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preaching freestyle – nigel irwin

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I once heard a preacher begin his sermon by saying, “Well, I haven’t written a sermon today – I’m just going to wing it and see what the Spirit wants me to say.” Sadly, I’m not sure that what followed was necessarily what the Spirit wanted him to say. I assumed that the preacher in question either had an overly busy week and ran out of time for sermon preparation, or that he perhaps didn’t see written preparation as being important. I hoped it was the former.

I’ve been preaching for almost ten years; on an almost weekly basis for the last three or so. Until quite recently, I’d been in the habit of preparing at length, and then writing each sermon in full. I couldn’t paint a picture if my life depended on it, but I do like to think that words are my paintbrushes and provocative prose, my art. For most of my preaching life, I’ve been unsure which I enjoy more – preaching sermons, or writing them.

In those days, I preached from a full manuscript every Sunday. Occasionally I tried preaching only from bullet points and bold, underlined words. This proved to be an out and out failure as I found myself preaching in stilted sound bites, rather than flowing oratory and smooth, clever transitions.

Earlier this year, through a number of circumstances, I was challenged to preach with no notes at all. I recalled the words of Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He said, “If you trust the Holy Spirit to reveal the message to you in your study, then trust Him to reveal it to you in the pulpit.”

The first time I appeared at the front of the church with nothing but my Bible, I was more than a little nervous. But I was fired up about the text and the key points were clear in my mind. I’d spent hours in my study writing out notes in longhand, and by the time I got to Sunday morning, I could see very clearly the shape and form this message would take.

The feedback I received from that first attempt was heartening. In fact, one lovely older gentleman said he believed my preaching had now reached a new level, since I no longer relied on a written sermon, instead relying more fully on the Holy Spirit.

After my nervous beginnings, I am now a convert to this form of preaching. It will not work for everyone, but it works very well for me. I feel as though I’ve been set free – free to express myself in relational, personal ways, rather than the pre-scripted ways of my former preaching style. I feel much more emotive and engaged, connecting with the congregation in a way I couldn’t before.

They say that the text needs to have changed the preacher before it can change the congregation, and for me at least, preaching in this way allows me to express with more animation and authenticity how my heart has been touched by the message as I’ve prepared during the week.

I still prepare every sermon in full – praying, reading, waiting, listening, and writing pages of notes. But that old man was right, my preaching has reached a new level, as testified by the consistent feedback of my congregation.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “There’s no way I could do that” and that’s absolutely fine. We are all wired differently! But if you’ve ever wondered whether preaching ‘freestyle’ might work for you, can I encourage you to give it a go? You might just surprise yourself.

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