Robert Jacks’ Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear helped generations of seminarians (including this one) become better communicators, using disciplines of writing in ways that complimented the oral/aural dynamics of preaching.1 In addition to making a case for a discipline of manuscript preaching, what I suggest below are basic strategies to improve our ability to communicate with a manuscript, maximizing its benefits and minimizing its weaknesses, so that the sermon manuscript contributes positively to the experience of hearing the Word.
It may be helpful to begin by listing some objections sometimes heard from people in the pew, often aimed at preachers who use a manuscript:
• He’s a scholar, too deep for most of us.
• We like the hymns, but the sermon … hopefully it’ll be short!
• She reads her sermon-we wish she would just talk to us.
On the positive side, a more oral/aural sermon might generate these kinds of comments:
• I can’t believe you preach without notes!
• I like the way you come out of the pulpit!
• I didn’t get bored at all.
Basically, these words of praise or complaint are flip-sides of the same feeling in the pew: the closest port of entry into our heart and mind is not a manuscript but the ear. Of course, the mind assesses what the ear hears, and of that fact we shouldn’t lose sight. But it is also important to recall that in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the preached Word, it is the ear that is held up above all else, as in the Jewish prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one!”
But one doesn’t necessarily need to be formed in the Christian tradition of preaching to appreciate the importance of how we experience the sermon. When we listen to a speaker, we often make assessments about how “good” he is based on his skill as a communicator. Among other criteria we might use, we assess the energy he brings to the topic, we assess his character, and we assess the way something is said even more than what is said (at least initially).
Some who choose to not use a manuscript (using an outline or no notes at all) reap the dividends of good communication practices: they seem spontaneous, authentic and they have eye contact, among other things. While it may be a difficult case to make, I still think the manuscript offers preachers specific yields that are worth recalling.
Among those benefits is that the manuscript can function as a sermonic lab where our labor with words can be conducted methodically. Creativity is not so much “inspired” as it is “tutored” by careful, almost obsessive, labor. It is in that depth of focus where inspiration often leads
One student who appreciated the labor of words said, “Writing the sermon was like putting together a house made of toothpicks!” What she was acknowledging, apart from sheer exhaustion, was the importance of choosing words and images carefully; but the focus was not merely on toothpicks but a house. Barbara Brown Taylor and Fred Craddock both exhibit this gift, choosing words to create a holistic experience. If you listen to their sermons, you will probably notice that there are very few careless words-every word has its place, every word its purpose, even the seemingly “casual” word has a part to play.
A manuscript is a lab of sorts: as we write, words can be weighed on the tongue or tasted as sound in the ear as we labor toward a more complete experience of the Word.
Many congregations are inundated not only with contradictory messages but messages that are shared in a sort of “reality TV” forum: all chaos, shouting and crying. In that context, the pulpit can be a counter-cultural expression for thoughtful, considered speech. In this way, a manuscript can become a useful place for us to test our interpretations of text and situation for pastoral wisdom, theological nuance or implied interpretive assumptions that may not be shared by all.
It is not uncommon, after all, for the sermon to articulate questions and doubts that might be surfaced by a difficult experience within the community of faith: a friend diagnosed with cancer; a tragic accident; a local incident with strongly held opinions on multiple sides. A manuscript can give the preacher a measure of precision, whereas the tongue left searching for just the right word floating in the ether between pulpit and pew can go terribly wrong-or at least miss the mark at the very moment when what was really needed was a clear, resounding word.
While we may say, “Never Lord, never would I prepare a sermon on Saturday night,” we are too frequently caught in the very act. Getting into the habit of having a full manuscript for the sermon helps to push us to think about the message in advance of the pressure to go out and buy a homiletical version of the Saturday Night Special. What we really should be after is more than “one sermon manuscript” but a discipline that is in service of the preaching life. It does not displace the oral/aural eventfulness of the sermon; but it serves it, almost like tilling the soil promotes growth in the garden. Without that kind of careful and repetitive work with the sermonic imagination, the sermonic “flower” of Sunday may struggle through the weeds of distraction and busyness.
A manuscript permits more nuanced organization than may be possible when using an outline. Often, when reviewing student sermons, I suggest ways that the students could reorganize the material so that it makes the message more “emotionally” and “logically” coherent. Second, stepping back from the pulpit and taking a little time in the refuge of the desk will often give the preacher the necessary distance to make editorial decisions
that help tighten the overall purpose of the sermon.
A manuscript can help a speaker stay on task even if he is fatigued, distracted or, perhaps, especially moved by something in the message. In my own experience, the manuscript has “helped” me speak by giving me a little freedom from the intensity of speaking itself. Whether it’s an especially difficult Sunday (or difficult sermon), the manuscript can steady the unsteady.
Some Practical Strategies
A lot of ministers who graduate from seminary see the value of the manuscript, but they may experience the sermon manuscript and the oral/aural moment as things that are in tension with each other. While not wanting to erase that tension entirely, a few simple adaptations can remove certain “false stumbling blocks” to the effective use of a manuscript for the sermon.
Font size. A 12-point font may be fine if you’re reading a magazine next to a desk lamp. However, one needs a larger font for Sunday morning. Not only is the lighting often poor, but you’re standing upright. Measure the distance between your nose and the manuscript where you stand in your church and compare that distance with the distance between your nose and a magazine or newspaper you’re reading. I usually use a 14-point font, frequently bolded in order to help my eye find the words quickly.
Use of the page. Typically, we are accustomed to employing the entire page in a manuscript. In preaching, this becomes a problem because, inevitably, the preacher’s head moves down to the bottom of the page, giving the viewers a “bobbing” impression of the preacher. Better to use the top one-third to half of the page and keep one’s line of sight closer to the listener. Additionally, in a glance at a small bit of information, you can take much of it in. But if you’re looking at a full page of tightly packed print, you’re unlikely to remember very much of it.
