Sermon Manuscript or Not?

A few weeks ago, I sent this poll to preachers: “Do you use a sermon manuscript or not? Why or why not?” More than 125 preachers responded, and I found their responses fascinating.

  1. 46% do not use a manuscript. Most use an outline, though the depth of the outline varies from simply the basic points to a detailed outline. Some use only “Post-it” notes with brief bullet points. The reasons given for using no manuscript were several:
  • They are better able to maintain strong eye contact when not using notes.
  • Reading a manuscript while connecting with the people at the same time is difficult.
  • It’s easy to get lost in the manuscript.
  • Outlines with key statements, illustrations, highlighted still give the preacher some freedom in proclaiming the Word.
  • Using a manuscript “feels” stiff.
  • An outline can be an extended outline, so you get the meat of the sermon without being tied to a manuscript.
  • If the preacher needs large print for visual purposes, the manuscript can be numerous pages.
  • Without denying that manuscript preachers rely on the Spirit, preachers who use only brief notes must depend on the Spirit to fill in the material. 
  • For some bi-vocational pastors, a detailed outline simply takes less time in preparation, while still allowing the preacher to dig into the text.
  • Some preachers are simply not good at reading a manuscript and still coming across as natural. Their congregation knows when they’re reading – and that’s not the best way to preach.
  • A detailed outline still requires preachers to know the “unwritten” content so well that they have to study equally hard.
  1. 44% use a manuscript when they go to the pulpit. Their reasons for manuscripting included the following, some of which surprised me, taught me, and challenged me as a preacher who uses a detailed outline rather than a manuscript.
  • Every word counts in a sermon, and a manuscript emphasizes that point.
  • God is in the preparation as well as the preaching, so producing the manuscript is important.
  • Manuscripts keep preachers on track, helping them to avoid chasing rabbits.
  • Word count helps with timing, especially when the preacher has a certain amount of time to present.
  • A manuscript helps the audio-visual team know when to forward the Powerpoint, cue the videos, etc.
  • Preachers who preach multiple services know exactly what they’ve said when using a manuscript.
  • Manuscripts provide the core for later blog posts.
  • For those preachers who want to write books based on sermons, chapters are already prepared with the manuscript.
  • Manuscripts help when updating and preaching the same sermon and text later.
  • Manuscripts with the scriptures themselves inserted might be important years from now if we have no access to the Word.
  • In settings where individual words are scrutinized (e.g., chaplaincy), a manuscript allows for precision.
  1. 8% write a manuscript in preparation, but use only an outline when preaching. This approach tries to bring together the best of both worlds. The prepared manuscript allows the preacher to fine-tune the entire sermon, but the outline in the pulpit promotes a bit more freedom and increased eye contact when preaching.
  2. 1% vary in their approach. They use a manuscript sometimes, but only an outline at other times. That decision is often based on their level of knowledge with the material itself. If they are more familiar with the text due to long-term recurrent study, they are less inclined to use a manuscript.
  3. 1% preach with no notes at all. In most cases, that decision is based solely on the way the preacher learned to preach. The lessons from a preaching professor often linger long in our mind . . . .  

OK, preachers, there’s what we heard. What are your thoughts?


  • Christopher G. Poirier says:

    I find that this is something that is going to vary by person. I personally started my time in the pulpit using a manuscript and reading word for word. (Learned very quickly that I was not in fact Jonathan Edwards..or even a good impersonation..) For me, constantly having to look down did draw away from engaging the congregation with what I was saying. It also came across broken at times, so the answer for me was detailed outlines. Everyone in my congregation noted a dramatic change in my sermons when I made the switch. I think people need to try multiple methods to find their style that works and ensures that the Word is handled with the care and delivery it deserves.

    • I replied to the survey and use a manuscript. However, having tired all the methods and types mentioned in the article, I manuscript but then commit the manuscript to memory. Our team will tell you that I follow the script pretty closely. Rarely do I ever look at the notes but I do have them. Been doing this for 12 years and it works great for me.

  • Chuck Lawless says:

    Thanks, Chris, for your input.

  • Tim Prock says:

    I have used a detailed outline for 34 years. Hard to change now. By the second and third morning service I do not look at it much and that is nice. I still have it to use when needed but only for a glance.

  • Bill Pitcher says:

    I use a very tightly scripted outline, largely because of how I was trained as an instructor (I come out another vocation). Some things I want to say very specifically; others might flow more freely. I have my own method of outlining in which I generally have some *disposable* material so that if other factors beyond my control have caused the time to get away from us, e.g. a long, unexpected announcements, special presentations or some thing else that crops up, I can dump an illustration, or even a sub-point, and still not be too far over the expected time for the service. (Yeah, I do have some people that who worry about that)
    The other reason for a tight script is that I’d run far too many rabbit trails if I did not. I’d never finish the message and it wouldn’t have a good flow.

