Stacking is when a preacher gathers several stories or pictures and offers them in bulk, one after the other in a confined space of sermon time. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but stacking stories is usually counter-productive.
Normally this is not intentional. It happens when a preacher falls in love with a number of illustrations and stories and decides to use all of them without much thought as to what kind of impact this might have on the poor listener. Typically, the result for the listener is confusion. Stacked stories tend to blend into one another, blunting the impact of all. If the preacher had been disciplined enough to use just one of these stories, the listener would have been able to focus his or her attention resulting in a far stronger effect.
Stories, well told, are rich events. Stories introduce places and people. They describe places and events. A story carries a narrative. It moves a listener from one place to another. When stories are stacked it is just too many moving parts. The listener cannot commit to so many characters or to so much conflict. There is just too much going on. It would be better for the preacher not to have offered any story at all.
Pictures, on the other hand, can be stacked effectively. Unlike stories, pictures are static – they do not move. They offer a snapshot of a particular setting or situation. Typically, pictures require a lot less time to describe, which allows for effective stacking. It can be very effective to open or close a sermon with a series of carefully expressed word pictures that offer an array of examples, opportunities, or which simply combine to set the stage for what is yet to come.
I’ve sometimes heard story-stacking called “skyscraper preaching” – one story on top of another. It is a way of filling the time, though not with the substance preaching requires.
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.
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.