Process Preaching: The Written and the Oral Word

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

Using the Process Preaching System to Deliver Sermon Manuscripts with Freedom:

The first in a series of three articles based on the Process Preaching seminar that Pastor Larson has taught for the past five years in the Kairos Program at Luther Seminary

When I was back in high school, our speech teacher always used to say, “A speech is not an essay on its hind legs.” It was her way of trying to get us away from simply reading our speeches. For the first half of my career as a parish pastor, my sermons were manuscripts on their hind legs. That is, I read my sermons word for word. I tried many times to move away from reading my text. However, everything I tried was either too time consuming or simply didn’t work.

Twenty years ago, I began experimenting again with trying to preach my sermon manuscripts freely. This time I was successful in doing so. Since then, I have developed what I call the Process Preaching System. I have also begun teaching this system to pastors during a three-day seminar.

Process Preaching is a system for converting a written manuscript into a dynamic oral communication. The system focuses on a particular kind of oral rehearsal. This rehearsal enables a pastor to take a twenty-minute sermon manuscript and after an hour or two of oral rehearsal, preach it freely. The sermon is not memorized word for word. Rather, the oral rehearsal enables the preacher to remember the meaning of what is written and speak it without reading a text.

It is also during this oral rehearsal that the written language of the text is altered and changed to an oral presentation. The words and phrases used in the oral presentation are identical in meaning to what was written. However, they are very different in both language and style. This is because there is a tremendous difference between the written word and the oral word. It could be said that these are two different worlds of human communication.

Here are some of the reasons these two language delivery systems are so different.
   The written word is printed. It is produced by the hand.
   The oral word is spoken. It is produced by the voice.

   The written word is seen (visual), People use their eyes to read it.
   The oral word is heard (audible), People use their ears to hear

   The written word has readers for its audience.
   The oral word has listeners for its audience.

When we use the written word in an oral setting, we make it difficult for our listeners to follow and understand our message. It is not impossible for people to get something out of a well-written sermon that is read to them. However, that same sermon delivered freely using oral language and style, would be much more effective. Martin Luther, who wrote a great deal of wonderful material, recognized the priority of oral communication for proclamation when he wrote.

“Where the oral proclamation of the Gospel ceases the people will revert to heathenism in a year’s time. The devil cares nothing about the written word, but where one speaks and preaches it, there he takes to flight.”1

Both writing a sermon and delivering a sermon make use of our creative language skills, but, they use the language in very different ways. The Process Preaching system of delivering sermons recognizes this fact and deals with it in very specific ways. For example, during the oral rehearsal portion of the delivery process, the preacher adjusts, adds and often makes other dramatic changes to the written text. During this time the written language of the manuscript is being converted to the spoken language of the actual presentation. This happens naturally during oral rehearsals and is not something that we have to think very much about.

Recently I compared a sermon manuscript that I wrote with a recording of what I actually said in a sermon that I spoke freely. In the first section of the sermon, I told a story about my new grandson and how his birth had inspired in me a sense of hope for the future. Here are some of the differences between what I wrote and what I said after orally rehearsing the sermon and delivering it freely.

1. In the first paragraph, I wrote the word grandchild two times but said it six times. Repeating certain words and phrases is a characteristic of oral language.

2. In the second paragraph, I did a lot of what might be considered stammering or stuttering. I said things like, “our, our”, “and, and,” and “I, I”. This kind of stuttering is very typical of oral communication.

3. In the third paragraph, I started saying one thing, stopped, and inserted something I forgot. I then picked up with what I had originally started to say. This is extremely typical of speaking freely. We remember something we temporarily forget, stop what we are saying, and insert it.

4. Later in this first section of the sermon, I added a few sentences to emphasize the theme more clearly. Coming back to the main theme of a section of a sermon is also very typical of preaching freely.

All of these changes and many others happen naturally during the oral rehearsal and delivery process. You may think this would be distracting to your listeners, but the opposite is true. These are the kinds of things that make oral communication so much more powerful in an oral setting than the written word.

1Fred W. Meuser, “Luther the Preacher” (Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1983) 41.