  • Steven says:

    I use a color coded outline. Yellow highlights are main points. Green highlights are sub points. Blue highlights are “must-mention” support information- could be a language explanation, quote, or illustration. Everything else in the detailed outline remains un-highlighted and is included if there’s time. The colors help keep me on track if I chase a rabbit- I can quickly find my place.

    I typically preach from an iPad, and I include scripture in my outline so that I’m only looking at one place while I’m preaching. My outlines are typically around 3 pages, but I space things out on the page so that it’s not cluttered.

    I’ve been preaching this way since before seminary and it’s always worked well for me. Hard to change now.

  • Kevin says:

    I am an outline user who participated in the poll. I’ve enjoyed reading the response of other preachers.

  • Jon Stallings says:

    I also use an outline – I will write out any specific statements or quotes in detail I want to be sure I get right. I use a color highlighting for the quotes and scripture references.

  • Michael says:

    I try to do a combination of sermon manuscript and outline. I write the manuscript but take an outline in the pulpit with me. I will go over the manuscript a lot before preaching so I very rarely look at the outline while I am preaching.

    I will say that writing a sermon manuscript is difficult for a solo pastor in a church.

  • Bill Patterson says:

    Thank you, Chuck for an interesting analysis. The discussion is helpful for pastors and we appreciate it. For the first twelve years of pastoring I wrote out my sermon in full. I had heard Clyde Fant speak on “The Oral Preparation of the Sermon” and began to use the oral preparation method. It revolutionized my preparation. With the written manuscript method, most of what happens happens between the pastor and the computer/page as he prepares. With the oral method what happens happens between the pastor and the people as he shares. The drawback is that sentences cannot be as finely crafted as with a written manuscript. For me, however, the ability to look in people’s eyes as I speak more than compensates. Also, the oral method requires less preparation time but more personal involvement–both of which are beneficial for pastor and congregation.

  • Guy Fredrick says:

    I’m one of the manuscript users. My manuscripts generally run 9 pages, as you alluded, that helps with time. But the format is very outline like. I use bullet points, large font for easy viewing as I move around, and include all Bible verses printed out though I also use a Bible (and share from nemory). I wish I had the luxury of time to go over my sermon until it was memorized but as a bi-vocational pastor I seldom have more than 4-6 hours for total sermon prep and that is for detailed exegetical verse-by-verse sermons that are fresh each week. I could not do what I do without my electronic library that now runs thousands of volumes. Blessings on your work!

  • Clark Bunch says:

    I post the full text of each sermon on our church’s website, so a complete manuscript is always prepared. Writing, proof-reading and editing are important for any writer. Using that manuscript in the pulpit ensures that I say all of the things I planned on saying. But I enjoy preaching more (and my wife says she enjoys listening more) when I use a basic outline with a few details under each main idea. I like the idea of knowing everything came out just right, but I don’t feel that reading my sermon from a printed page is what I was called to do.

  • Michael Ballai says:

    I’m still a rookie in the pulpit and rely on a manuscript. It’s good for later use and I’m not tied to verbatim reading if I studied enough. The better your grasp of the Word frees you from the need to use notes,

  • Ken says:

    I write out a full manuscript, read over it several times, and then deliver it without notes (and as you said, that’s the way my preaching professor in seminary made us do it!). I don’t necessarily recommend this approach to everyone, but it works for me. I’ve found that if I use notes, I rely too heavily on the notes and not enough on the Holy Spirit. I do recommend writing out a full manuscript whether you use it in the pulpit or not. Writing out your sermon forces you to think through it.

    One Sunday I accidentally left my manuscript at home, and I live far enough from the church where it wasn’t practical for me to go home and get it. I usually spend the Sunday School hour reading over my sermon a few more times, but that morning I spent it in prayer. I think I got more compliments on that sermon than any of my others!

  • cfcollins says:

    I’m part of the 8% who write a manuscript but use an outline. Another reason for the manuscript is that I can take it to a website and translate it to Spanish and print it out for an ESL couple attending our church. I could do the same for an outline, but then they would not get as much out of the sermon.

