“If the preacher had to choose between doing without careful sermon preparation and doing without direct contact with his audience, I suppose he should do without direct contact with his audience. But that’s like deciding which of your children to shoot. You don’t have to make that choice.”
Clyde E. Fant, Preaching for Today, (Harper & Row: New York, 1975), 118-122.
Fant’s discussion of preparing preaching notes with orality in mind is one of the most practical and helpful I have ever read. Click “Keep Reading” for an extended excerpt from Preaching for Today.
The Oral Manuscript
Let me suggest a method that I believe to be superior to the writing of a manuscript. I know that all men are not alike, and there is no method, which is best for everyone. In spite of what ought to be true, some men might be helpless without a manuscript. But I don’t believe that it is the best method for most men. Anyone who uses a manuscript should realize that he is not merely using a crutch; he is putting a brace on a healthy leg.
I am convinced that much of the stiffness and impersonality of our preaching, the boredom and lack of interest of our hearers, the feeling of nonparticipation and disinvolvement of our congregations, is due to the manuscript method of preaching. (It would be ridiculous to attribute these problems to the manuscript preparation alone; but to my knowledge, it has scarcely been pointed out as any part of the problem at all, and I believe it is much more to blame methodologically for our troubles than the often ridiculed, “three-point,” traditional organization.)
I repeat: In those cases where the method has been mastered and a man is able to communicate intimately and directly with his congregation, he does so in spite of his manuscript and in the face of overwhelming odds against him.
On the other hand, I am equally well aware of the disastrous effects of nonpreparation. There is nothing more deadly to preaching than the man who can say nothing for thirty minutes, and knows it. If forced to choose between listening to this man with the rotary jaw, to use Spurgeon’s term, or to the poor reading of a well-prepared manuscript, I’d choose the manuscript ever time. If the preacher had to choose between doing without careful sermon preparation and doing without direct contact with his audience, I suppose he should do without direct contact with his audience. But that’s like deciding which of your children to shoot. You don’t have to make that choice.
In looking for a better procedure, where do we begin? (At this point, perhaps I had better warn you that we are only going to look at the overall process for the sake of clarity; the details of mechanics will come later.)
Initial Study. The oral preparation method begins exactly like the manuscript method. First, the preacher should make a careful study of his text—which involves both exegetical and meditative study—and establish a tentative plan for the sermon in rough notes. This plan includes no more at this time than the unifying concern, or direction, or theme of the sermon, and a tentative arrangement of the basic divisions or steps in the development of this theme.
To this point, the preparation of the sermon is a matter of thought, but beyond this early stage it should be a matter of speech. The tentative direction of the sermon which thought has suggested should be made definite through speaking. We begin with the rough oral draft.
The Rough Oral Draft. Put each of the tentative divisions of the theme on a separate sheet of paper. Then preach aloud on each of them as long as ideas suggest themselves, using free association. Make no effort to hinder the free flow of ideas or to arrange them in order at this time. But keep a pen in hand and pause in speaking only long enough to note briefly the key directional phrases or sentences that emerge.
Each of these sentences should introduce a thought-block, which has really struck the heart of the concern of the text or of the people. These phrases correspond with the topic sentence of the paragraphs in a manuscript. But in this case they do not introduce a paragraph—no one speaks in paragraphs—but a thought-block, “something I want to talk about,” which may represent one or more minutes of oral development.
This stage corresponds exactly with the writing of the rough draft of the manuscript—except that it is being done in the medium, which will eventually be used. The composition is oral, not written, and the difference can be plainly heard in the final product. Verbal fluency will jump dramatically using this method. And rather than practicing on your audience, you are practicing on yourself.
Furthermore, a man can speak at least five to ten times faster than he can write. A written rough draft of the number of words used in the oral process would take just that much longer; a two-hour oral session would require at least a ten-hour written session. This means valuable time saved, and a more efficient use of sermon preparation time with this approach.
It is important to remember that the initial arrangement of divisions, or even your understanding of the basic sermon theme itself, will very likely be altered as the speaking process unfolds. These ideas are highly tentative; they serve only as a starting point for the sermon. You will often discover that your initial impression has been clarified and refined in the speaking process. Don’t hesitate to alter the pieces to say what you want to say. Many a preacher has been trapped by a “logical” outline that would not let him speak the gospel, as he understood it.
In this rough draft stage, you will not know what to say first within each division—should I start with the biblical situation or with the contemporary situation?—or whether some pictorial, illustrative material should be used before either is introduced. But talking it out allows you to hear it, try it, and then decide.
Sometimes you may preach aloud for fifteen minutes or more on each division before you say anything worth saying. (At least you will find that out in the study rather than in the pulpit! How often a preacher practices on his congregation—and learns five minutes before the end what he should have said in the first place!) It will be a common experience to realize suddenly, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say!” Not only the organization, but the very meaning of the message is being discovered in the speaking process.
Once the basic content of the sermon is set, decide how to begin—the introduction—and how to stop—the conclusion. Then when you have finished this process of preparation, the rough draft of the oral manuscript is completed.
The Final Oral Manuscript. At this point, what do you have? A few lines to begin; perhaps a few to conclude. A few main divisions, if these are necessary to move the sermon through the meaning of the message. Under these key divisions, several directional sentences that introduce thought-blocks; some which deal with the biblical situation, some which deal with the contemporary situation, and some which may also indicate the use of pictorial, illustrative material, or the need for it.
Then what? Examine your notes. Rearrange the directional sentences, and perhaps even the main divisions themselves, into the order which seemed called for by the speaking process.
For example, on the first run you may have discovered that the second division should have been first; or that it really said the same thing as the first and therefore is not needed at all. Or within the first division, you may have begun with a narrative based on the text and led into a contemporary narrative; but in doing so, it quickly became apparent that this order was awkward and should be reversed. Or, as the rough oral draft unfolded, you may have jotted down a dozen sentences under the first division which seemed to introduce promising areas of thought, only three or four of which actually proved to be worth keeping. In other words, having heard your sermon, you are now able to revise it.
If you are reasonably satisfied that this revised arrangement permits the gospel to be heard, then preach aloud once more. This is the final draft of the oral manuscript. Obviously you will continue to revise if necessary, but this time you are attempting to preach in as near final form as possible. Sharpen the focus and the language of the message. Try to preach without reference to the material before you, but if necessary, refer to it. If your development is simple and accurate, it will not be hard to recall; if you cannot work through it easily, quite likely there is some problem with the movement of the sermon.