Preaching on Your Feet

A Presbyterian Pastor looked forward to his sabbatical.  Week after week, studying, writing and delivering sermons was beginning to take its toll on him.  During his seven-week absence from his pulpit he attended a more charismatic church than his own.  On the seventh week he met with the pastor afterward and told him how much he appreciated his messages.

“Your sermons are so full of life.  How do you prepare your messages?”, asked the Presbyterian.

The charismatic pastor answered, “When I step into the pulpit I simply pray, ‘Holy Spirit, what would you have me share?’”

The next week the Presbyterian pastor stepped into his pulpit, highly refreshed and ready to engage his people once again.  He prayed, “Holy Spirit, what would you have me share?”

The Holy Spirit answered, “You should have prepared a sermon.”

Fred R. Lybrand, in Preaching on Your Feet, makes the argument that preaching from a well-meditated and thoughtful heart is better than preaching from a manuscript or from thick notes – for both the preacher and the listener.  In the ever constant argument – manuscript or no manuscript – Preaching on Your Feet supports the pastor who preaches extemporaneously.

Lybrand suggests that when we preach from a manuscript (especially if it is not our own[i]), we are simply an echo of someone else, even if it is an echo of who we were only 24 hours ago.  Our audience needs a fresh word form us in the moment.  Preaching on your feet does not mean you step in front of the congregation unprepared not knowing what you are going to say.  Rather, it means that you step in front of the congregation with a well-meditated heart and a thoughtful mind with nothing but the need for the right words to be spoken in the moment. (chs. 1-2)

According to Lybrand persuasion, earnestness and personality are absolutely essential for effective preaching.  Preaching on your feet is the best way to accomplish this.  Not only is preaching from a well-meditated heart and thoughtful mind more effective, it also has several other advantages for the preacher: more time is available for study and for life (since all of life can be incorporated into the reflection processes and there is no need to write out a manuscript); one is ready to speak well in the moment without needing to write out a sermon; the uniqueness of the one called to preach can be seen more clearly; it allows you to “connect directly with your audience in the easiest and most effective of ways” (169); it allows for greater dependence upon the Holy Spirit in the moment of preaching; it allows the preacher opportunities to experience the great kindness of God when the Spirit leads in new and more fruitful ways during the message. (chs. 3-4, 14)

Lybrand highlights a list of notable preachers who preached on their feet for our consideration and encouragement – John Chrysostom, Augustine, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, John Wesley, George Whitefield, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Finney, George Truett.  Though many of these preachers’ sermons are available to us in manuscript form they preached their sermons extemporaneously while someone transcribed them.  [It is interesting to me that although Wesley preached his sermons extemporaneously he gave his pastors a copy of his standard 52 sermons to preach to the Methodist congregations.]  Lybrand points out that these preachers were simply following a biblical example of preaching extemporaneously.  Every sermon in the Bible is extemporaneous.  (ch. 5-6)

Lybrand suggests that those who want to preach on their feet must learn to think in words and to think in pictures.  He offers four observations on this point: (1) you can’t know before you know (i.e. you can’t really know what you’re going to say – the exact words – until the moment you say them); (2) words create thought; (3) thought calls forth words; (4) you can prepare by thinking out loud.  There are two “master keys” to preaching on your feet.  The first is learning: the only way to learn to preach on your feet is to preach on your feet.  The second is exclusivity: preaching on your feet must be exclusive if you are really going to learn how to preach on your feet.  (chs. 7-8)

One prepares to preach on one’s feet in several ways.  First, you must discover your own personality.  You must know who you are and preach from there.  The church needs authentic individuals being transformed by Christ, not echoes of past preachers.  Second, you must allow the words of God and the Spirit of God to saturate you.  You cannot preach on your feet well if you are not well saturated.  Lybrand suggests that one can be saturated with planned structure or with unplanned structure.  He offers several templates for structuring your saturated heart-meditations and thoughts.[ii] Third, you must have a single focus – know what you are going to say and say just that.  It is a good idea to think on paper (notes, doodles, words, images, etc.), which not only helps one think but allows one to come back to the text years later and have a starting point.  One should not over prepare and if the choice is between preparing more and being well rested one should be well rested.  (ch. 9)

Once your heart and mind are saturated you are ready to deliver the message.  Passion, personality and practice (speaking as often as you can and talking out loud when you are alone) are essential in delivery.  Since preaching on your feet is largely grounded in one’s relationship to God there is more opportunity to depend upon the leading f the Holy Spirit – and more freedom, too.  (chs. 10-11)

Lybrand argues that preaching on your feet is the best way to practice expository preaching.  As most people define expository preaching – book-by-book and verse-by-verse – there are several disadvantages of expository preaching: it is not biblical (meaning no one in the Bible practiced expository preaching), it makes for sermon series that are way too long, and you miss the forest for the trees.[iii] However, if expository preaching is about discovering the truth of the text instead of forcing one on the text than there are several advantages for expository preaching on your feet: the text is the outline and people can rediscover in their reading on Monday what you preached on Sunday.  (ch. 12)

Chapter 13 offers a list of 22 frequently asked questions about preaching on your feet.  Many of them are already answered in the content of the book.  Some delve deeper into the practice of preaching on your feet.

