One Sunday morning in my early days of pastoring, I stepped into the pulpit and opened my Bible to where I thought I had placed my sermon notes. To my horror, they were not there. In an instant, I remembered that I had left them on my office desk. A sense of panic swept over me, and all of my options flashed through my mind. Then—in the next instant —a sense of calm came over me that could only have been from the Holy Spirit, and I realized that I knew the message well enough from preparing it to preach it without my notes. In three more decades of preaching, I never forgot my notes again, but I learned a more important lesson than “Don’t leave your notes in your office.” The incident taught me that if I had done my preparation to the best of my ability, following a systematic process, then God would give me the ability in the pulpit to recall and deliver my message. In this unexpected and unplanned way, I discovered the value of extemporaneous preaching. I strongly encourage pastors to learn to preach extemporaneously.
Extemporaneous preaching is NOT ad-libbing or preaching “off-the-cuff.” Quite the opposite. (Impromptu preaching, “as the Spirit moves,” sounds like a great idea, but I find that spontaneous sermons are frequently rambling and repetitive, unfocused and uninteresting.) Extemporaneous preaching involves working from a clear outline and concise notes, not from a manuscript. It requires extensive preparation but gives the preacher freedom and flexibility in the precise wording of the sermon. Extemporaneous preaching is similar to the “talking points” style of public speaking that is the preferred method of many speakers today, and also the most effective. It allows the speaker to be free from notes, to engage the audience with eye contact, and to make an immediate emotional connection with the listener. It also enables a preacher to read the audience and to tweak the message in progress depending on the congregation’s reaction and the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Extemporaneous preaching also permits him or her to move away from the pulpit and step closer to the people.
Many preachers read their sermons, thinking that it is content alone that makes for a compelling proclamation of the Word. They may not trust their memories or may feel strongly about getting the wording of their examples, explanations, and expositions exactly as composed. In my opinion, reading an entire sermon is deadly for the congregation; it is the fastest way to put them to sleep. Granted, there are a few preachers who are very effective at reading manuscripts of their sermons. Usually they are outstanding writers. It is the power of their words that holds the audience’s attention. However, for every one preacher who is like that, there are thousands who will bore their congregations by reading their sermons. What a shame to spend hours of intense study, prayer, and preparation on a sermon, only to have the congregation lose interest because it is being read to them. There is a better way to go. Here’s how.
To preach extemporaneously, begin the way you begin all sermon preparation, by praying and studying the biblical text to determine why the biblical author wrote these words and what he meant by them. By carefully studying and interpreting the text, you can discover the “big idea.” The big idea is the main point in the passage. The big idea forms the unit of scripture. Preach only one unit of scripture per sermon. You will draw on other ideas and details in the passage to support or expand the big idea. But your congregation should leave the worship service understanding—and even able to share with others—the key point of your sermon.
Next, prepare a sermon outline. Give yourself some liberty in building the outline. Many of my best outlines were not original but came from other preachers and expositors. I once heard the great pulpiteer Harold J. Ockenga preach in chapel at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, of which he was founder and president. He said right at the outset, “I want to give credit to Dr. Stephen Olford (Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, New York City) for my outline this morning.” He then went on to preach his own message based on Olford’s outline. I think every student in that auditorium breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that there would be times when, despite of our best efforts to develop our own outline, we might have to rely on someone else’s. Whenever I have done so, I hope I have given credit where credit is due. A good outline lists the main points you want to make and the key supporting ideas you will use to illustrate, explain, and apply them. It shows the order of presentation and subordination—how the information unfolds and holds together.
Now, use that outline to write a manuscript. It is in writing a full manuscript that you make all your transitions smooth, all your sentences complete, all your stories succinct. There were times in my preaching ministry when, to save a little preparation time, I would go directly from my outline to my preaching notes. This was always a mistake. The written manuscript is an essential part of connecting all the dots of your thinking and preparation. Write the manuscript quickly, getting the content down as fast as you can. Work when your mind is fresh and your energy level high. And use whatever medium works for you: I sometimes write longhand on legal pads, other times keyboard on my laptop. Obviously, the first pass will need polishing; that happens as you go over your work and revise your drafts. The result should be a complete manuscript.
The next step, involves converting the manuscript into one or two pages of notes. What I try to end up with is one half sheet of paper (small enough to fit into my Bible), written on one side only. Then file the manuscript away. You won’t need it in the pulpit, but you now have a complete copy to distribute to your congregation, post on-line, or save for future use.
So far, the extemporaneous preaching process has gone from (1) Prayer and study, to (2) Preparing an outline, to (3) Writing a manuscript, to (4) Condensing the manuscript to notes. There is one final step.
The last step in extemporaneous preaching preparation is saying your message. Relying on your notes, preach your sermon to yourself. You can actually speak your message out loud or just say it in your mind. Early on, I did this two or three times for each sermon, usually speaking out loud, sometimes even from the pulpit on a Saturday evening. Later, I found saying it twice in my mind was sufficient. Do not skip this very important step. In saying your sermon a couple of times, you become very familiar with your message without actually memorizing it. Your notes free you from your manuscript, and saying your sermon frees you from your notes. Each time you say it through, your brain forms word paths for conveying each part of your message. So by the time you actually preach, you have multiple ways for expressing every idea. This is not the same as memorizing the message. In fact, I strongly advise you not to try to memorize your message. In memorizing, your brain forms only one word path, and if you forget that path, you are stuck. Also, the memorized version will be in your written language, which is different—more formal and stilted—than your colloquial spoken language. When you preach extemporaneously, your congregation will feel you are talking directly to them, because you are.
(Excerpted and adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, by Rev. Dr. Jack L. Daniel, Overseed Press, 2018)