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A Brief Defense of Manuscript Preaching

Matthew Cotta

T. David Gordon has reopened the issue of preaching and preaching style in his thought provoking Why Johnny Can't Preach.[1] Preachers in particular, but also the church in general, would do well to be more open to review and critique on this matter. Anyone familiar with the writings of Neil Postman,[2] or even our own Greg Reynolds, knows that this is a topic that needs to be broached regularly in the church.[3] We who have the greatest of all stories to tell ought to seriously consider the methodological assumptions or homiletical presuppositions that inform the way we preachers tell the story.

Postman argued that the shift in Western society from a print media culture to a visual media culture has certain ramifications for societal discourse. He warned about the consequences of binding the acquisition of knowledge to a form of media that is associated with entertainment. We now see evidence of the veracity of Postman's critique in education and various other facets of the culture of our day. Style truly reigns over substance.

In the ecclesiastical sphere, we in the Reformed world often criticize evangelical churches that have shaped their worship services and/or their general approach to ministry in order to keep in step with the media of the age (e.g., those who use video clips, power point presentations, town-hall forums, etc., in worship). Our emphasis on the glory of God and our commitment to the regulative principle of public worship have in many ways precluded our patterning worship after the spirit of the age. We are right in this, and we properly critique evangelicals for their compromise on this matter.

That being said, it seems to me that even while we note the beam in our brother's eye, there is a speck in our own. What about our attitude toward manuscript preaching? Might it be that the media-ecological shift in Western society that Postman wrote about is reflected in the church's attitude toward the use of a manuscript in preaching?[4]

While there have always been preachers who preferred not to use a manuscript when preaching, it would not have been uncommon prior to the invention of television for preachers to have taken a manuscript with them into the pulpit. Indeed, it is well known that many of our own Reformed stalwarts preached from a manuscript. Our devotional lives would surely be impoverished were this not the case.

Yet today manuscript preaching has not only been marginalized, it is dismissed and even ridiculed for purely stylistic reasons. Some even argue that to preach from a manuscript is to close oneself off from the "moving of the Spirit."[5] Manuscript preaching is roundly considered as nothing more than a dead letter. A sermon's spiritual effectiveness can be gauged, so it seems, by how often the preacher looks down.

Homiletics courses in many Reformed seminaries give the impression that manuscript preaching, if it is to be considered at all, is to be considered as a historic relic that is about as relevant today as an outhouse. If they take it up directly, they take it up among the list of things preachers ought never to do. Sadly, many seminary professors seem to be speaking with one mind on this.[6]

Bryan Chapell has argued that reading from a manuscript will not work in our generation.[7] R. Scott Clark declares, "This is a terrible communication strategy. People are trained by television news readers and presidents and pundits to have someone delivering important information by looking them straight in the eye. You have the most important information in the world to deliver! Why would you do it whilst looking down at a piece of paper?"[8]

Both of these brothers argue not against manuscript preaching as such, but only inasmuch as, stylistically, it invariably and necessarily puts a communication barrier up between the preacher and his hearers, hearers who are accustomed to and indeed prefer another mode of discourse. The more one can get away from his manuscript, or his notes, or even looking down at his Bible, therefore, the better.

On the flip side, it is often argued that the more "lively" the preacher is (that is, the more he is "untethered" from pulpit or manuscript), the more his own personality shines forth. And the more the preacher's personality shines forth, the better he will be able to "engage" the congregation. The engaged congregation will "connect" with the preacher, and thus receive the Word of God preached by him. In our age, only such "untethered" preaching can lay claim to being powerful, "Spirit-filled" and/or "Spirit-anointed" preaching.

Now it is true, manuscript preachers look down more often than their extemporary counterparts, and to always be looking down rather than regularly looking into the eyes of the congregants would of course be less than desirable from a communication standpoint. The novice manuscript preacher will have to diligently work on this. But to dismiss, marginalize, or lambast manuscript preaching because it is different from what church goers "trained by television news readers and presidents and pundits" have come to expect, or to assume that Spirit-anointed manuscript preaching is oxymoronic, is in this manuscript preacher's estimation proof of the aforementioned speck in the eye.

In the service then of reexamining our prejudices against manuscript preaching, let me offer several positive, practical arguments as to why manuscript preaching has merit and can be usefully employed in the church of Jesus Christ.

In the first place, manuscripts help to ensure that a preacher will not only devote himself to careful exegesis, but to careful, well-thought-out articulation. Preachers spend hours and hours in detailed exegesis of a biblical passage but often give short shrift to considering how they are going to communicate their exegetical findings.

After getting their thesis statement down, a few good illustrations, and a three point alliterated outline, they are ready to wing it as far as the rest of the message goes. For some preachers this works out just fine. For others, it might be better for them to take time crafting their message so that they say precisely what they intend to say.

