You Aren’t as Smart as You Think You Are . . . So Don’t Manuscript Your Sermons!

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Don Johnson's picture

There is no "one size fits all". Personally, I started preaching with a more "minimal notes" approach as mentioned in the article, until I discovered that my notes were pretty well useless when I wanted to preach a sermon a second time. I have developed a fairly detailed outline approach since, but not a manuscript. It works for me, but everyone will have to develop their own style. (It can be a somewhat painful process, both for hearer and speaker! But worth working through.)

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Joe Whalen's picture

My preference, when I pastored full-time, was to do detailed study work, including all the language work, proposition, tracing the flow of the psg, etc.  This I labeled, "Study Notes"."

Then, I would make a file called, "Sermon Notes" where I manuscripted the message.

Finally, I would make a one-half sheet called, "Pulpit Notes" that i took into the pulpit.  this only had intro, main ideas, and conclusion on it.

That way I had worked, reworked, and re-reworked the message.  Also, later I can go back to those notes and familiarize myself rather quickly with the message if I need to preach it again.

Ron Bean's picture

Every time one of these preaching discussions comes up I listen to some of the sermons by the contributors to said discussions and I've learned three things. 1) All of us could improve our preaching 2) all of us could benefit from honest criticism and 3) some of us get defensive at any criticism. 

After 30 years of preaching, my notes have gotten more detailed and I "practice" to the point where I've essentially memorized an unwritten manuscript. There are benefits. My sermons are usually under 35 minutes because I don't waste time with spontaneous anecdotes, stories, unessential side-bars, and jokes and the main point of the text and of the sermon are remembered.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture


I manuscript my sermons, but put it into bullet-point format. I refer to my notes when I preach, but I certainly don't read them. 

  • Writing it all out clarifies my thoughts, and makes them more precise
  • It gives me a record of my sermon which I can refer to years later

I started out with bare-bones notes, but gradually these "notes" have morphed into a full-blown manuscript. You can see a recent one here. Everyone will develop their own unique style and approach. I find these discussions (i.e. manuscript vs. no manuscript) ultimately pointless, because everybody is different. Andy Stanley, for instance, says we shouldn't use any notes. Yay for him. Easy to say when you only preach once per week. Paul Tripp says he spends 30-40 hours preparing for each sermon, so the Spirit can work on him. Yay for him. Again - this is advice divorced from the reality of real Pastoring in a small church.

I believe each preacher needs to honestly examine his own approach and be open to tweaking things as necessary. I'm just not sure advice like "don't manuscript your sermons" is worth much. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

After pastoring the same church for 42 years, I believe I have improved in my preaching, but am still learning and growing.  My notes are more extensive now compared to the early years, as I have people who have heard me for many years, and I need to give them fresh insights, not old hash.  Still, there is much to be said for minimal notes.  Speaking styles are more free, spontaneous, and in my opinion, effective, when not tethered to either a manuscript or notes that are too detailed.  I have told several people that I feel as though I have finally learned how to preach within the last ten years or so.  And when asked what is my best sermon, my reply is always, "The next one."

G. N. Barkman

CPHurst's picture

The last time I preached I manuscripted the sermon and it was the worst thing I have ever done. It tied me to my notes and I felt very restricted. I usually do an outline with color codes and bold text for various reasons.

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that there may be a strong element of personality here.  I have a coworker who tends to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink, into his Word documents, but PowerPoint forces him to winnow things down far more clearly.  On the flip side, my management has noted to me that I work better in Word--sometimes I need more space than bullet points to clarify what I'm getting it.

It strikes me that preaching is the same, and that the choice between outline and manuscript format will depend on the personality of the preacher, the maturity of the congregation, and the topic being discussed.  I would tend to guess, however, that in light of the need to interact with the congregation, the "safer" route for the young pastor at least would be more of an outline form--but not an absolute rule.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

I have heard eloquent preachers who use a manuscript. It's evident that they are so familiar with their manuscript that they are not tied to it. 

I have heard eloquent preachers who use notes, minimal or detailed, who stay on point and deliver cogent sermons.

The type of preaching that reveals a lack of discipline is preaching that has extraneous material, stories, jokes, personal asides and spontaneous "inspiration" that wastes time, breaks the flow of the sermon, causes both preacher and listener to be distracted.

I've long suggested that preachers listen to their sermons critically, or get some one else to listen, and take note of wasted time. I have two: a retired pastor friend whom I love and respect.....and my wife. (She can be brutally honest.)

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Mark_Smith's picture

I don't know, i am not in a hurry at church. i never have been. i give time for people to turn to bible passages. i don't speak so that a person can't take notes. what is the point of making points in a message if no one has time to chew what you are saying?


Ron Bean's picture

-Stories that have little to do with the sermon

-Unrelated humor and trite jokes

-Insider Comments (i.e. Calling people by first names during the message, personal experiences that have little relevance to the message)

-Rambling and unnecessary repetition of phrases 

-Trite phrases (Can I get an Amen?)

-numerous "ers", "and uhs", "you knows"

While I'm on my hobby horse, I don't think there's any excuse for poor grammar, mispronunciations, and sloppy reading of Scripture.

Personally, I pause around points I want to emphasize; sometimes before and always after. I look around for note takers (and tweeters) and consider them as cues. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bert Perry's picture when the pastor shows a cheesy video that he thinks demonstrates a point.  Often, it actually detracts from it because people "in the know" recognize it as pure.....nonsense, to be polite about the matter.  (e.g. "boy crushed in gears of railroad bridge by his father"...)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

I manuscript my opening because it forces my to fine-tune an opening statement that clearly focuses our attention on the main point f the message. This is the point I weave through the entire message and statement I repeatedly refer to, usually as I summarize each main point and tie in the next main point. My sermon notes are highly detailed outline notes so that I don't forget things and don't forget things and don't get side-tracked with rabbit trails (so easy to do if the audience responds unexpectedly at some point of the sermon). 

In response to Mark, I go 90 miles an hour. In my experience, no one in the audience ever walks away with everything that is offered in a general lesson/sermon (small-group discussion oriented classes could be an exception). I want them them to walk away with the main idea (as noted in the last paragraph), and my experience has been that people usually find one single point in the message that resonates with them. They latch on to this single point and that is all they can remember five minutes after the sermon closes because that is the single point God used to influence their lives in that particular message.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

pvawter's picture

I do manuscript my sermons, but I didn't start out that way. At first, I wrote out my introduction and conclusion so I didn't miss anything important. Eventually, I just kept writing and ended up with a manuscript. It helps me to really consider everything I want to say so that I don't waste words, and I can even plan my rabbit trails! Smile