The other week a fellow preacher asked me if I could spell out the process that goes into writing a sermon. I spluttered and struggled and admitted that it differs somewhat from talk to talk and that I wasn’t sure my model would necessarily work for him. He followed up with some more specific questions:
- He asked me if I was a “scripter” or a “riffer” by which I think he meant: did I prepare my talk word for word and then recite it like that on the day, or did I have some ideas and riff on them until something came together? I said both. Kinda.
- He asked me if I write my talk down exactly as I want to say and spend most of my prep time editing the written text or do I spend most of my time practising delivery. I said both.
- He asked me which order I work in; do I script first and then practise, or practise ideas and then script them. I said both.
He was exasperated and asked if I could write down some thoughts on the process. I said I would… I haven’t. Yet. But I intend to.
In the meantime I read this piece by Derek Rishmawy, which laid out nicely the two essential components of sermon preparation: manuscripting and practicing. Strictly speaking they may not be essential components, insomuch as preachers far greater than me may minimise one or the other. But I consider both essential for my own creative process. Without manuscripting my ideas will not be cogent. Without practicing my cogent ideas will not be delivered with beauty or conviction.
Check out the whole of Derek’s post if you have a moment. But if you just need a quick read, then these paragraphs are brilliant and some up pretty much how I feel about the process:
Manuscripting of some form is absolutely necessary for me. The first draft is where I figure out the logical order, find most of my major points, craft certain key phrases, and make sure the flow is there. Without the outlining and manuscript process, I would not be forced to wrestle with the fundamental meaning of the text, and establish the bones, so to speak, before I put flesh on it. That said, if you look at my sermon notes and then follow my sermon, odds are that on any given night there’s going to be a major discrepancy between the two. Oh, sure, the sections are likely in the same order, the logic is there, and the paragraphs are mostly in place, but there is still wide variation from my initial draft to my final delivery. The reality is that as I practice throughout the day, I find myself following the text, but rewriting the sections as I go. Indeed, I end up rewriting it in my soul, since by the time I get up there, I’m barely looking at my notes anymore.
I know a lot of preachers hate practicing. The great thing about disciplining yourself to practice live before you go up a few times, is that you can begin to draw out those moments of improvisatory insight before you ever get in front of your people. And most preachers know that those are often your best points, right? By practicing, you take those flashes and work them into the structure of your sermon, dwell on them a bit more systematically, and draw out the implications with greater depth and persuasive power.
But I need both halves of the process. For those preachers who seem to hate preparatory manuscripting, you need to know that the best flashes of improvisatory insight come after you’ve already wrestled with the text for a while, written and rewritten sections, and tried to string it all together as best as you can on the page. Without that foundational work, your riffing will be less likely to be grounded in a fresh engagement with the text and more drawn on the leftovers of more studious days.
So those are my two tips: manuscript, then practice. I know every preacher is different, and plenty do it different, but if you’re young like me, or hitting a bit of a dry patch in your preaching, maybe consider giving it a try.
Image: Pulpit by Paul Kelly, used under CC-BY-NC 2.0