Whatever Happened to Extemporaneous Preaching?

John A. Broadus, second president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This will seem an odd post to some of those reading this blog. I am trying to ask a series of questions regarding the state of preaching in the United States as a whole, but specifically in Reformed and Presbyterian pulpits.

I’ve already asked the question, “Whatever happened to Reformed preaching”, in this post. Today I want narrow the topic down to one that will seem esoteric to some: “Whatever happened to extemporaneous preaching?”

For those who are uninitiated, there are really three methods of preaching. There are those who prepare a full manuscript which they then take in to the pulpit and then read. A good example of this would be Thomas Chalmers. Then there are also those who prepare a full manuscript and present it memorata – that is, the memorize the whole thing! Finally, there is the extemporaneous method. Each is not without its drawbacks.

The manuscript preacher tends to descend into lecturing, and never actually preaches at all. He tends to be more of an essayist, rather than a herald. As well, when the manuscript preacher departs from his manuscript in preaching, as many tend to do, it is very easy to lose your place when you return to it. Needless to say, that is a frightening thought to the preacher, as it is a good way to lose your hearers.

The preacher that preaches ex memorata also runs the risk of losing his place; in his case, the risk is greater than the manuscript preacher, because if his mind blanks entirely, the rest of the sermon may be unrecoverable. In my mind, this is the biggest danger in preaching ex memorata.

Then there is the extemporaneous method. This shouldn’t be confused with impromptu preaching, as they are entirely different categories. The extemporaneous method requires a great deal of diligent preparation – perhaps even more preparation than the other methods. The goal of extemporaneous preaching is to prepare so diligently and to be so saturated with the text and the subject that he is able to enter the pulpit and preach from nothing more than an outline. Excellent examples of extemporaneous preachers are Dr. Joseph Pipa, Ian Hamilton, and more remotely, B.M. Palmer.

This method lends itself to greater eye contact with the audience. While the manuscript preacher must, of necessity, keep his eyes on his manuscript, the ex tempore preacher is able to watch his audience and judge their reaction to the sermon. If you are losing your audience, you will know it practically immediately. This enables you to adjust your preaching accordingly, so that you can tell when the audience is comprehending the sermon.

The ex tempore method also lends itself to a greater “alive-ness”; the preacher must be incredibly focused on the preaching itself, and cannot let his mind disengage. The extemporaneous preacher must be constantly thinking on his feet. John L. Broadus made an interesting observation on this point, saying that,

The man not capable of failing can never be eloquent.

It is a significant point; the reason that the man who is incapable of failing is incapable of eloquence is because he is incapable of taking the risks which are required by eloquence; he avoids the possibility of failure, of the slips of diction and grammar, by avoiding the extemporaneous method of preaching, but he will never know the heights of eloquence made possible by, and inevitably attached to, the extemporaneous method.

The drawbacks are significant, however. The first, and perhaps biggest, hurdle to overcome is fear. The idea of preaching from a one, two, or three-page outline is a frightening prospect to most preachers, especially if they’ve taught themselves to preach from a manuscript. Extemporaneous preaching is a little like a high-wire act without a net. There is also the problem of repetitiveness in extemporaneous preaching. The preacher who has an inadequate vocabulary will find himself repeating the same words and phrases regularly, which can be somewhat disconcerting. But there is a danger yet even greater than all of these.

There is the danger of inadequate preparation; a man may discover that he has a great gift of speech, and from that discovery may begin to become lazy in his preparation of the sermon. He begins to neglect the sheer hard work that is pivotal in this method of preaching. The danger attending the extemporaneous preacher is that he may, after a time, begin to abuse his ability. Delivery ex tempore does not mean that it has not been thought out first; only thoughtless persons enter the pulpit without laborious preparation.

If you would like to learn more about preaching extemporaneously, I would recommend two works for your reading:

Another more general work on preaching that I cannot recommend highly enough to every single preacher is The Relevance of Preaching, by Pierre Ch. Marcel.

I hope that this will be an encouragement to the preachers who read this blog to stretch themselves, enter the pulpit with a slim outline, and enjoy the liberty and power that attends the extemporaneous delivery of their sermons!

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2 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Extemporaneous Preaching?

  1. Great to find this insightful post. Thank you. This is a great conversation. I tend to preach from a MSS, but with well laid out Outline heads. I often preach sections “ex tempore”, when I feel confident in my grasp of the material and then return for key quotes.

    I have indeed found that I get the best response when I step away from the manuscript, but I don’t feel I can ever really abandon the form, for fear that I would miss out on something critical, but I tend to use it less and less.

    Is their a category for the cowardly MSS preacher? 🙂

  2. Chad,

    I hope this post was an encouragement to you, and didn’t leave you feeling criticized. I don’t want to be too dogmatic where method is concerned, especially when there are much wiser and more experienced men out there.

    This would be my encouragement: you’ve said above that you tend to preach from a manuscript, but with well laid-out outline headings; if that’s the case, your already 80% of the way to preaching extemporaneously. It’s not that you’d be preaching with no notes at all; you just preaching with a slim outline. (As a general rule, I try to keep mine at absolutely no more than 3 pages.)

    My other encouragement to you would simply be this: You can do this!

    Finally, the main thing with preaching extemporaneously is that you have to be absolutely saturated with the text you’re preaching. This means a very high amount of sermon preparation, which every minister should be engaging in anyway. Every other aspect of your ministry is based on and grows out of what you do in the pulpit every Lord’s Day.

    With you’re permission, I’d love to email you a copy of my next sermon outline (to be preached July 17) so you can sort of see what I do, and maybe get some ideas of your own; and if there is any way at all that I can help, I’m absolutely willing to do so!

    Thank you, very much, for your service to the risen Lord and His kingdom!

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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