Why I use a Manuscript (notes-outline)?

In this post, I examine the thinking of some pastors and preaching that think that preparation is sinful or wrong in preaching, or is not for them. I talk about the benefits of sermon preparation.

Why I use a manuscript (Notes-Outline) instead of preaching “off the top of my head.”

There is thinking among some preachers that to prepare a sermon outline and manuscript somehow hinders the Holy Spirit’s work in the sermon. They go into the pulpit with nothing as far as notes, or their ideas are written down on the back of a bubble gum wrapper. They brag that only this way does a preacher allow the Holy Spirit to truly work in their sermon.

First of all, let me make explicitly clear, that a sermon should not be debased to a “chat”. It is a formal presentation of the divine to the human message from God to those people in that church. That being the case, you as the messenger of God have a responsibility to present the message in the best form that you can. This means that accuracy to Scripture is of the utmost importance. Why prepare your sermon?

Sermon preparation allows you to precisely define what you are to say, and how to say it.

When you prepare correctly your sermon, and then you preach what you have prepared, then you will know precisely what you will say. This is important because working from a written copy, you can review what you are going to say, take out incorrect or poor or filler material, and sharpen what is the most important points you want to make, and you can also sharpen and develop exactly how to explain the most important points. All of this is impossible for a preacher to do when he preaches “impromptu”.

The issue here is the importance of preparation. No preacher can remember everything he prepares in his head, so notes are essential to every preaching occasion. If you have preached the sermon many times, and you have researched it well the first time, then there is an occasion where you have notes and lightly refer to them, working from memory.

Preparation is not an evil thing. The Bible speaks of us diligently studying the Word of God to understand well what it says. This is something wrong? No way. Preparation gives you the ability to make a profession presentation of God’s message. A thrown together impromptu discussion is an insult to God. It exalts the preacher’s ability over God’s message, as if God’s message isn’t worthy of anything else, or instead of the church being “the house of God”, it is a bar, and we are just chatting about unimportant matters.

Formality is a good thing in the things of God. Familiarity and dress-down elements where formality is disdained are God’s enemies.

Sermon preparation allows you to rehearse your sermon.

It is a good idea to “go over your sermon”. In the church I attended while growing up, they had a parsonage, and in it, there was a small closet with a window and a bench. One time visiting our pastor, I saw it asked about it. He said it was his prayer closet, and that is where he preached or rehearsed his sermons before he actually preached them in the pulpit. This is an excellent idea and practice. It had a tape recorder and he would record his sermon as he rehearsed it and then listen back to it.

There is a certain dynamic event that happens when you preach “live” a sermon. God works in the preacher’s mind, and new thoughts come to his mind, and sometimes, rebukes that what you have said isn’t right, is correctly presented, or is confusing come to mind. As far as doubt or conviction that what you said isn’t exactly the truth (maybe you didn’t research the point in Scripture, and you “think” it is right but don’t know for lack of study), to outline and write out your sermon and rehearse it will all give you chances to go back and check these things to see if they are true, or you cannot find evidence one way or the other, or that they are false so you can change your sermon. This is the advantage of preparing correctly. As far as poorly formed ideas which are poorly presented, this is the very meat of sermon preparation. As a preacher, we want people to instantly and thoroughly understand what we are saying, and to clear up any confusion. Sermon preparation is a process. You do some Bible study, you get some ideas, you put in down on paper, and you present it. Once presented, you basically cannot go back the next week and repreach the same sermon. At best you can repreach it in a year or two. But if God speaks to your heart as you present the sermon, and there are things that are just poorly worded or poorly presented, those who work impromptu without notes nor rehearsals are not going to come across them in their sermon preparation. For a preacher that works ahead of time, getting his sermon ready for preaching 3-4 days before he preaches it, he can research and clarify what needs it.

I have prepared sermons, and get more or less a final product and when rehearsing it and going over it, find some points so confusing that I end up dumping the sermon completely. I would not have found this out unless I was reviewing the finished sermon days beforehand.

Discerning and analyzing sermon weaknesses and strengths to assign importance and priority.

Another advantage of sermon preparation is that it allows you to analyze your sermon and discern its weak points and its strong points. The weak points you can work on making stronger (the above point), but it also allows you to assign value and importance to your sermon. It is frustrating to have a medium long sermon with some really good points at the end, and you waste too much time on the mediocre points at the beginning, it is after 12:00 AM on Sunday morning and you haven’t gotten to the meat of your sermon!

Rehearsing a sermon will give you a pretty precise estimate of how long your sermon will be (providing you preach it exactly as you have rehearsed it!). The point here is that you can de-emphasize, shorten, or remove the mediocre material if you know you are not going to get through it all.

