The Faculty of Impromptu Speech, Part 1


From Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of The Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle

First Series, Lecture X
By C.H. Spurgeon

Read the series.

We are not about to discuss the question as to whether sermons should be written and read, or written, committed to memory and repeated, or whether copious notes should be employed, or no notes at all. Neither of these is the subject now under consideration, although we may incidentally allude to each of them, but we are now to speak of extemporaneous speech in its truest and most thorough form—speech impromptu, without special preparation, without notes or immediate forethought.

Our first observation shall be that we would not recommend any man to attempt preaching in this style as a general rule.

If he did so, he would succeed, we think, most certainly, in producing a vacuum in his meeting-house; his gifts of dispersion would be clearly manifested. Unstudied thoughts coming from the mind without previous research, without the subjects in hand having been investigated at all, must be of a very inferior quality, even from the most superior men; and as none of us would have the effrontery to glorify ourselves as men of genius or wonders of erudition, I fear that our unpremeditated thoughts upon most subjects would not be remarkably worthy of attention.

Churches are not to be held together except by an instructive ministry; a mere filling up of time with oratory will not suffice. Everywhere men ask to be fed, really fed. Those new-fangled religionists, whose public worship consists of the prelections of any brother who chooses to jump up and talk, notwithstanding their flattering inducements to the ignorant and garrulous, usually dwindle away, and die out; because, even men, with the most violently crotchety views, who conceive it to be the mind of the Spirit that every member of the body should be a mouth, soon grow impatient of hearing other people’s nonsense, though delighted to dispense their own; while the mass of the good people grow weary of prosy ignorance, and return to the churches from which they were led aside, or would return if their pulpits were well supplied with solid teaching.

Even Quakerism, with all its excellences, has scarcely been able to survive the poverty of thought and doctrine displayed in many of its assemblies by impromptu orators. The method of unprepared ministrations is practically a failure, and theoretically unsound. The Holy Spirit has made no promise to supply spiritual food to the saints by an impromptu ministry. He will never do for us what we can do for ourselves. If we can study and do not, if we can have a studious ministry and will not, we have no right to call in a divine agent to make up the deficits of our idleness or eccentricity. The God of providence has promised to feed his people with temporal food; but if we came together to a banquet, and no one had prepared a single dish, because all had faith in the Lord that food would be given in the selfsame hour, the festival would not be eminently satisfactory, but folly would be rebuked by hunger; as, indeed, it is in the ease of spiritual banquets of the impromptu kind, only men’s spiritual receptacles are hardly such powerful orators as their stomachs.

Gentlemen, do not attempt, as a rule, to follow a system of things which is so generally unprofitable that the few exceptions only prove the rule. All sermons ought to be well considered and prepared by the preacher; and, as much as possible, every minister should, with much prayer for heavenly guidance, enter fully into his subject, exert all his mental faculties in original thinking, and gather together all the information within his reach. Viewing the whole matter from all quarters, the preacher should think it out, get it well masticated and digested; and having first fed upon the word himself should then prepare the like nutriment for others. Our sermons should be our mental life-blood—the out-flow of our intellectual and spiritual vigour; or, to change the figure, they should be diamonds well cut and well set—precious, intrinsically, and bearing the marks of labour. God forbid that we should offer to the Lord that which costs us nothing.

Very strongly do I warn all of you against reading your sermons, but I recommend, as a most healthful exercise, and as a great aid towards attaining extemporising power, the frequent writing of them. Those of us who write a great deal in other forms, for the press, et cetera, may not so much require that exercise; but if you do not use the pen in other ways, you will be wise to write at least some of your sermons, and revise them with great care.

Leave them at home afterwards, but still write them out, that you may be preserved from a slipshod style. M. Bautain in his admirable work on extempore speaking, remarks, “You will never be capable of speaking properly in public unless you acquire such mastery of your own thought as to be able to decompose it into its parts, to analyse it into its elements, and then, at need, to recompose, re-gather, and concentrate it again by a synthetical process. Now this analysis of the idea, which displays it, as it were, before the eyes of the mind, is well executed only by writing. The pen is the scalpel which dissects the thoughts, and never, except when you write clown what you behold internally, can you succeed in clearly discerning all that is contained in a conception, or in obtaining its well-marked scope. You then understand yourself, and make others understand you.”

We do not recommend the plan of learning sermons by heart, and repeating them from memory, that is both a wearisome exercise of an inferior power of the mind and an indolent neglect of other and superior faculties. The most arduous and commendable plan is to store your mind with matter upon the subject of discourse, and then to deliver yourself with appropriate words which suggest themselves at the time. This is not extemporaneous preaching; the words are extemporal, as I think they always should be, but the thoughts are the result of research and study. Only thoughtless persons think this to be easy; it is at once the most laborious and the most efficient mode of preaching, and it has virtues of its own of which I cannot now speak particularly, since it would lead us away from the point in hand.