The preaching of my sermon on Sunday and then the reading of it in my post reminded me of just how differently a sermon 'reads' and 'preaches'. John Wesley is a good example of this 'phenomenon'. According to Albert Outler(1), JW learnt to preach extempore [on the spur of the moment; offhand; without notes(2)] at Oxford. After 1739 he became even more convinced that extempore preaching should be the norm(1). This obviously made sense bearing in mind the growth of field-preaching and the necessity, both for him and the growing number of Methodist preachers, to preach wherever and whenever opportunity arose. Ward and Heitzenrater(3) quote William Myles, who in 1800 wrote that "extempore preaching is now universally practised by all the Methodist Preachers". It is interesting that today, certainly in South Africa, Methodist preachers are taught to preach from notes AND to stick to those notes.I personally, since preaching my first sermon in 1983 while still a dental student, have never been encouraged or taught to preach extempore. I notice that a renowned Methodist preacher in the US, Adam Hamilton, seems to encourage a reversion to cultivating the ability to preach free of notes(4).
Outler suggests that for JW, oral preaching was the norm and for it to be effective it had to be an interpersonal encounter between the preacher and the hearers and extempore preaching encourages this. As I will point out a little later, extempore preaching does not mean preaching without intense preparation, and certainly does not relieve one of background research and good notes. It does mean however, that at any time and any place, a Methodist preacher should be able to preach a good sermon, whether or not there are any notes to hand. I am not sure how many of us can do this. One of the dangers of extempore preaching is that of wondering from the point, of which it seems, even JW was occasionally guilty. The following is just one illustration: "In one of Wesley's visits to Dunbar, when preaching in the open air and rambling, a young man in the crowd cried, “Stick to your text.” Wesley was so much confounded as if a thunderbolt had fallen at his feet, struck dumb with astonishment, and had not a word to say. After a little, he went on with his discourse in a much less confident tone than formerly."(6)
So why written sermons at all? Albert Outler again: "Written sermons could only be regarded as either preparatory for more effective oral utterance or else distillates of it: the written word as substitute for personal presence. However, he [JW] saw an important difference between the principal aims of an oral and written sermon: the former is chiefly for proclamation and invitation; the latter is chiefly for nurture and reflection."(5)
I think it is here that we see why JW's sermons "don't preach", as anyone who has ever tried to preach them just by reading them (with contemporary language use) will have discovered. They simply cannot be listened to without becoming boring and difficult to follow. But sit down and read them as an exercise of study and reflection, and one is nurtured and even enjoys the experience.
All this helps me to understand why my Sunday 7th sermon really doesn't read well, but when I preached it, it was much more fun and made more sense.
Well, at least it seemed that way to me. Next year my preaching is to be recorded and made available for audio download, as well as being available for reading and it will be interesting (for me at least) to compare my preached word with my written word. My wife Chris, who sometimes sits through the same sermon three times on a Sunday, often says that each one is quite unique and I think that's the benefit of extempore preaching, it almost becomes applicable/contextual/alive at the very moment of delivery.
1.Albert Outler in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, Volume 1, page 14
3.Ward and Heitzenrater in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, Volume23, page 3
4.Adam Hamilton in Leading Beyond The Walls, pages 76-103, but 95 in particular
5.Albert Outler in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, Volume 1, page 14
6.The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, Volume 1, page 97