There is a rule of preaching that most of the time, your audience is never the same. Some people come only Sunday mornings, others come both AM and PM on Sunday, a few only come on PM. Visitors only come to a single service in general. If you break a sermon that is too long, 1) it will cause discontinuity because the next service your people will not remember the first half, and there is always a small group that wasn’t present in the first half. So the rule is, every sermon needs to be complete and self-contained in its, not needing explanations from a previous sermon. Of course, sermon series is a good thing, but each sermon in the series needs to be “self-standing”. If you have to repreach 15 minutes from the first half, you bore those who were with you in that sermon, and you don’t give enough for those who weren’t.

The point is that you need to work your strong points, and as cherished as your opinions are, remove them totally from your sermons. Let God speak through you, and leave your own ideas out of it altogether.

Your Rule of Thumb: How much material in how much time.

I have sat through novice preachers giving us 50-100 verses of material, and it is frustrating, boring, and spiritually damaging to many present. The reason is that it is not a good and proper presentation of God’s message.

First of all, DO THE MATH!!!!! How much time do you have? If the preliminaries on Sunday A.M. are 25 minutes, and you start on time at 11AM, then you are getting into the pulpit at 11:30, and most probably in the typical church, you will lose mentally 90% of your audience at 12.01. So at best, you have 30 minutes, and if you are one of those rare pastors that starts at 10:30, and can keep your people to 12:30, then you might actually get an hour to preach. For sake of example, let’s say you can get 50 minutes.

50 verses presented in 50 minutes in 1 per verse. Can you even read 50 verses one per minute? You will not be able to say but 10-20 words between each verse, and to keep up that pace, you would have to talk fast. If you were to achieve that physically, your sermon is not going to be very good. Good sermons use the Bible, but they also have the extremely important part of an explanation of the verse, as well as a pertinent illustration and application if found. That would put a “quickie point” (well planned and well executed) at about 5-6 minutes.

An excellent sermon has some essential elements to it ALWAYS! It has an introduction and a conclusion or wrap-up. Each of those are about 5 minutes. It has a backbone or structure which will always be “about” 10-12 points. Consider the typical sermon outline below.

I. Point I
A. Sub-point A
B. Sub-point B
C. Sub-point C

II. Point  II
A. Sub-point A
B. Sub-point B
C. Sub-point C

III. Point III
A. Sub-point A
B. Sub-point B
C. Sub-point C

If you count them they are 12 points. A variation on this theme is the following:

I. Point I
A. Sub-point A
B. Sub-point B
C. Sub-point C
D. Sub-point D

II. Point  II
A. Sub-point A
B. Sub-point B
C. Sub-point C
D. Sub-point D

This sermon has 10 points.

If you have at least one verse supporting each sub-point, and an explanation of each point, with a 2 minute transition between each major point, then you are looking at 10-12 verses that need to be explained, along with 4-6 minutes of transition time. If you take 1 minute to read each verse or passage, and 3-4 minutes to explain it, then each verse needs 4-5 minutes to properly present itself. All of that adds up.

Introduction – 5 minutes
Main points #2-#3 x 3 minutes = 6-9 minutes
Minor points #10-#12 x 5 minutes = 50 minutes.
Conclusion – 5 minutes

Total: around 70 minutes.

With this we haven’t yet figured in any illustrations or applications, which the application can be in the conclusion. We also haven’t figured in a single point having 2-3 verses.

So if you plan your sermon with an outline and possibly a written out transcript, you can see this in numbers. Write how long each part takes in the margin beside that section.

A very clear and pointed sermon that is excellent may be reduced in the following manner, add 2-3 verses explained for each point, and reduce the total points.

Introduction – 5 minutes
First point – introduce it in 3 minutes.
3 verses each with good concise but clear explanations – 3x 5=15
Second point – transition and introduce next major point in 3 minutes
3 verses each with good concise but clear explanations – 3x 5=15
Conclusion – 5 minutes

Total: 46 minutes.

While you will never fit even a 15 verse sermon in a 50 minute time slot without skipping over some verses, or not explaining very well the verses (i.e. it is undoable), you very easily can do the above 3 point/6 verse outline easily. Work what you know will work, and try to do more as time goes on, but keep each sermon within what you can do, don’t prepare a too long and elaborate sermon and then cut out parts in the pulpit during delivery. Sometimes you have to do just that, but something went wrong if that is what is happening frequently.

It is only when you work a sermon outline, write out and/or verbally rehearse your sermon beforehand can you figure this out.

Once you get a “sermon game plan“, how it will flow, now the good stuff can be done. Take your sermon outline and find the strongest, clearest, best points in it. Shift things around and focus your time and energy of the sermon’s strengths!

Another point here is now you can assign the key “driving home points”. This is the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU WILL SAY THAT DAY. Take these points and actually write them out verbatium, exactly as they should be stated. Read them, and reread them. Speak them out loud putting emphasis where it should be. Then scratch them and start over. Make sure they are the most forcefully stated that they can be. Make sure they are extremely clear. Make sure that you say them with emotion, stress, and loudly.

Shouting and mumbling in Sermon Execution

As I see others preach and as I analyze my own preaching, I see some common problems that should easily be “fixed”. Here I would make some general recommendations for every preacher.

