One of the hardest lessons for a pastor to learn is to truly lean on the Holy Spirit while preaching and not his manuscript. I know this all too well because in my tradition, we are prone to read our manuscripts instead of preaching the message of the gospel. While manuscripts may provide well documented theological arguments, reading from one is not preaching. Reading from a manuscript is nothing more than giving a theological lecture. Far too often in my denomination it is regarded as preaching. On the one hand, the manuscript process for preparation is to be commended because it requires research, prayer and time spent in the word of God. But on the other hand, it is bad because when you are reading a manuscript, the Holy Spirit is inhibited.
After all, did Peter read his sermon on the day of Pentecost? Absolutely not. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and preached with conviction. In my denomination, I think we like people to read manuscripts because they lack conviction. It’s safe. However, can you imagine if Peter had read the words: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— 23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.”
No, Peter didn’t read those words. He shouted them. He said them with conviction, and the men who heard were cut to the heart. That is what we want when we preach. We want those in our congregations to be cut to the heart where there is sin, and encouraged in Christ where there is brokenness. As has been said before, we want to comfort the conflicted, and conflict the comfortable. Reading a manuscript prevents this.
This is one reason why reading manuscripts is so popular. Preachers, by nature, want to be liked. We want all those in our congregation to like us and support us in what we are called to do. But the truth be known, if you truly preach the word of God, there will be people in any congregation that will not like you. They don’t want to hear the truths of God’s word, because God’s word is so powerful. It causes us to squirm and realize our own sinfulness, even those of us who preach it. Do you think I wanted to preach that Jesus told the disciples and us how much the world hates us? (See here.) Not really. It was a difficult sermon to preach, but one that needed to be preached. As believers we need to be confronted with the truth of the gospel. Part of that truth means that we are no longer liked by the world. But it is far better to be liked by Christ than the world.
The point is that when we read our manuscripts, we have a tendency to do so in a way that is non-confrontational. (Yes, I know that Jonathan Edwards read his manuscripts. Charles Haddon Spurgeon did not. Who is considered the prince of preachers?) It is also safe because it keeps us from saying something far to controversial or making a mistake. That’s right, it helps keep our pride in tact because we never have to apologize for making a mistake. Wretched.
I would much rather be used by the Spirit and make the occasional mistake which requires an apology than to quench the Spirit. But I had to learn this lesson.
Given that I find myself in a denomination that not only strives for the conversion of souls, but also theological purity, the fear was just too much to venture off the well-prepared manuscript. Given that my denomination tends to attract those who love theology, and love to argue theology, when you preach, there is always the chance that you will make a mistake in something you say and find yourself in a theological tempest. For that reason I stayed with the manuscript for far too long. It has only been recently that I have felt the freedom to depart from the manuscript, and even throw it out while in the pulpit. Again, I think we are better off. (Please don’t get me wrong. I still prepare a manuscript every week, or a highly detailed outline. But I’m not bound by it. I think the preacher who fails to study and pray throughout the week is a greater blight on the church than the the theological lecturer.)
Part of this comes from being confident. Not confident in myself, but in the message I am preaching. It’s one thing to believe the gospel, and trust in Christ for salvation, it is quite another to proclaim that truth. Just examine yourself about witnessing to others. You know how difficult that is. Well, it is equally difficult to preach the word of God with all that it says about our sinful and depraved nature even to those who believe and affirm that we are sinful and depraved. Even in a group of people who fully acknowledge this biblical truth, we still want messages that tickle our ears. So it is difficult.
Pastors must be confident in the message we preach. The gospel is the power unto salvation and to preach it faithfully means that it will insult those in the congregation because the true gospel says to us: “sorry, you are not good enough, and you don’t measure up. However, if you put your faith and trust in another, then you will be saved.” Hardly the health and wealth prosperity gospel that is found in so much of life (see the Conservative Tea Party Movement). It also confronts those who look to the government for help, because the gospel says that we are not to turn to the government, but to God. So it is offensive to all parties in our country.
The point is that for pastors to be effective, we must preach God’s word, and trust in the Spirit while we do so. This means that we preach, or proclaim the truth, not read it. Yes, we can read from our manuscript at certain points, or read quotes, or look to it for the order of our message. But that is only a guide and we need to be ready for the Holy Spirit to take us down a different path if necessary. He may lead us away from the manuscript all together. That is wonderful if He does so. That means we are leaning on Him to give our congregations what they need, and not what we think they need. As long as we are preaching His truth, than so be it. But let’s not read it, let’s preach it.
New Testament Commentator William Hendriksen wrote the following about Jesus using parables in His sermons:
“The minister, therefore, who spiritual contact with the world of human beings destined for eternity consists of delivering–mostly reading?– to ‘his own’ people one sermon a week, or even two, without stirring appeals, tender admonitions, illustrations, and/or a climax; and who then retires to his study for the next six days, may well ask himself whether anyone will ever say about him, ‘I recognize that he has been with Jesus.’”
Hendriksen has no room for preachers that read sermons. And we should not either. We are called to preach God’s word, not read it.