Friday, July 19, 2013

Taking the Leap Away from the Pulpit

 Over the past year there have been two different celebrity diving reality shows on TV. The premise was that famous celebs - or "infamous" ones in some cases - competed for charity by diving off spring boards and the 5, 7, and 10 meter diving platforms doing various dives.

Many of the celebs stated the tremendous fear they had to face to go up on the high dive. Basically diving off of the top platform is the equivalent of jumping off a three story building. I watched one of these series because there was a weird sense of wondering if they would be able to do it or not. It was amazing to watch people face their fears and conquer them while staring down into the water from the edge of the platform. Some say it can feel like hitting concrete if you land wrong. Not something I would sign up for.

I was reminded of that show recently when a pastor friend told me they were ready to move from manuscript preaching to a paperless pulpit. I had guided them in the process and given them exercises and options to use in the move and they were on the cusp of the very first no notes sermon. When they called to ask for last minute advice, I asked how they were feeling, they told me it felt like they were about to jump off a tall building into a little tiny kiddie pool.

I talked them through the fear and they reported later that they thought they did an amazing job. Their congregation was delighted and their own understanding of their preaching changed immensely. The feedback they received was extraordinary. But the fear was still real.

Sometimes trying something new or different is hard. It can be debilitating to feel stopped by the fear that can invade our minds as we try to take on something daring or challenging.

The best way to confront that fear is head-on, eyes open, and as prepared as one can possibly be.

On the diving show, they had a coach – Olympic champion Greg Louganis – to get them prepared. They had hours of prep and practice on the trampoline, on the practice boards, and warm-up dives before the show’s taping. Preachers need the same kind of preparation if they are choosing to make the important step of moving into the paperless pulpit (but I also understand that not everyone can or will move in this direction).

 So why do preachers choose to make the shift from manuscript preaching to the paperless pulpit?

Joseph Webb, in Preaching Without Notes, says there are several reasons to go paperless. They are:
                        1.  To maximize connectedness
                        2.  To maximize participation
                        3.  To reflect an authentic witness (25-30)
Most don’t argue that preaching without notes maximizes connectedness and participation. It has been shown in numerous situations and in listener studies.

But what about that third point? A lot of folks struggle with that one. It comes from the fact that listeners have reported that when a speaker relies completely on notes, they “hear” them as being less authentic. When a speaker talks without notes, the listeners feel that the speaker is more authentic.

So if I am choosing how my listeners “hear” me – I will always choose to do all I can to be heard as being more authentic. Clearly some who preach with manuscripts can traverse this authenticity gap, as many in their churches sense that in their preaching. However, the fact remains that the trend in many sections of the preaching community is toward the paperless pulpit.

Many people have interesting responses to trying to preach without notes. Many feel intimidated about going paperless. They feel fear and are taken aback by the anxiety that can arise from the task of moving from manuscript to no notes. Many also feel that part or all of many sermons are not intended for a paperless pulpit (because they feel that they need precision of words and theology). This is real and there are indeed times that preaching without notes does not work – for the person, context, content, etc.

But as preachers we must do all we can to be authentic, to connect to our listeners, to maximize participation from all present.

Every preacher – whether using a manuscript, outlines, key words, or no notes – has to do the work. Yes, it might feel like you are about to jump off the high dive, but working hard, practicing and using a coach or professor to help you through it can help you avoid many of those fears. No matter how you preach - with notes or without - you owe your congregation more than just going through the motions, or wordsmithing a manuscript to death, or simply reading a document to your listeners, or just walking around talking without a plan and a purpose. Do the work.

But in the end – it’s you standing on the edge of that platform. And for me – it is so worth it to take the plunge.

Come on in – the water is fine.


  1. I think the greatest disservice we do ourselves is to believe we absolutely have to preach without notes-it doesn't make someone a good preacher if she chooses to go paperless. All that said, it is a matter of comfort and this is from one who thought she would never preach without a manuscript. As I became more comfortable with my own voice, I learned to leave the pulpit. It was a personal growth thing, nothing more.

  2. I suspect that one major reason folks don't hear some manuscript sermons as less authentic than paperless ones is that many manuscripts are written to be read, not heard.

    There is a significant difference between read and heard language and, thus, between written and spoken language.

  3. Kersplash!

    Nicely put!

    dave bühler