Why I Write My Sermons Word for Word

This year marks my twenty-fifth year in preaching, and for a little over half of that time I’ve been in the habit of writing my sermons word for word.  The discipline of manuscripting the messages has proved of great benefit to myself, and has born fruit in my labors as a preacher.  In fact, when I think about it, there’s five reasons I write my sermons word for word:

It’s Just How My Mind Works:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years in watching preachers closely, it’s there’s a million ways to preach effectively.  Glenn Wagner took his manuscript with him into the pulpit, reading it word for word to great effect.  Then you have preachers like Dr. Tony Evans who very rarely, if ever, uses notes.  Bishop Kenneth Ulmer works from an outline.  I mean, there’s just so many methods out there.  The key is to find one that works best for you, and if you’re a young preacher my hunch is you’ll stumble onto it through some trial and error.  Me, I use a manuscript, but I never take it with me into the preaching moment, because it’s just how my mind works.  I don’t have a photographic memory, but I do tend to see words in my mind.  If you were to invite me to your house for the first time, and try to draw me a picture of how to get there, I’d never make it; but if you wrote it out, word for word, I’d get there…early.  It’s just how my mind works.

For Clarity:

My colleague, Pastor H.B. Charles, talks about how manuscripting the message helps the preacher to “write themselves clear”.  I love this phrasing.  It’s so true.  There’s something about taking my pile of notes, and the emerging outline, and laboring as a word smith to find that right phrase.  No doubt, it can be frustrating, having to hit delete many times.  But the process is so worth it.  I manuscript to write myself clear.  There’s not a whole lot of difference between a clear heretic and a foggy, but orthodox preacher.  How can you tell they have right doctrine if it’s unclear?

To Keep Me Free of the Manuscript:

Yeh, but doesn’t manuscript preaching keep you bound?  Don’t you want to be free to follow the extemporaneous leading of the Holy Spirit?  These are great questions.  A couple of thoughts.  Let’s not limit the Holy Spirit to a particular time and locale.  He’s just as much with me in my study as I write the manuscript as he is on Sunday’s when I’m preaching.  I’d also say manuscripting has made me even more free, more unbound, as a preacher.  An irreducible minimum to effective preaching is having a grasp on your next thought.  When you are confident of where you’re going, you have even more freedom to follow the Holy Spirit when he all of a sudden he takes you on a path that deviates from the script.  You know how to get back.  As one of my preaching professors said, “Less scared when prepared”.  A well internalized manuscript doesn’t tie you up, it actually unleashes you.

Itinerate Preaching:

When I’m finished with the manuscript, it’s filed away in my dropbox folder, easily accessible, of course, from anywhere.  This is a huge help when I travel.  After careful prayer, God will guide me to a particular text and message I’ve preached before, and I can pull up the manuscript, give it a few reads, and be ready to go.  There’s a multiplying factor when it comes to manuscripting.

Writing Ministry:

I just turned in my latest book to the publisher.  It was based on a series of sermons I gave some years back.  Now, I know there’s a difference between writing to the ear (sermon manuscripts) and writing to the eye (books), but what manuscripting has done for me is to give me a running start in my writing projects.  You may not imagine a day when you will publish, but you never know.