Tuesday, June 26, 2012

This is the story of how I adopted the practice of extemporaneous preaching

A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.
–Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

I proceed deeply influenced by Marshall McCluhan’s approach to media studies. For McCluhan, the term “media” does not simply refer to a limited small group of media employed for communication, like the newspaper, radio, television, or Internet. Media are, instead, all the “extensions” of humanity, including clothing, housing, and in the case under consideration, language itself[1].
            For most pastors, the sermon is an ancient communicative “technology” that we inhabit more regularly than any other. It is one of the most important extensions of ourselves into the communities we serve. The unique dimensions of this medium, practiced week in and week out in a local congregation, illustrate the formative aspects of media more generally construed.

Intimations: The Science of the Preaching and Reading Brain
            I can still remember, vividly, the first sermon I preached on internship. Rather, I should say I remember vividly what it felt like to prepare the sermon, and the intense emotions and nerves that gathered around delivering it. I wrote out (typed) a manuscript. I agonized over word choices, sought to align theology and homiletical aspirations, hoped to be interesting. Because I had worried over the individual words, the grammar of the sentences, the structure and ordering of paragraphs, the delivery of the sermon was closely tied to a written text. Sunday morning I read the text word for word out loud, like a poem.
            Reading the manuscript aloud was agonizing, because my preferred approach to communication, in individual or group conversations, is to look people in the eye, speak freely, and not read texts to people (unless it is a recitation, in which case different habits and rules would apply).  Here I was, in a living worship environment, and instead of speaking freely and vibrantly, I was reading verbatim a text I had written earlier in the week. I can still remember how much of an out-of-body experience it was, watching myself deliver the sermon. Although I had attended many oral readings of written texts, such as poetry readings, and so knew intellectually that reading from a text can actually be a legitimate (and even beautiful) approach to oral communication, I knew in that first sermon that it would not work for me as a preacher.
            So I set myself the task of revolutionizing my preaching, abandoning the pattern of preaching I had received and observed throughout my lifetime. I had never (to my recollection) witnessed a preacher preach extemporaneously. The majority of my experience had been with manuscript preachers. The remainder of the internship—because I had time to do so and the inclination—I did two new things. First, I memorized the gospel lesson each week and proclaimed (performed) it, like a dramatized reading. Then, following the gospel performance, I preached a sermon working out of an outline I had written and memorized. At first, I still wrote out an entire manuscript, then organized it down into an outline, and memorized that. Later, as the year went on, it became increasingly easy to preach without writing the manuscript first. In fact, after a while the written manuscript got in the way, because I wondered whether what I preached orally on Sundays remained faithful to the manuscript written at an earlier date. My concern would remain with what I had written or outlined rather than what I was currently saying, as if the media in which the sermon had been “trapped” were more important than the living voice of the gospel in the moment of oral proclamation.
            By the end of internship I had even greatly modified the outlines themselves. Instead of a five point outline with sub-points, I would have just a few words written down, in order, brief pointers for remembering the way, sign-posts on the road.[2]Even the outline got in the way of sermon delivery, because my mind was tied to the outline, and I would worry if I had forgotten a section, not to mention what to do if a new direction came to mind in the process of preaching the sermon—what do you do with that? Over the next couple of years, I stopped writing out the outlines, but still developed and memorized some kind of outline sans notes for a few more years.[3] More recently I simply stand up to preach without any kind of outline or order in mind at all. The form simply “arrives” in my mind, fully formed, strands woven together from the reading and contemplation I have engaged in over the course of the week.
            Which is not to say that I do not prepare a sermon. I still study, read, sift, reflect, pray, and meditate. Instead, all these activities coalesce around the preaching moment as available resources to weave in. They are not required. In a pinch, I can preach a sermon on any text, at any time. It is my hypothesis that I can do this because the formative work of preparing those sermons, year in and year out, and specifically in the manner I have been preparing them, has changed the structure of my brain. I have neural pathways, open connections and deep patterns established, that facilitate the form my preaching now typically takes. In other words, I could not have prepared for that first sermon in the way I prepare now, precisely because it has been past repeated preparations that have shaped my brain in specific ways.[4]
            The anxiety and feelings I felt in those early experiences were the growing pains of a brain that had not yet been formed to do what it now does. The “equipment” we make use of takes part in the forming of our thoughts. I have had similar feelings and experiences when learning to play an instrument, or drive a new vehicle, or acquire any new communication skill using a new medium. Each equipping requires the formation of new neural pathways. This phenomenon scientists now indicate is an aspect of the neuroplasticity of the adult brain. The consensus in much of the neuroscience community (and this is a relatively new discovery) is that the adult brain is very plastic, even, we might say, “massively plastic.”[5] “The brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”[6]
            Furthermore, and this is central to what we will be exploring throughout this book, the media I used to prepare sermons, the approaches I took to preaching, were technologies that affected the outcome. Different media and approaches to preaching would shape my brain in different ways. In fact, in some sense they function as extensions of my brain. If, for example, over the past ten years I had been in the habit of memorizing a manuscript word-for-word, my brain would be adapted for the quick memorization of written texts, a different and intriguingly powerful tool used by many in theater and the performing arts. Additionally, and equally important, not only has the media impacted the repeating media, the media has impacted the message itself. As Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid notes, “The reading brain is part of a highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.”[7] In my case, the living nature of the sermons I preach is intimately connected to the mode of their preparation and delivery, and the extemporaneous habits I have been cultivating over this long period of time I believe better serve the nature of the homiletical task and its outcome in that they continue to change my brain through repeated practice.
            Finally, according to Christian faith, all of what I have described above is a happy outcome of the cooperation of the Holy Spirit and neurology. The Holy Spirit works through means, and in this case the Holy Spirit works on the brain of the pastor, preparing it like fertile soil to be a carrier of the Word. The Holy Spirit works through means, including creation itself, and so it is no surprise that the Holy Spirit also works in and through the neurological pathways forged through repeated and rehearsed practices. The surprise in all of this is that such repeated practices, inspired by the Holy Spirit, do not simply train the brain for more of the same—they are in fact generative. As Wolf notes later in her book, “Proust’s understanding of the generative nature of reading contains a paradox: the goal of reading is to go beyond the author’s ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative, and ultimately independent of the written text.”[9] What Wolf says next is how I have felt as an adult learning to preach, although she is describing a child learning to read: “From the child’s first, halting attempts to decipher letters, the experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and, literally, and figuratively, to a changed brain.”[10]