Saying the word. Often, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the effective use of the manuscript is the appearance of the text. This was one of the principal lessons that Jacks impressed on me when I was his student: words on the page ought to invite the voice, not scare it off. Consider the paragraph below, excerpted from one of my sermons. The first example is written for the eye; the second example is written for the ear:
But we forget something about the disciples. Like we sometimes forget about ourselves: In the beginning, it was God’s call, not our initiative. It was God’s summons, not our abilities. It was the Word given to us, not the Word taken by us. It was the bread broken for us, not purchased by us. It was Christ who came to us in His love, not we who first came to Christ in our love.
But we forget something about the disciples.
Like we sometimes forget about ourselves:
In the beginning, it was God’s call, not our initiative.
It was God’s summons, not our abilities.
It was the Word given to us,
Not the Word taken by us.
It was the bread broken for us,
Not purchased by us.
It was Christ who came to us in His love,
Not we who first came to Christ in our love.
Each of these phrases came with a sense of rhythm that the ear can anticipate, almost like the chorus of a song. The first example does not give explicit permission for the Word to be heard; the second example invites the speaker to be a speaker-to use the voice, almost musically, in the interpretation of the text.2
Handling of the manuscript. Slide the manuscript; don’t turn it. If you turn the manuscript, you introduce visual “noise” to the hearer. Sliding the manuscript keeps the manuscript where it belongs: out of sight but not out of (your) mind. Second, keep two pages of the manuscript in front of you at all times. While you’ll only look at the one on your left, you will be anticipating the one on your right. You’ll almost be “reading” ahead even when not yet focused on speaking that particular page.
Use of language. A bad habit for those who have been formed in an academic culture is that our language becomes pedantic, filled with therefores, in conclusions and indeeds. Many of us have learned bad speaking habits as we’ve mastered good writing habits. They are not necessarily the same. As you may have noticed, the sermon quote above doesn’t pass muster with Bill Gates’ Spelling and Grammar program, yet it rings true to the ear. There are limits to this quest for speech that rings true to the ear-just because “ain’t” has some currency in contemporary speech does not mean that it is appropriate for the pulpit. One needs to test our pulpit language against the pieties and unique requirements of public speech that exist in the church.
Reminders on the manuscript. It is helpful to underline or italicize words or phrases you want to stress in the sermon. Keep your reminders clear and brief. The point of a reminder is to help you recall something specific: an emphasis here or there, but not everywhere. I remember one minister’s manuscript that looked like a rainbow with purples and reds and blues and yellows streaking through it almost inexplicably. Maybe he made sense of it, but from a speaker’s vantage point it was all a bit much. Too many reminders and you’ll have a manuscript that is more like a meddlesome in-law than a gracious friend. Reminders should be used sparingly and should be easily recognized.
Before Sunday. These days I am testing the manuscript against the voice earlier rather than later. What I have found is that if I wait too long, the voice ends up taking a back seat to the literary achievement that I’ve been working on from Monday through Thursday. A related benefit that I’ve discovered is a greater congruence between voice and manuscript if, early on in the week, I am throwing my voice at the words, teasing out their sound, wooing them into some kind of aural experience.
Losing the map. Ideally, though it is useful to have a discipline of manuscript preparation, it is best not to use a manuscript at all in the actual act of preaching. But how do we move from a manuscript to the “planned spontaneity” of the voice? To begin with, don’t memorize the manuscript. Memorization sets up the false notion that the “manuscript” is the sermon. If the oral/aural event is the sermon, and we subscribe to the Spirit’s activity in the act of preaching, then the manuscript is rather more like Wendell Berry’s experience of having lost a beloved map in the wilderness: the map, he realizes, was never the thing itself, but only markings recalling a process and a journey.3 The sermon, like Berry’s experience of the wilderness, is the feeling of being on holy ground. Everything else fades into the background in the hour of proclamation.
What we are talking about here is not so much whether one uses a manuscript or not, but instead we are aiming for a shift in our own sense of what constitutes the sermon, between the words we have labored over and the actual event of preaching itself. As it turns out, that shift is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or”-the manuscript should be a faithful reminiscence of a journey to a particular place, the hour of worship; but it should not displace the event of proclamation that it is designed to serve.
If this is the case, and you are not to “lose the manuscript,” what, then, are we to do? Practically, the alternative to either “losing” the manuscript or “memorizing” it is to internalize the major features of the manuscript: moves, images, analogies, narrative structure. Get to know the map so well that you “lose” the map in the event of being in the place of proclamation. Get to know the map in such a personal, even physical, way that the center of gravity in your own experience of the sermon begins to shift from manuscript to the moment of proclamation. Get to the point where you’re anticipating the Word that is being sent ahead of you, the preacher. Get to the point where you, too, anticipate a Word that is to be heard-a Word that you do not know.
Ultimately, whether you enter the preaching moment with a manuscript or without one, the act of crafting a manuscript is a discipline worthy of sustaining. As a discipline, it reminds us that we are stewards of Christian language, word by word. But in the end, what we say in the sermon is in service of the ear that listens for a Word from the Lord: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17, NRSV)-a Word that will surprise us into worship.
1. G. Robert Jacks, Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996) and Getting the Word Across: Speech Communication for Pastors and Lay Leaders (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996).
2. For an example of this, see Jacks’ Just Say the Word, 164-73.
3. Wendell Berry, The Unforseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge (Emeryville: Shoemaker and Hoard, 1991), 110-11.