For the last decade at College Park Church we have not only distributed a church bulletin but also a copy of the sermon manuscript. To be clear: we handed out a booklet-sized copy of my sermon prior to the message. Visitors were surprised. Most pastors thought I was crazy.
Beginning in August, I decided to end the practice. Before I tell you why, let me explain the journey.
About fifteen years ago, I listened to Iain Murray give a lecture on how to develop as a writer. More and more people suggested I consider publishing. But I knew my content needed work. Writing sermon notes is not like writing print-ready material. Murray, who authored multiple books, suggested writing out full sermon manuscripts as a good place to start.
Prior to that time, my sermon notes featured an outline with short, incomplete sentences. It was sufficient. But I wanted to give writing manuscripts a try. I began the practice at my previous church.
After a few weeks, I placed several copies of the manuscript on the visitor desk next to the bulletins. All the copies were quickly taken. The next Sunday I increased the number. All gone. The following Sunday – same story. People soon starting asking manuscript-holders where they found the notes. Before I knew it, we were printing over a hundred copies for our 400 person church.
I never intended to pre-print the sermon manuscript. It just happened. It seemed helpful. People appreciated it.
When I was called to College Park in 2008, I kept the same practice. We reduced the manuscripts into booklets, and we printed ten times the number of copies as in my former church. Small Group leaders loved having the notes in hand. Parents appreciated the ability to help their kids follow along or see the outline. Sometimes you could actually hear the audible sound of pages turning when I moved from one point to another. There were even a few times when I visited a family in their home, and they would show me their private collection of manuscripts with their notes written in the margins.
Now, not everyone was a fan. Some people weren’t helped by them. They would simply rather listen. Some were annoyed by the sound of pages turning in the sermon. Others felt it made the sermon too scripted.
But on the whole, pre-printing manuscripts was well-received by a majority of our people. So, why stop?
Five Reasons We Ended Manuscripts
Over the last year I’ve been evaluating if printing manuscripts was wise. Here’s why I decided to end it:
1. Too Much Writing Focus – The goal of learning to write by producing a manuscript worked well – probably too well. I found myself working hard to get the wording just right or the paragraphs to flow effectively. While this would be a wise practice for an article or book, it started consuming too much time. Knowing that the sermon manuscript was going to be published caused a shift in my study cadence that became out of balance.
2. Increasing Deadline Pressure – In order for manuscripts to be printed, it required a deadline. My sermon preparation had to be finished by Thursday afternoon. If I missed that time frame, it forced a staff member to work over the weekend. Therefore, the deadline loomed over my study time. It created an unhelpful pressure.
3. Stewardship Concerns – As I looked at the return-on-investment, the cost to print the booklets started to concern me. It began to reach $10,000 annually. While some would argue manuscripts are a great resource, they can also be accessed digitally or printed at home. The cost reached a point where I wasn’t sure it should continue.
4. Freedom for Me and Others – The advantage of writing a manuscript is getting the wording exactly right. But the disadvantage is that I sometimes felt like I needed to stick with my original wording or printed points. There were other times when my schedule required finishing my sermon on a Saturday morning. The pressure (back to the second reason) of needing to quickly complete a printed manuscript gave me less freedom than what I think is best. Additionally, some of our pastors felt obligated to write a manuscript even though I told them it wasn’t necessary. I think not printing the manuscript gives everyone more freedom.
5. Inconsistency – Over the last two years, it became increasingly difficult to predict when I would complete my sermon. The complexity of my schedule and the nature of week-to-week emergencies caused our Communications Team to be on a weekly stand-by. While they were always flexible, it was difficult to plan for the needs of other ministries. As well, it complicated our Sunday morning team’s role as they had to adjust, never knowing when manuscripts would be available. We felt consistency was important.
Over the last month, I’ve talked with a few people who miss the manuscripts. The weekly distribution was helpful to them or for leading their small groups. While we’ve stopped physically printing the sermons, I hope the digital access and printing at home will still meet the need at some level. But only time will tell.
I’m thankful for the fruit of printed manuscripts in my life and in two churches. They’ve served listeners well for the last fifteen years, but the costs, in my opinion, began to out-weigh the benefits.
Everything has a season.
It seemed like it was a good time and probably wise to bid farewell to printing manuscripts.