“Pharaoh, let my people go!”
That’s a joke my mother uses on occasion with my friends regarding my first sermon preached. Admittedly, it was not that great, and I did preach everything I knew in the Bible in one sermon.
Prior to coming to Grace, I had eight years of Bible college and seminary training and six years ministering as a youth and college pastors in local churches. With that training and experience, you would think I had a lot of practical training in preparing and delivering sermons. But the fact of the matter is I had no formal training in college and one class in seminary in which I preached one 20 minute sermon. Although I preached many times, I still felt woefully unprepared for the fundamental task of pastoral ministry.
Then I came to Grace and immediately began to be helped by my fellow pastor and churchman Tom Ascol.
The first thing he did was pay a lady to transcribe my first message at Grace word for word and spend two hours working through the 17-page document full of grammatical errors, pointless commentary, and incoherent argumentation. It was one of the most grueling and embarrassing things I had ever done. The scalpel (Tom’s red pen) dissected and performed surgery and fully exposed areas of incompetency in my preaching. While it was almost unbearable, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to my preaching. In fact, it was what I need 12 years ago that neither Bible college, seminary, or two church positions offered.
I have heard it said from experienced practitioners like Tim Keller and others that it takes a pastor five years or more than 200 sermons before he finds his voice/style and feels comfortable in his own skin. In the day of podcasting and sermon downloading where church members can listen to the best preachers evangelicalism has to offer, the pressure to perform and excel in preaching is daunting. If you can listen to Matt Chandler on Monday, David Platt on Tuesday, Mark Driscoll on Wednesday, John Piper on Thursday, and Mark Dever on Friday, then for the that church member, the young and inexperienced preacher on Sunday morning feels “karaoke”. Only a church stubbornly committed to making disciples, including disciples in the pulpit, can celebrate amateur preachers and pitting them against more polished, seasoned practitioners in the pulpit.
As one of those young and inexperienced preachers, one of the best gifts God has given me is men who are committed to making me a better preacher of the gospel. Every sermon I preach is evaluated. Everything is considered: thesis, exegesis, illustrations, application, eye contact, speech, grammar, length, etc. In the beginning, I dreaded that one hour in our weekly elder meetings; however, as I sought to apply the fraternal criticism to my preaching, I began to anticipate those meetings, knowing I was benefiting from an experience in true pastoral training that many, if not most, in my generation are not afforded. The opportunity to receive real, significant preaching instruction and help is a stewardship I hope not only benefits my hearers but also those I may have opportunity to help in the future.
One of the most significant helps I received at the beginning was writing out a full manuscript of my message. I have taken some time in recent days in light of some Twitter conversations to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned and benefits I’ve received from using a full manuscript in my preaching, and I thought I share them here for what it’s worth.
10 Benefits I’ve Received from Using a Full Manuscript (MSS)
1. Clarity – The exercise of writing out what you are going to say before you say it provides you the opportunity of being clear in your communication. Cluttered, confusing statements do not serve preaching well. The discipline of writing a full MSS helps you address not only what you say but how you say it in ways that are clearly understandable to the hearer.
2. Brevity – When my first sermon was transcribed, it was over 7,000 words(!). Since writing a full MSS (and I mean full), I have whittled down my word count to roughly 4,000-4,500 words. The most effective preachers I know have an amazing ability to say a lot in a short amount of time. Length of preaching does not necessarily mean you cover the text well. It could be you are just rambling.
3. Precision – I was taught in seminary by professors that every paragraph in a research paper should contribute to your thesis. The same is true in preaching. If I have 45 minutes to preach, I cannot afford to waste 5 minutes on something that does not illuminate the text or apply it to my people. Make every paragraph count by making every sentence count. Don’t waste people’s attention by wasting your words.
Additionally, using a MSS has forced me to be more precise in my grammar. Things like subject-verb agreement, using the active voice, pronouns and antecedents may sound technical and geared toward an academic audience, but they are important to your delivery. You are a public speaker, but more than that, you are a herald of God’s Gospel, and we should of all people be careful not to unnecessarily provide a stumbling block to receiving the message through being imprecise.
4. Simplicity – One of things most impressed upon me by Tom Ascol has been simplicity in preaching. Coming from an academic environment, I tended to use long, complex sentences and theological terms I took for granted, assuming my hearers full understood them as well. And writing a MSS allows me to evaluate areas where my thoughts are too complex or my word choice could better serve my audience. The simpler, the better, and a MSS is a great tool to help make that happen.
5. Coherence – Does the points of my MSS argue and explain my thesis? Is my thesis the point of the text? Like precision, coherence makes the flow of your message easy for your listeners to follow. A choppy, disconnected message makes listeners struggle to follow what you are saying. Writing a full MSS helps you detect disjunctions and evaluate points or sub points in your message that either don’t fit or need to be communicated differently.
6. Macro – A full MSS allows you to see the big picture to your sermon. Is there a way you could illustrate a point better. Are you missing application at key points? Are your transitions helpful in reviewing? A full MSS is like an executed storyboard. Is your story compelling? Are you engaging the mind, the heart, and the will? What do you want to accomplish at the conclusion of your message? A full MSS can help answer those questions as you have time to consider all these matters from a macro viewpoint.
7. Retrieval/Preservation – You may preach a passage/message in the past that you may want to preach again in a different context. I recently did this while in Haiti. If all you have is a few bullet points or annotations, you may struggle in retrieval. But a full MSS has everything you said, including illustrations, transitions, applications, etc.
8. Discipleship – I have made the habit of making my MSS available on Sundays, and here recently I have had non-Christians and newly converted Christians asking for my MSS to take home with them. When the MSS is available to them, they are less worried about taking notes feverishly and can be more engaged then and there for the Spirit to apply the Word to them, knowing they could get my full MSS later. The MSS also becomes a tool I could use with guys I’m mentoring and training as future pastors or church planters in helping them in their craft.
9. Personal Application/Enjoyment - Exegetical/expository preaching is hard work. Writing a full MSS can make it even harder. But I can say that after doing it a while, God has used that exercise to convict me in areas where I’m not living where I’m preaching. Not only that, but God has also encouraged me in the process by the leadership and assistance of the Holy Spirit. For those who preach more extemporaneously and prepare little, God bless them. I’m not that guy. But here’s another thing to consider. God is with you in your preparation as much as He is with you in your presentation. Writing the full MSS and praying over it is an opportunity to experience the blessing of God’s Spirit owning His Word in my life. Those hours of preparation are when heaven enters your soul. Savor it.
10. Preparation – Even though I write a full MSS, that does not mean I preach from it or force myself to stick to it exactly. Some argue that it makes you more wooden or boring. I can certainly see that happening. But what about reading and praying over your MSS several times in the day or hours before you preach so that you are not only going to the pulpit with a hot heart but with a lot of light as well?
I hope that something here might encourage young preachers to cultivate their craft. I am one who is far from where I want to be as a preacher, but thanks to God’s kindness in the gifts of godly examples and their constructive help, I don’t think I’m where I used to be.
If there are any questions about preaching, fraternal critique, or developing a sermon MSS, let me know. If it would be any help to you, I am providing you four sermon MSSs from last month where I preached a mini-series on God’s grace.