I gave a seminar at Champaign, Illinois yesterday on preaching without a manuscript or notes (That is, I spoke, using notes, about how it is that I preach without notes). The notes I used to speak about preaching without notes are here following.
Preliminary matters deal with preaching theory and content, and then comes the section on technique and preaching without a manuscript.
I. Preaching theory
A. Preaching as authoritative speech.
1. Not only the hearers, but the preachers themselves should not despise preaching. The hearers should gladly hear and learn it, but the preachers should also gladly learn to do it.
2. “So We Preached, and So Ye Believed.” - I Co 15.11 Preaching is the proclamation of the Gospel (kerygma, from kerysso, preach). It is declarative. It is ultimately Gospel, not law. It is the announcement that Christ has come, and fulfilled the Scriptures, bringing eternal salvation.
3. Jesus taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes (St. Matthew 7.21). What does this mean? We know a little about how the scribes taught. The synagogues had as the equivalent of sermons what was called “midrash”; this term was also used for the marginal commentaries running alongside the texts. These midrash ‘sermons’ were likely explanations of the passages. A possible interpretation of Jesus’ teaching “not as the scribes” is that Jesus’ preaching was not like this. That is, He did not simply provide explanations of the Bible. This is a remarkable twist: The scribes taught as ones not having authority, because the authority to which they referred was the Scripture. For Jesus to teach unlike them may then have meant that He was himself the authority. He certainly referred to the authority of Scripture often, and refuted His opponents thereby, as for instance when He referred to Psalm 110 “The Lord said unto my Lord” in referring to Himself, etc.
4. The preacher should speak as the oracles of God. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God" (I Peter 4.11). I.e., as though God Himself were speaking. The sermon is the Word of God not man. It must be preached as such.
5. Preaching is mostly a New Testament phenomenon. It is hard to find references to it at all in the Old Testament. One notable place is Jonah, who is told to “go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee” (Jonah 3:2). This is an interesting exception to the general rule that the Old Testament does not emphasize preaching, in that it is preaching to Gentiles, and that furthermore St. Peter is specifically called the “son of Jonah” when he is given the Keys (St. Matthew 16). Jonah’s preaching is a preview of the preaching of the New Testament, and the preaching of Peter.
6. Preaching is meant to reveal what has for ages been hidden: “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” (Col. 1:26). As such it serves the same purpose as the New Testament itself. Indeed the Mass is the New Testament, as the Words of Christ indicate (this is the new testament in my blood), so therefore it belongs with the Mass as a critical ingredient. So the sermon should never be free from what is transpiring in the Mass.
B. Preaching content
1. The Gospel; what it is: the New Testament. The Mass. The law must still be used, but not as an end in itself; this would not be proclamation.
2. The pulpit is not the place for sloganeering or making up ‘cute’ expressions designed to impress the hearers (at the expense of impressing upon them the Word itself). People say they like to have something to take home with them, which is mostly bogus. What they end up taking home is some trite slogan, in place of the Gospel.
3. The pulpit is also not the place for telling jokes. Preaching is not stand-up comedy, or something you learn to do in speech class to get and hold people’s attention.
4. Gags and gimmicks are out of place, because they belie the power of the Gospel; they presuppose that the preacher is giving nothing better than midrash, and probably something worse.
5. Indeed this also means the telling of endless vignettes and stories is most assuredly not preaching. Some preachers can be found who only do such things, from beginning to end of the sermon. This is not preaching. This is boredom incarnate.
6. It is not necessary to start the sermon with a personal story of vignette, or even with any kind of introduction at all. Neither the Fathers nor Luther did this. It is a modern thing. Do not waste precious preaching moments on a story (unless perhaps it’s a Biblical one)!
II. Preaching Technique
A. Preaching without a manuscript: Only in recent years has preaching from a manuscript come into vogue. The great preachers of history, from the early fathers to Luther, did not preach from manuscripts. The first step in learning how to preach without a manuscript is to believe that it would be a good thing to do, and to desire to do it.
B. Language of faith, that is, the language which employs Biblical turns of phrases, Biblical terms, and Biblical grammar. This was common among the Fathers of the Faith, and it is rare in our day. Preaching as the language of faith; The word of God in action, on the lips of the preacher . . . Preaching should not rely upon the tricks of the public-speaking trade to keep the hearers’ attention; although certain devices may be helpful, some can be detrimental. Preaching the language of faith presupposes a thorough familiarity with the Scriptures, and the language of the Psalter. Pray the Psalter, begin to commit the Psalm to memory, and you will soon find yourself thinking in that language.
C. Know the rules of grammar. This is an absolute prerequisite to good preaching style. Read good writers, examining their word patterns; perhaps even get a grammar book.
D. Seek to imitate the patterns of fine style. Reading from the KJV helps! Other English translations, while grammatically acceptable, have not taken the pains to maintain the style of the Biblical manuscripts, from the poetry of the Psalms to the unforgettable prose of St. Luke. The reason people want the Christmas story in the KJV is because of its unsurpassed beauty. But this beauty is seen first in the Hebrew and Greek.
E. Rhetorical devices.
do not mumble
do not stutter, or say “um,” “ah,” etc. Cf. Ronald Reagan
repetition of a salient point
use of pause, and of taking your time – this is necessary and helpful to the preacher who preaches without a manuscript, and to the hearers. You are thinking as you are preaching, framing your own thoughts and putting them into words as you speak. Thinking out loud, and others are listening in.
