Reading a Manuscript is Not Preaching

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.


11 thoughts on “Reading a Manuscript is Not Preaching

  1. I could be wrong, having not verified it myself, but I was told that the reason Edwards read some of his sermons was NOT so he could avoid error, but so that he could avoid emotionally influencing people to a response. He didn’t want to whip them up into a fervor to get some emotional response, but to allow the Holy Spirit to use his words to get the response He intended. I think we would be hard pressed to find preachers who read their sermons so they won’t influence their listeners.


  2. Yes, that would be true. I am not sure that is at all Biblical. Paul argued in the synagogues trying to persuade as many as he could. I think that was the purpose of him being all things to all people, so that he might win some.

    1 Cor. 9:21-23 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God,[a] but under law toward Christ[b]), that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as[c] weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

    We are to preach with power, that comes from the Holy Spirit. I think too many let their manuscripts get in the way, when they should be following the lead of the Holy Spirit.


  3. Heath

    Hey Timothy,
    I have a couple of questions on this one. Let me preface by saying that I’m not necessarily a manuscript guy. I often preach from outlines, and always teach from outlines.
    First, I wonder if you are laying this down as a rule(?). My issue with that is it seems the Scripture is rather silent on the issue. I can completely understand that you’ve come to a personal conviction on this, and have no problem with that, I just don’t know that you can lay down concrete rules on this sort of thing. I think there is likely a time in every preacher’s life where it would do him (and his listeners) good to rely on his manuscript or notes, and hopefully as he matures he will not need to continue doing so, but he might.
    Second, I’m wondering about the illustration of Peter from Acts 2. First, the passage is historical narrative. I’m not a hermeneutical nazi, and so I personally have no problem with using the example, but I don’t think we would take all of Acts 2 as exemplary for the continued life of the church generally. And besides that, did Peter even use notes? Would this then preclude us from carrying notes into the pulpit at all? No outlines, nothing? This passage might prove a bit too much.
    Third, I like the fact that you said essentially that you need to be ‘free,’ or not bound. It seems like this is the key to me. I tend to vary my method from week to week in what I carry into the pulpit. Sometimes I feel it necessary to carry a manuscript with me, and sometimes I do not. Isn’t this a part of ‘depending on the Holy Spirit’ as well? I often meditate on whether I will be more effective with or without a manuscript on a given week. I consider this an important part of my preparation, and I consider it a major part of my dependence upon the Spirit. And to me this is freeing, because I am not bound to one single method. If I want an outline, a couple of notes, or a manuscript I am free to use whatever I please since Scripture does not say that I must choose one method. Therefore my comment on this would be do not use the freedom you feel now as the driving force to lead you into another form of homiletical ‘bondage.’ I don’t think you should feel guilty if you need to depend more, or less, on your notes this week than you did the week before.
    Lastly, as far as the Hendriksen quote, I would hope that a manuscript would contain all of the things that he mentions (appeals, admonitions, etc), and would evidence that we have spent time with Jesus. I have often felt that God has anointed me as much in my study and writing as he has in the delivery of the sermon, and want to take those exact words that I am moved to write, and preserve them so that I can speak them in the way that they first appeared to me in power.

    These are just some thoughts I had after reading your post (and I have a lot of them, it’s something I’ve thought about a good bit). I understand what you are saying, I think, and am glad that you’ve been freed from something that you feel has burdened and held you back in some ways, I just wanted to comment because it has made me think today.
    P.S. I consider Edwards to be Spurgeon’s equal as far as sermons go, but it’s hard for any of us to comment on the preaching, because we have no way of hearing either of them. I have a feeling Edwards would have held his own. God certainly used him as a, if not the, key messenger of one of the great revivals, and I have read some unbelievably good sermons from his pen.


  4. Hi Heath,
    Thanks for the thoughtful response. Here are my thoughts in regard of that.

    1. I think reading a manuscript should be the exception, not the rule. I know there will be times where I have to preach VERY closely to my manuscript because of the subject matter. But this should not be the norm.

    2. I can see what you are saying, but I when do we ever see the use of a manuscript in Scripture? But, out of caution, I will hold onto this reply lightly.

    3. I think that is the point. I’m no longer bound by the manuscript. I use to try and take my exact words from my study into the pulpit, but I just don’t have it to deliver it exactly like that. So, I use the outline, manuscript for other purposes, like the blog, and the sermon I preach on Sunday morning for the Lord. I can’t tell you how many times Elisa, having read my sermon before hand, has told me that the two sermons, one written and the other preached, were different sermons. 🙂

    As for Edwards and Spurgeon, I think you are right. Although, I think I would enjoy sitting under Spurgeon a lot more than Edwards. Ryle more than Calvin, Begg more than Duncan. Cross more than me. 🙂


  5. Well, I don’t know if Billy Graham used a manuscript or an outline, or even if he just spoke whatever came into his mind, but…

    Long ago I noticed that his message was simple. And yet, people were converted by the thousands. My conclusion is this:

    Whether you preach from a manuscript or not, if the Holy Spirit is speaking, the message will be effective. If the Holy Spirit is absent, your words, no matter how eloquent, will fall on deaf ears.