  • Allen Calkins says:

    I began preaching using a manuscript due to insecurity about preaching. I have tried to get away from it many times but finally gave up and just tried to get better at using the manuscript, feeling guilty for my choice. But today I would never do it differently. When I tell people I preach from a manuscript, most are rather surprised. I agree about a manuscript keeping the preacher on track and on time. If I have a more lengthy manuscript I know I need to trim some. If I cannot trim then I know to reduce something else in the service. I am not a slave to the clock. But as a person who sat in the pew for a decade+ before being called to preach I try VERY HARD to be respectful of time.

    A manuscript also helps you know what you said if you are challenged or have upset someone. Most of the times I have done that it is by an off the cuff comment I made that was not in my manuscript. A manuscript also preserves the message better so you can review it later or repreach it if you like.

    I have matured enough with experience that I can preach with no notes and little preparation, like for a men’s meeting devotion or a last minute thing. But I still write a manuscript every week. I believe the discipline helps me be a more thoughtful and engaging preacher.

  • Darrell Deer says:

    I have done a little of everything through the years. I tend to use a manuscript/detailed outline now more than anything else. In an age when everything is posted online, it helps me be more precise in the words I use and thus keeps me from saying something I didn’t intend to say.

  • Thirty years in and I still preach from a manuscript. It’s a discipline I didn’t like at first, but having stuck with it, I’m glad I did. I find I’m better prepared, it forces me to grapple with wording choices and usage, and it keeps me on track. With three services back-to-back I have to stay on time, and a manuscript helps me with that. Helps me avoid the rabbit trails. It’s also made me a better writer.

  • I’m in the 8%. I write a full manuscript and give a copy for our projectionist and publish it on my blog. But I use a mind map when I go into the pulpit.

  • Matthew says:

    I am a manuscript preacher for over 33 years – 7-8 pages; it helps me with margins on time, to exit down my research & study, to frame an outline, balance sections, and to incorporate craft and different styles.

  • Seth says:

    I attended a small church and preach typically once per a month, our pastor allows lay elders to preach reguarly. So I rely on a manuscript. What I also do if I can is print of a skeletal outline for those in the audience. This allows them to follow and keep up better. They also enjoy knowing when I’m close to the end!

  • Jeff Smith says:

    When I began preaching in 1991 I used detailed notes. I used this method until I served alongside a senior pastor from 2006-2014. He was a manuscript preacher. He and I had many conversations just like this blog post about the pros and cons of each method. He challenged me to give manuscript preaching a try. I have never gone back. I now know that 12 pages are about 35-40 minutes. It really helps me be succinct and precise in all of my points. I no longer leave the pulpit thinking to myself “Ah! I forgot to say that!”

  • Brian Horton says:

    Once again, great article. This blog is one of the most relevant and helpful to me. I use manuscript, but I highlight and bold and raise the font of the major points so that as I glance over I can see an outline. But the manuscript helps me stay focused, flesh out thoughts, and provides a resource for the next time I preach that text. I would guess an average sermon is 40 minutes for me, and that is 9-10 pages of manuscript, with the raised fonts. (minimum of 14…I am denial over my need for bifocals).

  • Calvin Naylor says:

    I type out the scriptures and underneath each verse I do the explanation, illustration and explanation. I color code everything. For example: green is for scriptures, blue is for illustrations, etc, (I later found out John Maxwell does the same.) I print it in an 8 font in a narrow text to fit inside my Bible (clipping in near my text). I will glance at it for , quotes, points, etc. but I memorize my illustrations and try to preach as the Spirit leads.

  • Guy Oliver says:

    I/m an old guy. Been preaching about 60 years. Started out with outlines carefully, prayerfully prepared. But about 20 years ago I started carefully preparing a manuscript and reading it from the pulpit (occasionally adding a comment or two as, I believe, the Holy Spirit gave me the idea and /or words). I agree there is no clear and easy answer as to what is best. But, looking back, I am more spiritually satisfied now than earlier. Also, strange things happen. I started making copies of the written sermon for the people to pick up as they left Church. Some were surprised and happy to take one home. Of course, not everyone takes one every Lord’s Day but many do. And you never know what will happen. Totally unplanned by me, i heard about a nursing home where a group of the lady residents gathered each week to listen to the sermon manuscript from the Sunday before. I found out that one of the ladies in our congregation took one of the manuscripts each Monday and gave it to a friend. Then later in the week the ladies group gathered, One more thing: I am so blessed to be able to look back over the sermon manuscripts from the years passed by. And the written texts can be saved on discs and worked with new applications and illustrations as circumstances change and new issues arrive in the Church or American society. Well, that’s my story and I guess I’m sticking to it. Thanks for your research on this important issue in homiletics.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.