Concluding Thoughts on Extemporaneous Preaching

At the beginning of the summer, I launched on a project to utilize extemporaneous method of sermon preparation and delivery.  This is where I compose an outline of the sermon and do not compose an entire manuscript. I had thought I would update the blog more regularly than I have but, there really wasn’t that much to say.  As we’ve reached Labor Day Weekend, I’ve decided the experiment is over.  Here are my conclusions.

  1. Pastors who preach each week really should learn to preach from an outline at least occasionally.  We all encounter weeks when time constraints prevent us from composing a manuscript.  Too often, I have sacrificed exegetical and spiritual reflection in order to make time for manuscript composition.  If I had trusted my extemporaneous abilities, I would have devoted the time I did devote to composing a manuscript to actually preparing content. 
  2. For me, preaching with minimal notes really is better than preaching from a manuscript.  When I preach from a manuscript, my eye contact is poor, my delivery is stiffer, I have frequent head bobs (looking down at script, looking up at congregation).  Even when I have written a manuscript, generally if I run through the manuscript two or three times before Sunday morning services, I can preach with minimal or no notes.  
  3. ALWAYS COMPOSE THE OUTLINE!  I have used three methods of preaching–manuscript, extemporaneous (working from an outline), and memorized.  Often when I composed a manuscript, I would simply begin writing without thinking through the entire structure of the sermon.  That’s not bad per se but it is what I would call free-writing–a helpful preliminary exercise but, not the best route to final form.  Sermons do not have to be Point 1, Point 2, Point 3 sermons in order for preachers to think through the structure (often called form by the homileticians).  Thinking through the sequence of ideas and also which ideas need the greatest attention happens best when I work from an outline.  Sometimes, the idea needing the greatest explanation will come later in the sermon.  When I outline, I am able to discern that and if I choose to compose an entire manuscript I can isolate that important idea and expand it as much as needed.  Too often, when I write sermon manuscripts from beginning to conclusion, I can tell I’m running out of time or space in the manuscript and actually shortchange what should receive the greatest attention.  I should have been practicing this all along but biggest learning from this experiment is ALWAYS COMPOSE THE OUTLINE.  After that, I can decide whether to rely on the outline alone or complete the manuscript but the outline itself is essential.  
  4. Writing is a way of thinking.  Speaking is a way of thinking.  Writing a sermon manuscript should not be abandoned any more than preaching extemporaneously should be neglected.  Both skills are ways of accessing and reflecting on the text.  For this morning’s sermon, I wrote a manuscript for the first time in three months and found that some of the best insights came as I worked at composing each sentence.  
  5. The keys to good extemporaneous preaching are humility and confidence.  Humility to say to yourself–you’re not really that good a writer.  Confidence to say–you’re not really that bad at talking simply and directly.  
  6. The biggest area of weakness for me when working from an outline (extemporaneous) is the transition from one point to the next.  I also know that my writing suffers from the same problem.  One of my seminary professors once wrote about a paper that I had several good pearls but no string connecting them.   That is too often the case when I’m preaching extemporaneously.  Frequently, I end up treating each point as a discrete idea (mini-sermon) rather than thinking through and verbalizing the thematic thread that connects them.  Thinking through and in some cases actually writing the introduction, the transitions, and the conclusion so that the sermon has coherence is an important step in the process.