During a Q&A session at the end of his message on the life of David Brainerd, John Piper shared the reason why he manuscripts his sermons. As an occasional preacher and a writer, I resonate with his reasoning:
If I were a homiletics teacher, I would require that my students try every kind of delivery including full manuscript but in no way would I suggest it’s the norm. I have read enough of history to know that God can take a Thomas Chalmers, who read [his sermons] laboriously, to transform a people, and God can take a Spurgeon, who could prepare in 45 minutes and deliver an unforgettable message with a half-sheet of notes. You must find your own way.
I have written out every Sunday morning sermon for ten years because I think I have a gift of delivering it without people knowing that… Anybody that looks like they’re reading should get rid of their manuscript. I [use a manuscript] because I can’t get my thoughts straight any other way. I can’t get my ideas in order. You have to write if you have a weak mind. I believe this with all my heart.
I went one time and talked to the faculty at Fuller Seminary in 1978. I remember Ralph Martin, the New Testament teacher, in kind of a demeaning way said, “Oh, do you do that arcing stuff that Dr. Fuller teaches? Isn’t that just a crutch?” That’s exactly what it is, because I’m a cripple intellectual. Unless you are like Jonathan Edwards and Albert Einstein…or whoever, and can take an idea, and for an hour or two hold it and turn it…I have to do it on paper… I think of the shutters banging and the cars going by and food. My mind won’t hold an idea without a pencil in my hand! Know thyself and proceed.
My pastor told me as a preacher in training to manuscript sermons for the first several years. As I’ve preached more, I feel more and more comfortable preaching extemporaneously because I don’t have ideal prep time for certain opportunities. Most of these are smaller settings and there isn’t as much need to be polished. In such occasions, remembering that the power of preaching is in God’s Word and not my eloquence rescues me from the pit of perfectionism that I used to fall into time and time again.
I appreciate Piper’s idea of requiring students to preach in a variety of ways (full manuscript, a page of notes, etc.) and wish I had tried more kinds of delivery as a student. Even so, like Piper, I try and manuscript messages as the practice aids in precision and memorability. I’m just thankful that God uses imperfect people like me to point people to His perfect Son. If He’s the focus in my preaching and not my skill set, I’m on the right track.