You Aren’t as Smart as You Think You Are . . . So Manuscript Your Sermons
If you’ve read even a few of the many books and articles on sermon preparation, then you’ve probably read the adage that says, “Think yourself empty; read yourself full; write yourself clear; pray yourself hot; and let yourself go.” This phrase has been attributed to Alistair Begg, John MacArthur, and others. But it actually originated with a Welsh Anglican named W. H. Griffith Thomas. While I agree with all five of Thomas’ exhortations, the one I want to focus on in this essay is his third: “Write yourself clear.”
There has long been a debate in preaching circles on whether or not a preacher should manuscript his sermons. While it’s true that some of the great preachers throughout church history (including favorites such as Charles Spurgeon and Martin Lloyd Jones) did not use and even discouraged the use of the manuscript, I am not as smart as Charles Spurgeon or Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and neither are you. So allow me to give you four reasons why you should consider writing manuscripts as a part of your sermon preparation.
FOUR REASONS TO WRITE A MANUSCRIPT
Write a manuscript to shorten your preparation time.
I was trying to encourage a pastor friend of mine toward writing manuscripts and he said, “I just don’t have time to write a manuscript.” Many pastors may give time as an excuse, and I understand how busy a pastor’s week can be. Even as I write this article, in the back of my head I am thinking, “I really should be working on my sermon, or making a phone call, or coaching an intern.” But I would argue that rather than lengthening your time of preparation, writing a manuscript can actually shorten it. When you are in your study and have come across something that’s good for your sermon, just write it down, and there you have it. Then, when you build your sermon, you can just plug in all of your best notes and you don’t have to go back and try to remember or find something you studied.
Write a manuscript to find the right words.
Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” What if John Owen had said, “Rid your life of sin because it is important for Christian growth,” instead of, “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you”? Both sentences communicate the same truth, but the second sentence is said so well that it leaves a lasting impression on the heart. The right words matter, and writing a manuscript helps the preacher to not just say true things, but to say true things well.
Write a manuscript to ensure your sermon is congruent.
One of the marks of great preaching is that it’s congruent. In fact, I was talking with another pastor friend recently and he said, “I had been preaching for years, but when I started writing a manuscript my sermons got better the next Sunday because they were instantly more congruent.” A good preacher has many high points that catch the attention of and inspire his listeners. A great preacher can grab his listener’s attention and hold it for the duration of the sermon, smoothly leading them from one point to the next. Again, unless you have the mind of Spurgeon, it’s difficult to do this without writing a manuscript.
A manuscript helps the preacher with transitions, as it clearly balances time for each point; a manuscript also helps to explain difficult passages or truths with clarity. This helps the preacher see his sermon as a whole before he delivers it, thus enabling him to easily and decisively edit his sermon. In fact, it’s not until I’m looking at the finished product that I can really see the points that don’t fit or may take away from the overall message. Preaching is a high calling from God, so the preacher must do whatever he can to place the best, most congruent, Spirit-filled argument before dying men whose only hope is that their souls would come alive in Christ.
Write a manuscript to have a record.
One of my greatest treasures are the 1200 sermons or so that I have preached across my years of ministry. And fortunately, because I was encouraged early on to write manuscripts, I have a record of all of them. They have been an enormous help to me in writing other sermons, or in preparing for preaching engagements outside of my own local church. Having a record of my sermons also helps in my pastoral ministry. Almost every Sunday, someone asks me to counsel them on something that I have just preached, and being able to point them to our web page where we post all of the sermon manuscripts online, or being able to email them an excerpt from a sermon is a powerful shepherding tool.
There are many other reasons you should manuscript your sermons: it helps the preacher stay on time; if you preach to multiple services, it can ensure the two congregations are getting the same teaching; it can help you avoid using the same illustrations; I could go on.
But I want to conclude by addressing the warnings given by Spurgeon, Lloyd Jones, and others; the preacher should always be free, and the manuscript should never confine him. I agree with Spurgeon that the manuscript should never be read and that the preacher should be perceptive enough to at times speak extemporaneously, veering from the manuscript when he sense the need or desire to. If a preacher cannot help but read it, perhaps he should write the sermon, and then separately write an outline that he takes into the pulpit. While I believe the manuscript is one of the best tools in sermon preparation, it can be a dangerous tool in sermon delivery. You are the preacher, not the manuscript. You are delivering the sermon, not the manuscript. The manuscript is a great tool, but God anoints the man to preach, not the manuscript.
 J. I. Packer, Truth and Power (Guildford, Surrey: Eagle, 1990), 132.
 Two classic resources on preaching are: C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: Complete & Unabridged (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954), and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1972).