This last Sunday, when I stood up and walked to the pulpit ready to preach, I got a surprise: the sermon manuscript wasn’t there. I didn’t know it at the time, but the manuscript was still sitting in the sacristy, where I’d forgotten to bring it up to the pulpit. So as the last hymn verse ended and I prepared to preach, I had a bit of panic butterflying through my stomach.
I write out a complete manuscript for every sermon. And, though I’ve gone back and forth on this a bit in my ministry, I normally take a copy of that manuscript into the pulpit with me.
I don’t do this so I can read my sermon to the congregation. (Which I think is normally an awful way to deliver a sermon.) Instead, I use my manuscript to read the various Bible passages that I quote during the sermon. Then, as I glance down at those quotes, my eyes have a chance to scan the page to refresh my memory of my train of thought for the rest.
Oh, and let’s face it: it’s kind of a comfort to know that the sermon is all right there if I completely blank out. I’m working with a net.
But that comfort wasn’t there last Sunday. Thankfully, I had attempted to memorize the sermon, I’d practiced it, and I really was ready to go. But still, I hadn’t planned on not having the manuscript. Hence the panic.
But an amazing thing happened: I think the sermon actually went better because I didn’t have the manuscript. I felt freer, more like I was actually preaching and less like I was trying to match what was written on the page in front of me. The sermon I preached was similar, though certainly not identical, to the sermon I’d written. But I think not having the manuscript allowed my delivered sermon to have more immediacy and to come more from the heart than it otherwise would have. (The enterprising reader with plenty of time could check out the written version of my sermon here and compare it with the video version here.)
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the Holy Spirit is the effective one in a sermon. The Spirit alone changes hearts, crushing them with the law and bringing them to life with the gospel. Still, God has given me gifts to use in proclaiming his Word. I think preaching without a manuscript helps me use those gifts better.
One of my former professors from seminary (Prof. Rich Gurgel) has a good phrase for preaching. “Preaching is using 1st article gifts to proclaim 2nd article truths with 3rd article confidence.” I think this quote is fantastic, but let me unpack it a bit for you. My first article gifts are the gifts God my Creator has given me. He’s given me skill in writing, speaking, and teaching his Word. The 2nd article truths are the heart of what I want to preach: that God sent his one and only Son to save sinners through his life, death, and resurrection. The 3rd article confidence is knowing that the Holy Spirit will use that Gospel message to work in hearts. It gives me confidence.
So, anyway, there it is. I survived. And I hope not to use my manuscript again this Sunday!