Do not mumble or speak in a low tone. 

Most preachers do not speak loudly enough. They do not enunciate precisely their words. This is a problem in many pulpits. You must talk slowly and clearly, forcefully enough that the old guy in the back with the hearing aid can hear you. Even people with perfect hearing are going to miss what you are saying if you mumble. Speak loudly and clearly (preferably slowly). You are racing against the clock, but you will ruin your sermon if it is presented too quickly so that people cannot hear you.

Having said that, please, please, understand how the human mind works. You say, “You need to be saved or you will go to hell.” This may be a longer nutshell, but you must work on getting you concepts out without pauses. When the listener hears that, he may pause what he is hearing (i.e. he hears nothing you say) and he contemplates what you have said. Then he rejoins you anywhere from 5 seconds later to 5 minutes later. That is how the human mind works. It takes a “chunk” of information, and then it needs time to assimilate it and do something with it (“I refute what the preacher just said, it isn’t so“, or “Yes, that is right.“)

So if that is how the mind works, work the way people think! By this I mean, break up the most important points into a “chunk”, and quickly without pausing explain that “chunk of information”, then pause. You pause and you say nothing. Give the people a few seconds to assimilate what you have given them.

What happens if you speak too long or complicated “a chunk of information” is that they will not follow through with you. You need to have a rythme in your speech with deliberate pauses at places where you let people absorb what was said, most often after you have said something “profound” or “ground-breaking”.

Good expert, experienced preachers do this subconsciously. If you listen to the old, great evangelists of old, you will notice that they have a rythme in their preaching. This is the different between preaching at a congregation or preaching to a congregation. The attitude of many preachers is to say things whether they are listening to him or not.

Make eye contact, and analyze the crowd, responding to it.

Comedians “work their listeners”. Some preachers also. Most often the abuse of this is a preacher that has taught his congregation to say “Amen” at every pause during his preaching. This is just wrong. They are working up an emotional appeal, and it doesn’t correspond with the importance of what he is saying at all. Simple things, “I went to the store yesterday” “Amen preacher preach it.” What does that deserve an amen for? This is abuse.

But good preachers will constantly look at their crowd in different parts. If somebody has a puzzled face, immediately the preacher will review what he has most recently said, and repeat it explaining more. If you preach a sermon and your people look like they don’t understand, stop the sermon there, go back, and try to explain what you best think they are not understanding.

If you see people nodding off to sleep, move your arms, raise your voice, or move from side to side in the pulpit. Do something! Your sermon is boring most probably, so change it!

Repeat the Bible reference three times slowly.

It is sad to see a preacher mention Bible verses and start reading before his people can get there, and then they are lost from verse to verse. As a rule, you should say the verse reference, then repeat it, then wait a bit, and then repeat it a third time. If it is in an Old Testament book hard to find, maybe even a fourth time repeat it. This helps keep your people with you.

If you ever “lose” your people, they will not get the maximum benefit of your sermon. Make sure that your people are following you through the Bible or logically through your points.

Do not shout without reason in your sermon.

Here I want to make a point. Shouting or raising your voice is completely right and you should do this. But do not do this without reason.  As a public speaker, you should learn to use your voice correctly. You should in general speak very clearly (enunciating correctly and completely all the syllables of each word), and you should speak strongly or loudly.

Having said that, you need to understand that it is very unnerving to listen to somebody shout for an hour. It hurts our ears and your voice. Use your voice to accent the important. Speak normally for the unimportant. Put your vocal emphasis on what you want your people to take away from the sermon. Don’t emphasize the unnecessary, the unimportant, or the things that are of low spiritual value.

Do not stray from your written notes.

A very dangerous thing is to leave your notes to talk “off the top of your head.” Basically you never want to do that. There are times when you see a problem in the logic of your sermon or something you said didn’t come out clear, or the people didn’t understand it, and you have to go back and explain it better or you will lose your people. Better said you have already lost your people and you want to regain them before you go on.

Check every verse reference before you go into the pulpit.

It is embarrassing when you go to a verse and that verse doesn’t say what you thought it said. The advantage of preparing fully before preaching is that you can verify each and every verse reference in your sermon. Preparation should be easily seen in your sermon. A wrong verse reference teaches your congregation that you are careless about your work, and just as you are wrong here, you could be wrong a half dozen other places about the correct exposition of the verses you are giving.

Do not add a verse that is not in your sermon outline unless you are absolutely sure of the reference.

It is a total embarrassment when you are preaching on a point, and then you “say there is a verse in the Psalms that says just about the same thing, let me see if I can find it.” After flipping pages in your Bible for 5-10 minutes and people start “helping you”, shouting out verse references that are no help at all. Either you find the verse finally, or you give up, but your audience and even you have lost the flow of the sermon. Getting it back is difficult to impossible, and this throws the entire sermon “off”. Don’t be tempted. If there is a good verse to support one of your points, find it before or skip it during the sermon.

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Pastor David Cox is a missionary. See my ministry updates here.