The best extemporaneous preachers always acknowledge that extemporaneous does not mean “impromptu.” In fact, in order for the extemporaneous preacher to avoid rambling and loss of focus, more preparation is often called for. Some advocates for extemporaneous preaching prefer to keep the entire text-to-sermon preparation process in the oral domain and never write anything on paper, other than a few “cues” or lead sentences for each block of thought. Others go through the same sermon preparation process that most preachers do, sometimes preparing a completed manuscript, or outline, but opt for an entirely oral delivery that is not memorized, but improvised.
Perhaps the key question that haunts all extemporaneous preachers is “What if I forget!?
Kirk Byron Jones, in his book The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy, argues that the best way to address this question is through developing one’s skills at improvisation.
Jones notes that the word “improvisation” comes from the Latin words meaning “not provided” or “not foreseen.” In the world of jazz, improvisation means learning to trust the music, remaining open to its nuances and rhythms, and to the directions it might go. The key to good improvisation, according to Jones, is “having more than enough to say.” The jazz musician develops hundreds, even thousands of “riffs” and can employ them in the wink of an eye. This takes lots of practice or “woodshedding.” For the preacher, this means that preparation is hugely important – developing one’s ideas, illustrations, turns of phrase – riffs, if you will, so that one has more than enough to say in the pulpit. Of course, this also means that one must learn to keep this improvisation under control. In most cultural contexts, the sermon cannot become the equivalent of a Grateful Dead or Phish six hour improvisational jam session.
Extemporaneous preaching is not for everyone! For those who value the well turned phrase, or who simply cannot trust their improvisational powers, manuscript preaching is a probably a good idea. If it can be done, however, extemporaneous peaching maximizes rapport with listeners, increases listener participation, and enhances the power of tone and delivery in preaching. It can also help us respond to the immediacy of the situation, shaping our messages, to some extent, “on the spot” as an improvisation between text, theology, and life.