5 words on extemporaneous preaching

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“Not for faint of heart.”

There’s your five words. (Just kidding.)

Extemporaneous preaching isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. I cannot manuscript. I mean, obviously I can, I write a lot and I love to do so. But I don’t like to write out sermons. My writing voice is far too different from my speaking voice. My one attempt at using a manuscripted sermon in a dozen years of preaching was an intolerably, uncomfortable preaching experience. So, you don’t want to come to me for advise about manuscripting a sermon. However, if you want to take a stab at preaching extemporaneously, then listen up. Here are five words of advice:

1. Preach your sermon to yourself during the week

For whatever reason, I don’t preach a dry run of my sermon in front of a mirror, in an empty auditorium, or in front of my family filled couch. No. Instead I preach it in my car, on my face, in the shower, on my bed, and in coffee shops. I do it in clips and in sections. I don’t do it out loud; it’s all in my head. Most of it is prayer. Sometimes you may catch me pacing my study trying to smooth out certain ideas, but I won’t preach the sermon from beginning to end until I’m in front of my congregation.

And it’s likely that what I preach to myself will sound and be different than what I preach to my congregation. Why? I’m preaching to myself, so I need to hear more, less, or different than what my congregation needs.

If you’re not preaching to yourself first, then you won’t preach to your congregation well. The Word of God has to lay ruin to the miserable ways of your soul and refresh you with the grace of God first before it will effectively do so for others. I want the Word of God to strike me between the eyes before I admonish God’s flock with it.

2. Let the text guide your outline

Quite honestly, I think that extemporaneous preachers are going to be twice as likely to be expository preachers. Allowing the text to guide your sermon outline makes it so much easier to preach without a manuscript. You read the text; then you expound on that text. You read the next text; then you expound on that one. This makes the preaching task fairly straightforward. Its less likely you’ll get lost in your outline.

3. Make a legible, coded outline

If you’re going to preach extemporaneously, you’re going to need a concise outline. I use the perforated pages in the back of my moleskin where I’ve been jotting down notes throughout the week to construct my outline.

Typically, on Thursday afternoon I coalesce all of my notes into an ordered two column homiletical outline that fits on the front of one page. It’s made up of nothing more than single-word signals, transitional statements, verse references, markers for anecdotes, and crucial textual observations. I’ll use a highlighter to code different elements of the outline.

I actually tape this outline into my bible on the opposite page of my passage with special Scotch Magic 811 removable tape. I’ve used this tape in my Bible for some time and have never ripped a page when removing it. This is handy because then I don’t have to necessarily be tied to a pulpit. I can pace and preach with Bible in hand.

So what if I’m going to quote something? Any quotes I use I put in my phone. I just pull it out and open the note I made for the sermon. That note has a quote or two – I don’t think I’ve ever used more than two – and a benediction. Sometimes, I just memorize the quote, which is an effective way to do it. This lets your congregation know that the quote is valuable to you.

4. Record quotable thoughts

Here I’ll add that extemporaneous preachers run the risk of not being quotable. Manuscripted preachers are more likely to include really quotable statements in their manuscript. To overcome this challenge, during my study and prayer throughout the week, if a real quotable, pithy statement forms in my brain, I write it down in my notebook in a special section I’ve created. I go over that section daily to allow those quotes to settle into my mind. That way they will come to me naturally when I preach. Quotability is crucial; quotable becomes memorable; memorable becomes shareable.

5. Fill in your thoughts with other’s

Scripture guides most of my sermon preparation. My personal study of the text is where I lean in most heavy. After I draft my outline on Thursday, I usually read commentaries through the weekend to fill out my knowledge of the text.

This doesn’t mean that I avoid commentaries altogether Monday through Wednesday. I go to them when I have specific questions of the text that I am unable to answer. It could have to do with a word study, interpretive issue, or complex theological idea. I then permit commentaries to help me sort out the matter. I also allow all my other peripheral reading, study, and conversation to fill in and add thickness to what I’m going to say.

Conclusion

Like I introed, extemporaneous preaching is not for the faint of heart. It takes a long time to develop a rhythm and pull it off with a polished delivery. You almost have to begin your preaching ministry as an extemporaneous preacher in order to pull through the learning curve. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can do it!

Both styles, manuscripting and extemporaneous, have pros and cons. In Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones provides sound balance here on preaching regardless of which method you use, so I’ll close it with what he says:

What I regard as being always important is that you should preserve freedom. This element can never be exaggerated. Yet, at the same time you must have order and coherence. As is so often true in this matter of preaching you are always in the position of being between two extremes, you are always on a kind of knife-edge. (Kindle location 3788)

Regardless of what model you use, preserve freedom while maintaining order and coherence.


Joey Cochran, a graduate of Dallas Seminary, is a church planting intern at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois under the supervision of Pastor Joe Thorn. Follow him at jtcochran.com or @joeycochran.

photo credit: A.D. Wheeler Photography via photopin cc

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  • http://www.jonstallings.com/ Jon Stallings

    This explains the way I preach fairly well. – However I do a dry run or two of my sermon outloud in my empty office. During the dry run I usually find something to add or delete. It also helps me make sure I do not go too long – well sometimes it helps me not go too long.

  • Bo Salisbury

    This is an excellent post. Joey gives us his rationale and a few valuable tips in a handful of paragraphs. I’ve learned a couple of new tricks (I’m an old dog) and was affirmed in others I developed over the years. I think the line that resonated with me the most was this: ” I also allow all my other peripheral reading, study, and conversation to fill in and add thickness to what I’m going to say.” Thank you very much!

  • http://themasterstable.wordpress.com Clark Bunch

    If I get lost in an outlined it is usually because I tried to write too many things down. With a concise enough outline I often end up memorizing the outline, I bring it with “just in case.”

  • Ben Thorp

    Some good thoughts. Personally, I’m a mixture. I have learned to manuscript in my spoken voice, rather than my written voice, and I tend to use a combination of manuscript and outline. I manuscript my intro and conclusion, because I find that if I don’t, my introduction is more laboured and my conclusion wanders.

    I would recommend anyone to preach to themselves during the week – manuscript or not. For me, this helps me to “hone” my manuscript. It also helps me to flesh out my outline sections with more carefully crafted pieces of manuscript that pack a better punch because I’m not having to think as carefully as to what I am saying.

    However, I’m not convinced by your theory that extemporaneous preachers are twice as likely to be expository preachers. I would say that the majority of non-expository preachers I’ve heard over the years appear to be extemporaneous. (I say appear, as I’ve not always been able to look directly at their notes). If you want to preach expositorily, then let the text be your outline (or the basis of your manuscript), but preaching from an outline does not necessarily mean that the outline has been taken from the text….