When first preparing for ministry, I would sometimes try to envision the Apostles standing before a great crowd of people about to preach one of the sermons that we find recorded in the book of Acts. Peter would subtly slip his hand into his pocket, pull out a sheet of paper, unfold it and begin to preach from it. This scenario seemed absolutely implausible and ridiculous to me. The Apostles were mighty in the Scriptures and were ready to preach in season and out of season. It doesn’t take much to come to the conclusion that the sermons that we read in the book of Acts were almost certainly extemporaneous sermons; and, I knew that I too wanted to learn to preach without notes. The Prince of Preachers was an extemporaneous preacher. There had to be massive benefits in learning how to leave all of your diligent preparation behind in your study as you enter the pulpit trusting the Holy Spirit to bring what He has helped you prepare from His word to mind as you preach to those to whom you are called to preach. Still, I was nervous—to say the least. Extemporaneous preaching reveals our gifts and abilities—or lack thereof. Then it happened. Just before I was scheduled to preach in my first homiletics class, I read through The Life of Archibald Alexander, where I stumbled across the following account of how he came to preach without notes. Alexander wrote:
“My next sermon was preached at Charlestown, from the text. Acts 16:31, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.’ I had prepared a skeleton of the sermon and placed it before me; but the house being open a puff of wind carried it away into the midst of the congregation. I then determined to take no more paper into the pulpit; and this resolution I kept as long as I was a pastor, except in a very few instances.”
In an addendum to this, Alexander revealed the following:
“From that time for twenty years, I never took a note of any kind into the pulpit; except that I read my trial sermon at ordination.”
Reading this account fanned a desire that was already in my heart. At that point I determined that I would labor to become an extemporaneous preacher. Having done so now for the past 8 years, here are six principles that I have personally found helpful in learning to become an extemporaneous preacher:
1. Master the Content. One of the greatest benefits of extemporaneous preaching is that you have to know–and, I mean, really know–the exposition of the passage that you are preaching. It has to be a part of you. As John Owen said, “No man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart.” While mere rote memorization of your material is not the whole of preaching a sermon to yourself, it is impossible to preach a sermon to your own heart first and foremost and not come away knowing the material well enough to proclaim it to others without a manuscript. If we really are in the practice of preaching to ourselves, we should be able to proclaim it freely from our hearts to others. I believe this is what enabled Peter to preach the sermon that he preached at Pentecost—he had submerged his own mind and heart into the Christology of the Old Testament. People sometimes ask me if I stand in front of a mirror and practice my sermon. I like to respond by saying, “I try to stand before the mirror of Scripture and preach it to my own heart first.” As painful as it is to see all of the spiritual flaws and deformity in your own life, it is the surefire way to grow spiritually and to learn the passage well enough to preach it from your mind and heart to others.
It does take a great measure of rehearsal to master content. I struggle with naturally incorporating fitting introductions, clear transitions, engaging illustrations, potent application and smooth conclusions. Proclaiming expositional content (e.g. biblical-theological, systematic-theological and exegetical) in a logical and clear manner comes as second nature to me. So, I have to work much harder at those things that are more challenging. I spend a good bit of my mental labors rehearsing what to say and how to say it in the areas in which I am weak. When I first started preaching, I would write out my introduction, transitions, illustrations, application and conclusions. Having done that for a few years, I pushed myself to learn how to simply write them down in the pages of my mind. I still have to work harder on those aspects of the sermon, but am finding (hopefully?) that the more I preach the more I am improving at these things. Everyone is different. Some men need to write out a full manuscript for the theological content of the sermon. Whatever you struggle to keep in your mind, you should write down on paper. Then whittle it down to a bare bone outline.
2. Stick with the Outline. You may need to take an outline into the pulpit for training wheels. The goal, however, should be to only use the outline if you hit a rough patch in the delivery of the message. Knowing the broad outline of the sermon is arguably the most important aspect of extemporaneous preaching. You have to have your outline memorized. Think of the outline as the railroad tracks on which the train runs. To move away from the outline is to run the train off the tracks. I usually limit my sermon to either 2-4 points. I try not to have too many sub-points under each main point. 2 or 3 sub-points under each point should suffice with any message you preach. If you can remember 3 main points and 6 total sub-points for your message, you can learn how to preach extemporaneously. This is a non-negotiable element of extemporaneous preaching.