  6. Heath

    Thanks for your response Timothy – and a great response at that. I think you figured out that I really don’t disagree with you at all. My experience in our homiletics classes(having to listen to about 75 sermons from seminary students in 3 months or so) just makes me leery of blanket assertions on preaching methodology – especially when it comes to delivery. I feel like I’ve learned a lot simply as a listener, and one of the main things I’ve learned is that different things work for different people, and so you simply have to know yourself.
    The main thing is that the message is just that – a message (distinct and clear) and that it conveys the truth of the Scriptures. And you hope as a preacher that if you are filled with the Spirit and love God and the truth that he will use your personality in a distinct way to convey the truth.
    The problem tends to be that preachers have no unction or passion (again, I’m speaking as a listener to many sermons). I’d much rather hear a sermon read with a quiet unction than given extemporaneously with loud enthusiastic emptiness (I’ve seen quite a bit of that one).

    I’m also leery of trying to set up a Scriptural model for the delivery of sermons. I’ve had people argue to me from the Scriptures that preachers should sit down as they deliver a message because this was the custom in Jesus’ day, especially in synagogue.
    The fact of the matter is that the didactic portions of Scripture simply tell us to ‘preach’ and don’t tell us exactly how to do it. We can build upon historical narrative, but you know how that goes. We certainly can see principles, but they paint large sweeping strokes, not exact prescriptions.

    And since Spurgeon keeps coming up, here’s a gem from him. This is his ‘definition’ of preaching:
    “To know the the truth as it should be known, to love it as it should be loved, and then to proclaim it in the right spirit, and in its proper proportions” (An all Around Ministry, p. 8).
    That sounds pretty good to me, but its also very general.
    Anyway, thanks for your post, it made me think. I hope that we’ll have opportunity to talk about it sometime. I’m no great preacher, but I certainly love to talk about preaching, and to learn ways to improve.


  7. Hi Heath,
    I love talking about it too. You can see, I have a passion for it. But you knew that. I really do feel like my preaching has stepped up a notch since arriving in Jackson. A lot of that has to do with the congregation and the eager hearts. For once, I don’t feel the scrutiny of condemnation leering back at me. That should not have had a bearing before, but it did. It does not now, even though there is some of that here too. It just seems like here lately, the Holy Spirit has really stepped up.

    BTW, I tried to call you a couple of days ago, and will try again later this week.


  8. I agree that generally a manuscript should be a guide not some thing to read word for word from. I think that people tend to respond better when a preacher is more interactive. That being said, over the past year I have been learning a lot from Dr. S.M. Davis sermons on dvd. His sermons are packed with tons of scripture, information, & stories. When I wrote notes out for them (when I facilitated a woman’s study on anger), I had to start, stop, type, start, stop. type, etc. just so that I could get all of the info down! Anyway, it is apparent that he is reading a good majority of his stuff but I personally feel that the Holy Spirit used his sermons to influence my life in a huge way.

    BTW, Sorry I haven’t stopped by in awhile; moving and settling back stateside has been time consuming! I just added you to my blogroll so that I remember to check in more often.


    1. Hi Alysa,
      Thanks for the add and glad you are back state side. I always enjoyed coming back to the states after being stationed abroad when I was in the service. It almost seemed weird, like I had to readjust to everything. Hopefully it won’t take you long.

      I think we’ve come to the conclusion that reading sometimes is OK, just as long as it does not bind the pastor, or inhibit the Holy Spirit. There will be times to read, and times not to read, but the pastor needs freedom in both those situations. Hopefully I’m there in my own preaching, the freedom to follow the Holy Spirit and not something artificial.


      1. I think someone already mentioned this but if the Holy Spirit is present it won’t matter if it is read or not read. If a pastor is being lead by the Holy Spirit he will know when to do one or the other. I find it encouraging when a pastor completely changes direction in his sermon because he feels lead to do so. Generally when that happens it is clear that the Holy Spirit is working in his heart and in the congregation!

        I can’t imagine that I am going to get used to being this cold anytime soon (especially with snow probably coming within the next month). But I don’t mind the area and we are starting to meet people. We think we found a church and will be meeting with the pastor and his family on Sunday to see how we can plug in! We still miss Okinawa though.


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