I have long advocated for manuscript preaching, and while I do know it’s not for everyone, as one who switched to this practice about ten years ago after fifteen years of outline preaching, I think more preachers should give it a try. I’ve tried to make a case for the practice in my book Gospel-Driven Ministry, so I won’t rehearse that argument here. But if you are interested in trying this out, I do want to offer some advice for more successful delivery.
1. Differentiate your text for ease of reading.
Some preachers apply a color code for the different components of a sermon, and you may find that helpful. I just use regular black text, but I bold the preaching text, bold and underline my sermon points, and italicize illustrations and other Scripture references I’m bringing in to the exposition. The main portions of my manuscript, the exposition, are all just plain text. Occasionally I will use CAPS to emphasize certain words or sentences. This helps my brain cue up the shifts in emphasis and prepare for transitions to different elements of the sermon as I’m preaching. Your mileage may vary, but using some means of differentiating between sermon components can keep you from getting lost in your manuscript if you’re making good eye contact or preaching some portions from memory or otherwise extemporaneously. (And while I’m at it, make sure you use a good size font for ease of reading.)
2. Re-read and rehearse.
The reason most folks don’t preach from a manuscript is because they don’t want to feel too tethered to their script. They’re afraid the sermon delivery will feel too much like just reading a paper. The best way to avoid this is to become as familiar with your manuscript as possible. If you suspect this may be a problem for you, it’s probably not a great idea to be a late Saturday writer. Give yourself ample time to re-read the manuscript and maybe even to rehearse preaching from it to cultivate enough familiarity to add a natural delivery to the preaching event. Reviewing your manuscript well can also help you identify portions of your sermon that aren’t articulated very well or don’t translate well to oral delivery. And on that note:
3. Remember to write for speech.
The biggest issue I see with many beginning manuscript preachers is that they haven’t developed a good ear for the difference between writing a sermon and a theological article or expositional essay. They write like they’re writing a paper, and then the delivery sounds exactly like reading a paper! But manuscripting a sermon isn’t the same thing. We have to remember to write for speech, not for interior reading. This will affect word choice, certain modes of phrasing, and the like. Make sure you’re using words you can actually pronounce! Make sure you’re constructing sentences that aren’t overly long or complicated. Make sure you’re not writing in overly formal style. Write like you’d preach a sermon. People hear differently than they read, so we have to manuscript differently than we often write.
4. Don’t give up too soon.
As I said, manuscripting isn’t for everyone. But I suspect it’s for more folks than give it ample time to truly find out if it’s for them. A lot of beginning manuscript preachers give up on the practice too soon, before they get better at it. They do it a few times, get frustrated with how much they’re reading, how unnatural it might feel, how little eye contact they’re making, etc. — and then they give up. Like all new practices, manuscript preaching just takes a while to become more one’s own. And if you stick with it, you might discover, as I did, that manuscript preaching actually makes for a more polished, thoughtful, and excellent sermon.