I have been having a bit of a debate recently with some of my students about memorization. If we value a more look-the-audience-in-the-face kind of extemporanaeity, are we better to memorize written manuscripts or should we allow ourselves more freedom to invent our specific verbal constructions in the moment of our preaching?
The former offers the ability to craft the sermon carefully and with precision. It also allows the preacher to move faster with a greater and perhaps more dynamic rate of speech. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a manner of preparation that would require a greater amount of time, both in the writing and in the memorizing. Secondly, memorizing is risky, given that it can end up coming off more like reciting than actually preaching, and when the words don’t come, the preacher can feel exposed and vulnerable.
The latter approach, construction on the fly, offers more of an in-the-moment sense of authenticity. The listener gets the sense that the preacher didn’t just pull this off the shelf, but that there is real communication going on. This way is also more manageable within the pattern of a busy preacher’s life. The downside, of course, is that the preacher learns to rely too much on the possibility of “winging it,” or coming to the sermon poorly prepared. Without a substantial amount of skill, this form of preaching can sometimes ramble and lose its focus.
I have typically counselled different approaches to the matter depending upon various factors. For example, the ‘manuscript and memorize’ approach might serve well a preacher who is less experienced and less confident, especially with those who are working in second languages. I have also noticed that this method is used by some large church pastors whose schedule and assignment allows a greater amount of time for preparation. Conversely, church planters and smaller church pastors who have limited amounts of time, will see obvious benefit in a more spontaneous approach, as will preachers who are working with youth groups and younger congregations.
Often, preachers will gravitate to some form of hybrid approach – working with a more limited set of notes, while practicing as much as time will permit. Over time, these preachers find a middle ground that works well with their context, their schedule, and their personal temperament. This works for some, though others find the presence of text, even in the form of partial notes to be cognitively distracting from the primary goal of actually communicating with the gathered crowd.
Clearly, there is no correct approach to the matter. We will all have to assess our own capacities and find an approach that allows us to offer the truth with a sufficient sense of precision while at the same time offering the required sense of presence.