To Manuscript or Memorize

I have been having a bit of a debate recently with some of my students about memorization. If we value a more look-the-audience-in-the-face kind of extemporanaeity, are we better to memorize written manuscripts or should we allow ourselves more freedom to invent our specific verbal constructions in the moment of our preaching?memorize copy

The former offers the ability to craft the sermon carefully and with precision. It also allows the preacher to move faster with a greater and perhaps more dynamic rate of speech. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a manner of preparation that would require a greater amount of time, both in the writing and in the memorizing. Secondly, memorizing is risky, given that it can end up coming off more like reciting than actually preaching, and when the words don’t come, the preacher can feel exposed and vulnerable.

The latter approach, construction on the fly, offers more of an in-the-moment sense of authenticity. The listener gets the sense that the preacher didn’t just pull this off the shelf, but that there is real communication going on. This way is also more manageable within the pattern of a busy preacher’s life. The downside, of course, is that the preacher learns to rely too much on the possibility of “winging it,” or coming to the sermon poorly prepared. Without a substantial amount of skill, this form of preaching can sometimes ramble and lose its focus.

I have typically counselled different approaches to the matter depending upon various factors. For example, the ‘manuscript and memorize’ approach might serve well a preacher who is less experienced and less confident, especially with those who are working in second languages. I have also noticed that this method is used by some large church pastors whose schedule and assignment allows a greater amount of time for preparation. Conversely, church planters and smaller church pastors who have limited amounts of time, will see obvious benefit in a more spontaneous approach, as will preachers who are working with youth groups and younger congregations.

Often, preachers will gravitate to some form of hybrid approach – working with a more limited set of notes, while practicing as much as time will permit. Over time, these preachers find a middle ground that works well with their context, their schedule, and their personal temperament. This works for some, though others find the presence of text, even in the form of partial notes to be cognitively distracting from the primary goal of actually communicating with the gathered crowd.

Clearly, there is no correct approach to the matter. We will all have to assess our own capacities and find an approach that allows us to offer the truth with a sufficient sense of precision while at the same time offering the required sense of presence. 

The 500 Word Manuscript

So how much manuscript should a preacher use? Does a sermon manuscript keep a preacher from rambling into irrelevance, or does it stifle and inhibit communication? A more oral and in-the-moment approach can keep the sermon from feeling like it has been canned or packaged. On the other hand, a manuscript can keep the sermon from feeling like the preacher is making it up as he goes.

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My own preaching has utilized both methods to varying degrees. I do love the communicative power of extemporaneous preaching, even though it sometimes feels a little undisciplined and imprecise. Some have suggested the preparation of a manuscript that is left behind and not utilized in the actual preaching of the sermon. While this sounds like a great way of integrating the two approaches, I have often found myself paralyzed while preaching by this method, trying to remember the exact construction that I laboured over in the writing of the manuscript.

My solution has been to move to a 500 Word Manuscript. Having done my sermon research and construction, I write the sermon in 500 words or less – basically the sermon on a single sheet of paper. 500 words is not enough words for even the shortest of sermons, but it is enough to communicate the basic substance and structure I intend. It also doesn’t require as much time to prepare. Consolidating the sermon into 500 words forces me to focus and sharpen the sermon, requiring me to make important choices about better and best. I can then easily commit the resulting structure to memory without worrying about falling into a deadly recitation in the preaching of the sermon.

There is a delightful freedom in preaching the resulting sermon. The sermon feels fresh and focused. I am not bogged down by pre-fabricated constructions, nor am I struggling to discern direction. I don’t bring my 500 words with me to the platform. I don’t need to. I know what I am doing and where I am going, but I am free to use language that seems organic and unforced as it emerges in the moment.

One thing I know about myself is that I can talk. I am seldom stuck for words when I have clarity about my purpose. I suspect that the same could be true about any of us who preach. The resulting product might not look eloquent if published, but no one is publishing our preaching anyway.

The 500 Word Manuscript is a way if having your homiletical cake and eating it too. People love it when we can look them in the eye and communicate with them directly without the interference of our manuscripts and notes. But they also want us to be coherent and to not waste their time. My 500 words is enough to help me give them what they need.