[1] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003), 168.
[2] I’m reminded of something I read years ago while studying Jonathan Edwards, that “nearly twenty years after he first began to preach (i.e. approximately 1742), Edwards stopped writing his sermons in full; so one of the most famous ‘manuscript preachers’ in American history shifted in the later half of his ministry to a different pattern”; Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 190.

[3] In fact, I created most of these memorized outlines while jogging, which probably also has important neuroscientific implications.

[4] I was first alerted to the relationship between the neuroplasticity of my brain and the development of my preaching when I read this now-famous sentence from Nicholas Carr’s book on neuroscience and Internet usage. “Over the last few ears I’ve had the uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration drifts after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.” Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010), 5.
[5] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains Norton 2010, 26.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Maryanne Wolf. The Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperPerennial, 2007), 5.

[9] Wolf, The Proust and the Squid, 18.

[10] Ibid., 18.


  1. My sermon preparation and delivery has followed a similar trajectory, not as quickly, but arriving at a similar point. Another piece to this puzzle is that the congregation seems more receptive, more engaged, when I use the extemporaneous preaching style. I sometime wonder if the congregation and I might be able to engage in more of a dialogue, similar to what the African-American/Baptist/Pentecostal traditions, where the congregation responds with "Amens" or "Preach it."

  2. Yes, you can build all kinds of things into such a form of preaching, such as dialogue, call and response, and much more. It's quite interactive. It also frees you up to tailor the sermon for each service, or even edit on the fly based on things happening during the day, etc.