Secondly, and related to the first, manuscript preachers are far less likely to drift from their subject, say something erroneous, stupid, distracting, off-color, etc. We are on point. We are precise. We say it the best way we can think to say it, and we took a lot of time considering what the best way to say it might be. We are not scrambling for words or passages or supporting arguments, nor are we prone to say something we later wish we could take back. More manuscript preaching might actually reduce the number of complaints that come before sessions and presbyteries.

Thirdly, because of our precision and care in articulation, because we spend time crafting the sermon itself, the sermons of manuscript preachers tend to be shorter. Time isn't wasted searching for the right way to communicate a point. Time isn't wasted scanning the memory banks.[9] Given that we are all concerned about how best to engage our generation, we might well consider that, attention spans being what they are in our day, manuscript preachers might actually have the advantage here.

Fourthly, the impact of the preacher's personality on communication is a two-edged sword. While there are good arguments to be made as far as not hiding oneself behind a manuscript, in letting one's humanity come across in our preaching, in being personable, etc., there are equally good arguments to be made as to why preachers should personally decrease that Christ might increase.

Sinful, spotlight-loving creatures that many preachers are, it might be far better for their own personal sanctification and for their future congregations' edification if their homiletics instructor taught them how to make themselves come across less in their sermons. Besides, we flatter ourselves in assuming that our individual personalities always aid in the communication of biblical truth. If we are honest, we know that the contrary is often the case.

Fifthly, manuscripts make sermons easier to disseminate and distribute. How many times has a member or a visitor come up to you after the service to ask if there is any way he or she can have a copy of the sermon? The manuscript preacher, again, has the advantage here. On several occasions I have simply handed them my sermon, right then and there. Usually they are surprised, because they hadn't known that I had preached from a manuscript.

Moreover, manuscript preachers are able to give members, should they need or request it, copies of his sermon at or prior to the beginning of the service. He can email or otherwise get copies of his sermon to the sick or infirm members of the congregation for the Lord's Day.

There are several members in my congregation who are hearing impaired, and on occasion we have had saints who were entirely deaf worshiping with us. Being able to give them a copy of the sermon up-front has enabled them to be engaged and connect with the sermon in a manner that no amount of untethered personableness could ever have afforded.

Manuscripts can also be easily uploaded to the Internet (church websites, Sermon Audio, etc.). Again, one needn't be a dinosaur to be a manuscript preacher. In fact, in many ways manuscript preachers are more able to take advantage of technological media in the dissemination of our sermons. Since our sermons are both written and spoken, manuscript preachers can get the preached Word out by both PDF and MP3.

As mentioned earlier, manuscripts of sermons provide devotional material for many of us. If we haven't read the collected sermons of Edwards, Vos, Warfield, Machen, or any of our other Reformed fathers, we should.

Manuscript sermons are more likely to be converted into print collections, commentaries, etc., both for the edification of the broader church and for wider distribution among unbelievers. Indeed, they are more likely to be translated into other languages. It might not be likely that many of us will have our sermons be so used of God, but he may very well be pleased to do so.

Lastly, having manuscript sermons available better enables a preacher not only to be ready to preach in and out of season, but better enables him to preach a solid, well-crafted, well-prepared, and well-delivered sermon in and out of season. Much more could be said, but this should suffice at least to offer a brief defense of the practice of manuscript preaching.

There are, to be sure, liabilities. Young manuscript preachers do look down more than they should (not that the power of the Spirit working by the Word is thereby necessarily diminished). Like any preaching, manuscript preaching takes practice and experience to do well. Perhaps the biggest liability, however, is the need for a reliable printer.[10] From personal experience I know that waiting until Sunday morning to print off one's sermon can lead to some truly nerve-wracking moments. But given that we do not conceive of technological advances as mala in se, this might merely be an encouragement for churches to buy their manuscript preaching pastor an iPad he can take with him into the pulpit.


[1] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped The Messengers (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 2009).

[2] His Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), ought to be in every minister's library and required reading in seminary homiletics courses.

[3] On the relationship between orality and manuscript use, see Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 378-83.

[4] Might it also be that we have imbibed more of the methods of the Second Great Awakening than we would like to admit when it comes to our homiletical presuppositions?

[5] Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching: The Holy Spirit's Role in Sermon Preparation and Delivery (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H, 2007), 103ff.

[6] This mindset is also prevalent in some OPC presbyteries, as evidenced by the usual floor comments following the sermons of would-be licentiates who happened to use a manuscript.



[9] This is not the same as a "dramatic pause," though the two might be indistinguishable in seasoned extemporary preachers.

[10] Of course, "old-school" manuscript preachers who handwrite their sermons are exempted.

Matthew E. Cotta is the pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, January 2011.

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