#132 | My Complicated Relationship with Sermon Manuscripts [PODCAST]

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  • #132 | My Complicated Relationship with Sermon Manuscripts [PODCAST]
  • Welcome to The On Preaching Podcast, the podcast dedicated to helping you preach faithfully, clearly, and better.

    It has been my practice to write full sermon manuscripts and then whittle them down to a set of pulpit notes. For the past several years, I have preached from the manuscript. In some ways, I feel like my preacher is improving by preaching from manuscripts. At the same time, there are ways in which I think using sermon manuscripts hinders my preaching. As I said, I have a complicated relationship with sermon manuscripts.

    What is my current view of sermon manuscripts?

    Biblical Accuracy. A friend criticizes sermons by saying, “He didn’t lie on Jesus. But he lied on that text.” A good preacher will not lie on either one. Preach sound doctrine about the Lord Jesus Christ. And preach the proper interpretation of the sermon text. Hopefully, you worked hard to rightly divide the word of truth in your study. Don’t waste diligent word work with sloppy preaching. Make sure you accurately present the content, background, and meaning of the text by thinking through what you want to say and how you want to say it. A primary reason to write a full manuscript is to ensure that you are faithful to the text.

    Message Clarity. You may spend hours studying the text. You read widely, recorded diligently, and reflected prayerfully to understand the text. But there remains a problem. The congregation was not in the study with you. They did not spend their week thinking about the text. You must work hard to get them to think about it once you call their attention to it in the sermon. What’s the salutation to this problem? Write yourself clear. Don’t assume anything. And don’t just unload your bible knowledge on the unsuspecting hearers. Strive for clarity in your message. Pulpit clarity is all-important for effective preaching.  

    Balanced Preaching. A well-balanced sermon includes explanation, illustration, and application. These sermon elements should be proportioned in the sermon. The same applies to introductions and conclusions. When the take-off or landing is as long as the flight, something is wrong. Your preaching plan should cover different genres and both testaments. And to stay fresh in the pulpit, endeavor to say the old things in new ways. All these factors require you intentionally balance your preaching by writing out what you intend to say. Work hard to prepare the message so the congregation does not have to work hard to listen. 

    Sermon Length. I renewed my commitment to writing sermon manuscripts during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted to shorten my sermons for those watching and attending. The effort started with giving myself a 2,500-word count (down from around 3,500 words). My goal was to preach for about 30-35 minutes. I started taking the manuscript to the pulpit, hoping the closer I stayed to the manuscript, the closer I would get to my time goal. My goal to preach shorter sermons has not been as successful as I hoped. But writing manuscripts has helped me to be more time conscience and to use my preaching time more wisely. 

    Pulpit Liberty. Here is my big issue with preaching from a full manuscript. I feel handcuffed to it. There are times I take a manuscript to the pulpit for the sake of a few sentences or paragraphs. I may want just to get a quotation accurate. But the gravitational pull of the sermon manuscript drags my eyes downward. Whether true or not, it feels like I am looking at the manuscript more than the congregation. Preaching without notes gives freedom in the pulpit to communicate – looking at people, talking to people, responding to people. Here’s the bottom line: Preach the sermon, not the manuscript. 

    Sermon Archives. One of my ministry regrets is that I did not write anything down in the early years of my pulpit ministry. I read a lot of books. I studied the text thoroughly. I worked hard on my sermons. But I thought too highly of my memory. I wish I had written things down, especially my sermons. Don’t make my mistake. Write a sermon manuscript – the fruit of your exegesis – and file it away. Who knows? You may preach that sermon again. Or, more likely, finished text work will help you will future text work. Your written sermons can also be the first drafts of book chapters. 

    Ministerial Development. I am often asked what advice I would give to help a preacher grow. There is no standard answer to that question. A young preacher may need to go to seminary. A seasoned preacher may need to take a sabbatical. It all depends. But there is a general piece of advice that may be helpful whatever your stage of ministry. Write sermon manuscripts. You may use it in the pulpit. You may whittle it down to a smaller set of notes. You may go to the pulpit without anything but your Bible. But if you take the process seriously, it will only help your preaching to write full sermon manuscripts. 


    Preaching is worship seeking worship. And neither of these acts is less than the miraculous seeing and savoring of the beauty of Christ, which the natural man regards as foolishness. He cannot see Christ for who he really is – supremely beautiful and valuable. – John Piper


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.