My own preference is to preach on my feet.  I generally read through a passage working in the Greek or Hebrew translating and diagramming the text (not because I think it makes me look smart but because I have to work so much slower, which allows the words to soak into my mind).  By the time I have finished my own translation and diagram I feel like I have firm grasp on the general outline and content.  Then I rest with the text and meditate upon it listening and looking for places in the lives of God’s people that I have seen the truth of the text lived out.  Come Sunday I usually feel confident about what I am going to say without having written everything out.  I know that in my own experience when I take notes or a manuscript with me I preach less and read more.

For those who have little experience with preaching on their feet this book is an easy introduction to the subject and practice.  You will quickly recognize the need for deeper spiritual formation regardless of how you preach.  In the end, I say be the best you that you can be.  If you preach best from a manuscript or thick notes then do it all to the glory of God.  If you preach best on your feet then preach on your feet for the glory of God.  Both can be effective if done in the Spirit and both can be flat and dead if done apart from Christ.  Perhaps the best part of the book is the frequent use of quotes from Christianities greatest preachers.

My greatest takeaways from this book are:

  • “All personalities” can have a conversation with the congregation, you just have to discover how you can do this.
  • No matter what kind of supplemental teaching your church has – small groups, Sunday school, etc. – teaching from the pulpit sets the tone for your ministry so make sure you are feeding the flock appropriately (i.e. like a parent regulates a child’s diet to make sure the child is eating the right kinds and the right amounts of food.)
  • Preaching on your feet “also means the audience can understand your message, remember it, reflect on it, and share it with others” in the moment(s) God provides. (167)

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” – Mark 16:15[iv]

[i] Many pastors will preach one of Rick Warren’s sermons this Sunday (20,000 is one statistic I ran across).  While there may be nothing wrong with Rick’s sermon there is something wrong with anyone who does not share Rick’s theological background using his manuscript.  As pastors we must be very careful who we plagiarize.  In my opinion we all plagiarize as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the son.”

[ii] Templates: Problem-Solution-Action; Tension-Seeking-Resolution; Key Words; Personal Persuasion – what does it say, what does it mean, what convinced me, the preacher, personally?; Inductive Bible Study – what does it say, what does it mean by what it says, where does it fit, what difference does it make?; Strategic Question – who, what, when, where, why, and how?; Monroe-Motivated-Sequence – attention, need, satisfaction, visualization, action; Lybrand – engage, expose the need, contract to meet the need, explain the text, clarify, offer actions, close with a point-on illustration.

[iii] In all honesty, sermon series are not “biblical” either.  Jesus didn’t choose a new parable every week and call his lessons, “Kingdom Parables: Living in an Upside Down World.”

[iv] Lybrand briefly addresses the benefits of preaching on your feet in an illiterate culture.  Since manuscript preaching often requires notes for the audience to follow along and to study later those belonging to an illiterate culture do not benefit as greatly as they would from preaching on your feet.  This does not imply that preaching on your feet is “low-shelf preaching,” but that it is more accessible and conversational and therefore easier to reflect on, remember, and share with others.  Lybrand argues that this kind of preaching is absolutely necessary for third world ministries.


One thought on “Preaching on Your Feet

  1. You rock George.

    Let me tell you something I don’t like: being told by people that there is one way to do things. And – shocker – it’s the way they happen to do it. You avoided that.

    A while back Josh Harris posted the preaching notes of a bunch of very excellent preachers. Guess what. Their process and notes and end results were totally unique to them. And if John Piper tried to do what Mark Driscoll does or vice versa – it would be awkward and the results wouldn’t be as satisfying.

    Each sermon is unique. Some messaged demand going noteless. Others demand such a precision – certain definitions or main ideas either need to be memorized verbatim or (so much easier and time-saving in my opinion) read off of a page.

    People are different – sermons are different – congregations are different.

    I like to keep changing things up. I can’t stand a life without variety. I also like patterns that make hard things more elegantly efficient. So I find a pattern that works for me. Then I break it.

    Last year I had 4 months or more of preaching planned out – even had little synopses of each message typed up…but then God started doing things in me and putting messages on my heart for our congregation that seemed to override what I’d planned. In fact, they were downright prophetic. Not expository at all, in the sense that I didn’t pick a text, interpret it, and then preach it. The messages came from God – and they are biblical and stand the tests of responsible interpretation…but they are lessons learned as I follow Jesus or pray and counsel and worship…Is this making sense?

    One morning 30 minutes before sunday school I thought God told me to “tell them what it means to be a disciple.” That’s inconvenient, especially since I’d probably done 20 hours of work on David’s sin with Bathsheba. So I tucked that little impression away and preached the message I prepared. The people seemed to appreciate it. I even got positive feedback months later on that message…but in my heart I felt that I had ignored the quiet prompting of the Holy Spirit. I went home feeling just plain disobedient. In the end I decided that a poor sermon from an obedient child of God was more acceptable than a good one from someone who is willing to risk disobedience to not look foolish in front of people.

    So that message on “what it means to be a disciple” was the very next one I preached…

    Lately my question before God has been, “What do You want to say to us this weekend Lord?”

    I have no doubt that God can answer broader questions as well, such as, “Where do you want our attention to go for the next season?” In other words, there’s nothing superior about avoiding long term planning. My only point is that I’m trying very hard to be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading…

    And I’m open to Him leading me to go back to planning 12 weeks ahead…but I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it – barring heresy, failing to edify the church, and failing to keep the cross of Jesus central.

    love ya George. I still feel for you with the loss of your brother.

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