Ellsworth, Christian Focus, 2000, 144 pages, 3 of 5 stars
Paper is a poor conduit of heat. So are sermon manuscripts poor conduits for preaching. So says Ellsworth on this paperback about preaching memorable sermons.
Here is a book on the oral nature of preaching, an exploration of what spoken communication (orality) means for the proclamation of God’s Word.
Chapter 1 pulled me in because the author and I share some of the same concerns about sermon manuscripts. But then chapter 2 was boring and he lost me. If only I could have heard him say it. Chapter 3 was better (“Sermons should be prepared for the ear not the eye”). Chapter 4 was fascinating (a historical, “who’s who” of great note-less preachers!), where it was suggested Spurgeon not only preached without notes but “never touched pen to paper in the preparation process” (86). Chapter five cautions against over preparation.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Ellsworth made several good points. No manuscript doesn’t mean no sermon prep. Just leave the notes behind. He drives home the importance of personality in preaching, eye contact, and meditation upon the text. He also offered several thought-provoking lines (“Everything the preacher can’t remember is lost to the congregation.”) And I admit that it is difficult picturing Jesus and the apostles preaching with notes. I haven’t used many notes in the month since I’ve read him. That is high praise.
Still, there were several weaknesses. He seemingly offered only two options: be tied to a manuscript or preach extemporaneously. But how about reading notes in a way no one notices? He puts too much emphasis on rhetorical methods and erroneously argues that because great attorneys are note-less, so should preachers. He also downplays the posterity of written sermons. But just think how many theological books began in the pulpit? And my greatest concern was if preaching without notes is possible with all kinds of preaching, or only the 30-minute variety on the light side. Finally, I wonder how someone goes with less notes in my particular culture where so little sermon prep takes place and thus so few notes?
In the end, this was a helpful, thought-provoking book that encouraged me to make the sermon more internal or order to present it better externally. Several of his points, however, were unconvincing.
- “Almost any man, almost any man, can learn to [preach without notes], if he is willing to pay the price.” (91, from Charles Brown)
- “Memorable preaching has a dual importance: every preacher hopes that his congregation will remember the sermon but even more important, every preacher who preaches without notes must remember the sermon.” (112)
- “I find it startling to admit that I have occasionally asked preaching colleagues to recall what they have just recently preached only to discover they are unable to remember. As for the congregations of such preachers, statistics may be too cruel to explore. If the preacher had to go into the pulpit with the written material to help recall the sermon and if the congregation is seated without benefit of notes or manuscript, it is unlikely much of that sermon will leave the room.” (61)