Before I preach, I like to go over my sermon five times, so I really know it when I step into the pulpit. I write out a full outline, reduce it to a page, then memorize it before I preach.
This is a sample of the advice I received when I returned to the pastorate in 2003. I had served as a pastor before—right after grad school—but for 17 years I’d been a professor. I preached frequently in those years, but I knew preaching one or two new sermons weekly would be different.
Preaching as a guest is like having a child. Preaching weekly is like having newborn twins, forever. Most pastors advised me to prepare, then prepare more.
Proposing (Mild) Panic
Today I propose an alternative—preaching in a mild state of panic. I want to question those who advocate full manuscripts and memorized outlines. I invite preachers to consider another way: Stop trying to master a set of notes. Fill yourself with more Scripture, ideas, applications, and illustrations than you could possibly use, then pray, and see what happens.
Write as much or little as you like, but stop trying to master your material and delivering it as planned. Consider the possibility that while you master your notes, they master you, chaining you to the pulpit and pulling you away from people who want to know if you love them, who feel that eye contact is a sign of affection.
Preachers accidentally panic when they lose their line of thought or when wailing babies get under their skin. To embrace panic is different. “Mild state of panic” preachers do prepare; they exegete and add theological reflections, illustrations, and applications until they have more content than time to deliver it. They outline findings in as much or as little detail as seems right. I recommend speakers create a file for future reference whenever they work hard on a text or topic.
The essential idea is to enter the pulpit full of ideas, depending on the Lord and a feel for the congregation, rather than hard-won mastery of notes. The “panic” lies in not knowing precisely what you will say. It is mild, because you’ve prepared, albeit in a different way.
My journey to the (mild) panic paradigm has experiential, historical, and biblical aspects. Experientially, I long felt that if I prepared too much, my sermon was likely to feel flat to me and to the congregation—if I was reading their body language correctly. To overstate, if I had mastered my awesome notes and killer insights, I was probably ready to offer a lackluster message.
As I considered this, I came upon an intriguing article about acting. It said actors consistently misjudge their best take when filming movies. Suppose there are 12 takes for a scene. Suppose that, on average, directors think the fourth is best. Actors will judge the fifth as best. Why? Because they discovered the best way to act during take four. The act of discovery made take four sparkle, while the fifth lost a little life. The actor was trying to reproduce what happened in take four. The result was something like the smile we hold too long while waiting for a slow photographer. I don’t know actors, but I know a number of Nashville musicians. They agreed that recordings generally have the most life when musicians are getting close, but don’t yet know exactly what a song should sound like.
Next, I began to notice comments from church history that aligned with my hunch.
Preaching in the Reformation
Preaching as we know it is largely a product of the Reformation. The Reformation preachers we know best embraced an ideal that could frighten preachers today. John Calvin preached four or five times a week from different texts. Clearly he had to depend on a lifetime of learning, not meticulous preparation for each message.
He entered the pulpit without notes. There are no manuscripts of his sermons; his published sermons derive from simultaneous transcription. His messages, based on the Greek or Hebrew text he had before him, were biblical, exegetical, and sequential, normally covering up to five verses. Calvin had an almost unparalleled memory, but his ability to memorize did not drive his decision. He chose to speak without notes to connect with the people, who loved his preaching.
Earlier, Ulrich Zwingli had a similar practice. Under the influence of Erasmus, Zwingli memorized the Greek New Testament and preached from it, starting with Matthew, which he covered verse by verse contrary to all custom. The people were electrified. Likewise, George Whitefield steeped himself in Scripture, especially during his transatlantic journeys. He also spoke more or less extemporaneously, out of the fullness of his knowledge of Scripture and his passion for the gospel.
Preaching in the Bible
Biblical sermons have the same spontaneous-yet-prepared texture. The literary beauty of Jesus’s parables and straightforward instruction suggests he prepared in some sense. But he almost always spoke in the open, to crowds who gathered more or less unexpectedly (Matt. 5:1; 11:2; 13:1–3;John 6:25–59; 9:35–10:18). The time he spoke in a synagogue, a leader simply handed him a scroll of Isaiah and he began (Luke 4:16–27).
The sermons of Acts are similar. Peter’s preaching at Pentecost is drenched in Scripture, yet was a spontaneous response to the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2). Stephen was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” and his lone recorded message is soaked in Scripture but also spoken spontaneously (Acts 6:3; 7:1–53). Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’s household in Acts 10, and Paul’s messages in Acts look similar.
The synagogue rulers of Pisidian Antioch invited Paul to speak, apparently without warning (Acts 13:13–41). His message at Lystra is a response to a miracle (14:8–18), and his sermon at Athens answers a sudden invitation to speak (17:16–31). Paul’s exhortation to Timothy lines up with Acts. Timothy must “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), whether it seems timely or untimely. Timothy should always be ready to speak.
Panic by Design
Of course, missed flights and sudden illnesses force many of us to speak with almost no preparation. If the topic or passage is familiar, it can be rewarding, and that may encourage pastors to move toward panic by design.
My proposal is not for everyone, but I ask you to consider a way of speaking that follows common patterns of Scripture and church history. Read and study Scripture extensively, know your theology, understand your culture, and love your people.
Write up as much or as little as you please, but when you preach, focus on the core message and the people, rather than your meticulously prepared remarks. Pray, lean on the Spirit, and embrace that twinge of panic that arises when you don’t quite know what to say next. Take heart: the Lord knows, and he has called and equipped you.
Dr. Dan Doriani is VP for strategic academic initiatives and professor of theology at Covenant Seminary. A version of this originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition in 2016.