3. Be Willing to Forget Something. The aspect of learning how to preach extemporaneously that I found to be most frustrating, at the beginning, was the fact that I would inevitably forget to say something that I had wanted to say in the sermon. At some point, I realized that learning how to preach extemporaneously meant being willing to accept the fact that you will forget to say something at some point in the sermon that you had planned to say. Instead of kicking yourself, you have to go home and work harder to know the content and the plan to deliver that content better.
4. Learn to Roll with Mistakes. Too many men don’t try their hand at preaching extemporaneously because they are afraid of making mistakes in their content or delivery. You can’t fear making a mistake. Stephen Colbert explained that one of the secrets to becoming a great improvisational comedian is to “learn to love the bomb.” He explained:
It took me a long time to really understand what that meant…It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.1
In the same way, a man who wants to become a proficient extemporaneous preacher must learn how to roll with the mistakes. You have to be willing to stumble over your words and keep going. You have to be willing to correct yourself in the middle of a discourse when you have a lapsus linguae—but to do so in a way that shows that it not only doesn’t bother you, but that you are embracing the fact that you are who you are–even in that mistake. At first, it feels awkward. You go from apologizing to laughing to embracing the discomfort of the mistake. The goal is to become as natural as possible in the pulpit. Too much concern for polished preaching often creates that “fear that blinds you.” You have to embrace being who you are—even when that means being someone who makes mistakes when preaching extemporaneously.
5. Embrace the Freedom of the Flow. Extemporaneous preaching allows the delivery of the sermon to flow better. R.L. Dabney once described the sermon in the following manner:
The discourse must be like a river which never ceases its motion toward the sea. But the stream which, where it is a rivulet amidst its native mountains, brawls and foams against the immovable rocks, at last disembogues itself calmly with its mighty volume of waters into the ocean. At the end it does not move with less force, but it moves without agitation, because its resistless current has swept every obstacle from its channel.2
With the flow comes a freedom. There is a freedom to not being bound to reading the sermon from a manuscript. That freedom includes a heightened frequency with which the Lord will bring to mind some unplanned or unrehearsed point, illustration or application. In my opinion, some of what I consider to be my best content in a sermon has been that which the Lord drops into my mind while I am preaching. Extemporaneous preaching helps you embrace the freedom of the flow.
6. Keep Pace with the Congregation. When a man is committed to extemporaneous preaching, he frees himself up to keep pace with the congregation by making more eye contact, by reading the congregations body language as a whole and the body language of individuals in the congregation. While most congregants think that you don’t see their sighs, closed eyes, drifting to sleep, smiles, frowns, etc. a man who preached extemporaneously is apt to see everything in front of him. I think that this may be why the Lord said to Jeremiah the prophet, “Do not afraid of their faces: for I am with you to deliver you” (Jer. 1:8). While it may simply be idiomatic, there is truth in the fact that you literally see more of the faces of those to whom you preach when you are preaching extemporaneously. If the congregation seems worn out, you can either shift gears or wrap it up. If the congregation seems engaged, you can keep it coming strong. If I see a congregant furrow his or her brow–intimating that they do not agree with something that I have just said—I will often bring out two or three more rationales for why I just said what I said. I usually don’t plan on defending certain points to such an extent. Keeping pace with the congregation changes the whole tone and tenor of the sermon. It is one of the benefits of extemporaneous preaching.
These six reminders are things that I personally seek to appropriate to myself. I understand that there is an element of subjectivity in regard to whether a man can learn to preach extemporaneously or not. It takes a lot more work to learn to do so, but I highly recommend that men attempt to learn to do so. The benefits derived from it far outweigh those derived from sticking to a manuscript or to a very full outline. My hope is that some who read this will get excited about the prospect of learning to preach extemporaneously.
1. An excerpt from “The Late, Great Stephen Colbert,” GQ, August 2015.
2. R.L. Dabney Sacred Rhetoric (New York: Anson D.F. Randolph and Co., 1870) pp. 177-178