F. Biblical devices and phrases
1. Rhetorical thrust or “punch”: Repent!
2. Use of second-person: rather than exclusively saying “we” or “us” don’t be afraid to use “you.” This is a bit trickier when proclaiming the condemnations of the law. Never say “you and I.” The preacher should not place himself personally among the hearers here, but stand as the prophetic voice. If you wish to soften the browbeating effect of “you have sinned” etc., then perhaps follow up with “all mankind” in some way, e.g., to sum up a pricking of the conscience: “You have failed. All mankind has failed . . .”
3. Use of rhetorical questions:
Is God unrighteous for taking vengeance? (Rom 3:5)
Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. (Rom 6:1-2)
Is Christ divided? (I Co 1:13)
4. Use of Biblical phrases:
1. "It is written," or "As it is written" . . .
St. Matt. 3:4, 7 (by Jesus), Rom 3.10; I Cor 1:19
2. . . . or "That it might be fulfilled" . . . St. Matthew 2:15; 4:14
3. "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad" . . . St. Matthew 5:12; Phil. 4:4
4. . . . "who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." I Peter 2:9
5. Sentences that run on: A common device of St. Paul, which is only effective if it is done slowly. Thoughts are attached to prior thoughts as they are expressed. A firm grasp of grammar is needed.
G. Things to avoid
“Our text for today”
“in our daily lives”
“you know” “um” “ah”; stuttering
H. Other considerations
The Gospel is not a “text,” and it is certainly not “our text.” Rather, call it “this Gospel”; or say, “Jesus says here,” “this event” etc.
No need to cite references. Just use them. Weave them in. Two ways to do this:
1. Quote from Scripture without indicating you are doing so. E.g., on the First Commandment: “Do not think that faith is simply a matter of believing that God exists. The demons also believe and they tremble. Faith, rather, is trust . . .”
2. Simply refer to Scriptural passages briefly. E.g. from a Luther sermon warning against pride, says this: “Behold, how Saul fell! How God permitted David to fall! How Peter had to fall! How some disciples of Paul fell!'” (AP 2, 110f; StL 11, 513).
Sometimes, if the Gospel contains activity, I will place the hearers into it. Activity is an easier thing to preach. So make it present tense. [I believe this may be why the Gospels often mingle the present tense into their reporting of events.] For example:
“As Jesus was merciful to the man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, so is he merciful to you. He has taken you aside from the multitude in Baptism. He has put His fingers, that is, His Spirit, into your ears. He has preached to you. He has spit and touched your tongue, that is, the holy waters of His Baptism have enabled you to confess the Christian faith. He has looked up to heaven and sighed over you, for His Spirit and Breath have made intercession for you before heaven’s throne. And he has opened your lips, that your mouth may show forth His praise.”
Sometimes you will want to place an argument into your sermon, as St. Paul does. Luther does this too. Argue with the gainsayers as if they were in the room.
“Who are you who deny that the Sacrament is truly Christ? See, he says, This is my body! Now what can you say? That He didn’t mean it? That He was speaking figuratively? Judge for yourselves: Is this the way to speak figuratively? To take bread, and to bless it, and break it, and say of it, This is my Body?” You may trust Jesus on this, beloved; He will not lie to you.” That last part is from Luther, who says on occasion, “You may trust the Scriptures: they will not lie to you.”
Preach as though to yourself. What do you need to hear? Preach this to the hearers.
II. Preaching preparation
The first ingredient of preparation must be a continual diet on the prayers of the Church, and particularly the Psalms. Daily praying matins and/or vespers will put Psalms and Canticles in mind so routinely that they become easy to access when preaching.
The practice of St. Augustine, as I recall, was typically to meditate on his appointed Gospel three or four times before preaching it. There’s one famous occasion on which he had prepared to preach on a certain psalm, but by a mixup, the reader read another. So he started his sermon by indicating that he hadn’t expected to preach on this psalm, but then proceeded to do so anyway.
The more one preaches without a manuscript, the easier it gets. My own practice is to look at a Gospel two or three times before I preach it, and decide what my major points will be. I often take the order I find in the Gospel itself and use it as my own.
Occasionally I will take some notes with me into the pulpit, if I have a list of some sort; but rarely. My outline is typically the Gospel itself.
There are pitfalls to this approach, but they are outweighed by the benefits, I believe. Sometimes I will forget to mention something I wanted to say; but other times I will see something I hadn’t prepared in advance. Sometimes I will preach a sermon which I’m not entirely pleased with; but this can happen whether or not one uses a manuscript; and when preaching is done without a manuscript, the preaching event becomes an opportunity to muse aloud on the Gospel. It is rather like going into a room of the mind and pulling off the shelves what you find worth saying at the moment. The greatest benefit of preaching this way is that you are actually communicating your thoughts with your hearers as you are thinking them. This is a powerful rhetorical tool, and most useful if done well. I am almost willing to say that this is in fact what preaching is: using the Word of God aloud in the present tense, rather than reading or reciting something you had previously written.
Things to use to comment on a particular Gospel:
Old Testament stories that relate to it, or are fulfilled in it.
Bible characters who experience the same thing.
Use of Genesis 1-2. N.B. The preaching task is easier if the Biblical interpretation task is rightly understood. The Scriptures testify of Christ (St. John 5); He is the substance and fulfillment of all the Scriptures (St. Luke 24).
Burnell F. Eckardt Jr.
11 September 2007