the last sentence bothered you, I’m sorry. But people don’t always talk so good. Their grammar is not perfect. Their vocabulary in regular conversation is not remarkable, and they don’t use jargon. They sometimes don’t use complete sentences. For the most part, a manuscript that will be read should be written as dialog between the preacher and an unheard congregation, and that should be done right from the start, not as part of a rehearsal. A carefully constructed conversational manuscript goes a long way in helping the listener look past the fact that it is being read.

Eye contact is what connects the speaker to the audience, which is difficult to accomplish while reading from a manuscript, but not impossible. What I recommend is, first, deciding on several points in the written conversation at which you might, contextually and comfortably, look up while finishing a sentence. Mark the manuscript with a dot with an arrow pointing in the direction you will look. Make eye contact with three people before continuing (aided by the conveniently marked text). Always make contact with different people in different sections of the sanctuary. It is my temptation to always look right in front of me, at the same people–which no doubt makes them think I’m addressing that part of the message exclusively to them. which may be troubling if that part contains weeping and gnashing of teeth!

I am of the opinion that a teleprompter would be boon to anyone who needs the sermon in front of them. It would make marking the manuscript obsolete. They’re expensive though, and don’t come in liturgical colors. So, I suppose I’ll take it off my wish list. Instead, I suggest making your completed manuscript as readable and reader-friendly as possible. For me, that means using a simple, clean font (Times New Roman) and bumping it up from the usual 12 point to 16. I also double space everything, except for quotations, and indent paragraphs. At transitional points in the sermon, I skip a space or two, to make it easy to pause for a moment and look up, and then find my place.

Seriously, Why Not Preach Paperless…
Probably the best reason for reading the written message is the fact that you have worked hard on it. Studying the text. Translating the Greek or Hebrew. Forming an interpretation and comparing it with commentaries. Discovering illustrative materials that help explain what God is doing in the passage. Crafting the language to be compelling, informative, and grace-filled, and at the same time accessible and attention grabbing. Taking care that what you say stretches the mind while remaining theologically true. You’ve rejected bad ideas and shaky ground. So why risk forgetting what you’ve written, blathering some nonsense in the heat of the moment, and not only damage your fragile ego, but possibly someone’s faith? (If you can preach from the heart instead of the eye and never worry about this, record yourself and see if you don’t cringe when you hear at least one thing you say.) 

There are others reasons too. In my opinion, only the best paperless preachers have the experience and good sense enough to know when to stop. Others preach in circles, coming to the point and then looping around to preach it again, and again. There’s always the risk of losing the train of thought; being interrupted by a crying baby or dropped hymnal. Manuscripted sermons can be easily placed in the newsletter or on the website, or even handed out to hearing impaired listeners.

Again, though I like hearing a good note-less sermon, I believe firmly that the content, and thus the experience, of the read sermon can be equal to or better than the one delivered “blindfolded.” There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

A Little Shakespeare to Finish Up…
Finally, to thine own self be true. Preaching from a manuscript is not a sin, nor is it heresy! God does not call just extroverted, great communicator pastors–any more than God called the best orators to convince Pharaoh to let the people go, or to prophesy to Israel, or to take the good news around the world. Different kinds of people are called, and, using their gifts (instead of wrangling with the ones lacked), they get the job done. By all means, we should strive to be the best we can be as preachers–that’s why you are here at this website.

But, although Jung would have us work towards our opposite in personality, God answers our plea to “Take, O, take me as I am.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship). To be an authentic preacher, one needs to be true to who one is. So, if you’re tied to the paper, embrace that, work with it, and invite the Holy Spirit into the process. And then my the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) And the manuscript too.