The Four Ds: Delivery

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

One of the happy outcomes of good sermon preparation is that, when preachers are confident of their material, they can think about hearers during the delivery of the sermon instead of either hiding their heads in a manuscript or searching desperately for the right words on the fly.

Yet even when discovery and development have brought the preacher’s focus to a central insight from the text, and when the preacher has designed clear movement and flow into the sermon, one step remains. Preparing for delivery by revising, practicing, and maybe then letting go of an oral manuscript will improve the sermon by making it possible for the preacher to focus on the congregation when preaching rather than on notes or “what comes next” if one is preaching without notes.

Revising the Manuscript
An oral manuscript is one that has been written for speaking and hearing. It is a manuscript for the ear, not the eye. This difference has implications both for the overall shape of the sermon and for the composition of individual sentences. I imagine sermon moves or blocks of material like the rocks you might use to cross a stream. You step from one to the next. If they are naturally occurring, they are never in exactly a straight line, but they are arranged in such a way that as you step, you are working from one bank of the stream to the other.

Likewise, your sermon’s big rocks do not need to be–probably should not be–arranged so simplistically as to seem artificial. Yet if the arrangement of these five or six rocks in your sermon is too complex for you to remember without notes, it is probably too complex for anyone to follow on a first hearing. Look at your manuscript. Can you identify the moves you make there? With a little practice, can you remember the flow of your sermon without the manuscript in front of you? If so, you are on the way to an oral manuscript.

Next, look at your sentences. Almost always, they will need to be shorter, with unnecessary words eliminated. Sometimes I suggest to students that they do a word search for the words, “that” and “which.” These will show you some of your subordinate clauses. Eliminate them when possible. Instead of saying, “The good news today is that Christ is risen!” say, “Christ is risen!” Instead of “What I want to tell you today is that nothing can separate us from the love of God…,” say, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God….” The goal is crisp and direct speech. You want people to follow and remember your message.

Finally, is there anything your writing has done that creates distance between people and their experience of being addressed by the Word of God? Instead of saying, “The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel raises Lazarus from the dead,” say, “Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.” Maybe you are reflecting on the sermon in the sermon. “I struggled with the text this week,” or “I’m going to start the sermon this morning with a story.” The effect of these announcements is to focus attention on the preacher’s experience rather than to create an experience of the Word for the hearer. Let unnecessary language go.

Practicing the Manuscript
Like artists in general, most preachers have rituals around their craft. This is probably nowhere more true than in the act of preparing for sermon delivery. Some preachers practice in front of a mirror to see their facial expressions and gestures. Some practice the manuscript in a quiet sanctuary before the earliest Sunday service. Others sit at their desks, going over and over the paper manuscript and marking it up until it looks to others like it would be impossible to read!

In an excellent article on preparing to preach from memory, David E. Deppe relates his own practice: “I sit back in the quiet of my study, close my eyes, and mentally transport myself to that darkened church. I imagine the people there…. And then I begin to preach… Once in a while I have to catch a glimpse of that manuscript which is not quite in hand, but then I close my eyes again and continue to preach. And while I preach, I begin to listen to those words, how they sound and how they communicate and how they feel…. I see it as the necessary staging for the high drama of preaching, not so that the preacher looks good, but so that the gospel can be presented well.”1  When this practice works as it should, there comes a point in one’s rehearsal of the sermon where the preacher’s primary orientation shifts to the people who will hear the sermon. Orientation to the manuscript, if it is there at all, is secondary.

Letting the Manuscript Go
At this point, you may be able to let the manuscript go altogether. We do not use notes for conversations with family or friends and, thanks to teleprompters, we are accustomed to hearing from politicians, newscasters and entertainers who never have to drop their heads to glance at words on a page. Many listeners to sermons report feeling more like the preacher is in conversation with them when the preacher does not use notes or pulpit. For those who are afraid to let the manuscript go, Deppe suggests easing into preaching without it in hand. “Risk telling a story in your sermon without the use or benefit of notes or manuscript… And then try the whole sermon” (111).

It is probably true that people listening to a sermon feel more connected to the preacher when a manuscript is not part of the equation. When the extemporaneous sermon is good, people may also feel better connected not only to the preacher but also to the Word of God. However, personal experience constrains me from commending manuscript-free preaching in every instance. After twenty years of preaching, including periodic experimentation with extemporaneous delivery, my sermons are still more focused and lively when I use a manuscript than when I do not.

Alas, different preachers have different capacities. Technique is not the point. Proclamation is, and the proclamation of the gospel is served by whatever preparation for delivery ensures that the preacher will know the sermon well enough to be oriented away from written materials and toward the hearers and their experience of the Word.

1 David E. Deppe, “Preaching from Memory: Forgotten Art or Lost Skill?” Currents in Theology and Mission 15/1 (Feb 1988) : 110.

This is the fourth and final article in a series about the four Ds of sermon preparation: discovery, development, design and delivery.