Spurgeon on Extemporaneous Preaching — Are You Kidding Me?

I was reading through Volume 1 of Charles Spurgeon’s Autobiography. He stunned me with a practice he developed early in his ministry at New Park Street in London when he was just 19 years old. Here is the quote:

Ever since I have been in London, in order to get into the habit of speaking extemporaneously, I have never studied or prepared anything for the Monday evening prayer-meeting. I have all along selected that occasion as the opportunity for off-hand exhortation; but I do not on such occasions select difficult expository topics, or abstruse themes, but restrict myself to simple, homely talk about the elements of our faith. When standing up, on such occasions, my mind makes a review, and enquires, “What subject has already occupied my thoughts during the day? What have I met with in my reading during the past week? What is most laid upon my heart at this hour? What is suggested by the hymns or the prayers?” … I do not see why a man cannot speak extemporaneously upon a subject which he fully understands. … The thought of a man who finds himself upon his legs, dilating upon a theme with which he is familiar, may be very far from his first thought; it may be the cream of his meditations warmed by the glow of his heart. Having studied the subject well before, though not at that moment, may deliver himself most powerfully; whereas another man, sitting down to write, may only be penning his first ideas, which may be vague and vapid.” (pp. 267-268)

What stunned me? First, that he admitted to intentionally speaking extemporaneously before his people. There have been times when I have had to speak in this fashion, especially on Sunday nights, when the week has been wrought with various issues and even tragedies. But for Spurgeon to intentionally speak this way is amazing and even intriguing. He makes a great case.

Secondly, Spurgeon shows that his personal study affected his public exhortations. This understand is so good for the church to see — a pastor not resting on his theological laurels but continually studying, continually learning, continually growing. Our people need to see us as pastors as ones who continually preach the Word and also hit the books — and I believe this is part of Paul’s exhortation to preach the Word “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). We should not just read about the subject of our sermons but read about various other subjects as well. Preachers should be the most well-read individuals on the planet — with the Scriptures being the first in line, of course. Which leads to the third observation:

If the occasion arose where he had to speak extemporaneously, could we? Would we have anything of substance to say? I am an expository preacher. This is God’s calling on my life. But I must be such a student of the Scriptures and even the culture (which comes in a distant second in priority) that if the opportunity presented itself and someone asked, “Our speaker could not make it due to __________. But since you are here, could you preach?” My mind should not be absorbed with ESPN, politics, Internet, or other trivial issues that mar our time in history. If I have an easier time talking about the NFL than I do about the inspired Word of God, I must repent right now and ask God to transform my priorities. (As an aside, Russ Moore preached an excellent sermon recently on proper priorities — you must listen!)

I would enjoy some feedback from all you preachers and expositors. When you read over Spurgeon’s quote here, what did you think? I hope you will share — this could be a good discussion!

Powered by ScribeFire.

17 thoughts on “Spurgeon on Extemporaneous Preaching — Are You Kidding Me?

  1. Last Sunday we had a guest missionary speaker from Mexico. I had met him at a church event Saturday night, so I knew he was in town. I had not yet seen him, however, when the service began. None of our Cross-Cultural missions team seemed concerned, but the longer the service went on, the more uneasy I became. For the first part of worship, I admit I didn’t worship much. I sang the words, but my eyes were scanning the sanctuary. (We have a fan-shaped sanctuary so it is easy with a turn of the head to see 85@ of the seats.) My thoughts went directly to the last question. If I *had* to speak extemporaneously, could I? When I was in Toastmasters (do they have Toastmaster clubs in the UK?) extemporaneous speaking was always my weak suit. As we approached the Lord’s Supper, I knew that the sermon was only 5-7 minutes away! Should/could I run and pull something out of my office? Should/could I speak extemporaneously? I turned to leave the auditorium to see what I could find, and there he was, sitting two rows behind me! He had been there all along!

    I didn’t have to do it, but the question remains on the table…if I *had* to preach extemporaneously, could I? I am not so sure. Thanks for the post and the encouragement it brings to focus on ALWAYS being prepared to do that.

  2. First,

    As a long time Southern Baptist pastor I have used both expositional and topical preaching methods. However, nothing suits me better and keeps me on track stronger than preaching through a book of the Bible and showing its context and repetitive themes. I am now using this in most of my preaching and teaching.

    In regards to Spurgeon’s thoughts- I have to put myself firmly on the fence.

    One one hand- I believe God honors us when we are prepared– but Mr. Spurgeon seems to suggest a LIFE of preparation. Obviously, if you immerse yourself in the study of God’s Word continually you should always be prepared to speak regarding that which you are learning from God’s Word.

    On the other hand, the quote suggested that Mr. Spurgeon saved that type of speaking/teaching/ preaching for ONE particular meeting per week. (Monday nights, if I read it properly.) If this was his practice, the people knew that he was seeking to speak from his heart rather than his notes and therefore it was just ONE part of his ministry.

    I believe that there is a place for both types of speaking. However, the danger is that preachers will be lax in their time alone with the Lord and in preparation of sermons because they believe that they can speak on the spur of the moment. There is a niche for that sort of preaching, but it should not dominate the pulpits.

    We must get back to preaching through books of the Bible so that we can show the context of popular verses.

    I had a young preacher one time tell me that he the Bible commanded us not to despise his youth. I knew of the Scripture he was using and finally went back to its context. The next time I heard him say that he resented the fact that someone was “looking down” on him because of his youth and inexperience I opened the Word and showed him that the Apostle Paul wasn’t commanding those that Timothy was ministering to, but commanding Timothy to live such a life of love, commitment, purity, etc. that those he ministered to would have to respect him, despite his youth. The young man was shocked to find that in its context the verse didn’t provide him extra support when people disagreed with him.

    When we preach the Word in its context, people learn and grow. When we topical preach and use verses out of their proper context we create misunderstanding and error.

    David “the preacher” Wilson
    Pastor – Grant Avenue Baptist Church, Redondo Beach, California

  3. I was called to the pastoral ministry three years ago. When I first began to preach, I was connected to my sermon manuscript and would hold onto it for dear life! That lasted for about a year and a half. Then I began hearing and reading that preacher’s should just have a few notes and not read from a manuscript. I got some comfort from reading about Jonathan Edwards who read his sermons from a manuscript word-for-word! But I’m no Jonathan Edwards! In October 2006, I started outlining my sermon and using a few cue cards, and preaching from them. Now, I’m on the other extreme, and simply write a few notes in the margin of my Bible. I wouldn’t call it extemporaneous, however. I find that the more I understand the context (exegesis) of the text, the more comfortable I am speaking without notes. I hope that the Lord reveals what text I should preach early in the week, but in any case, I wrestle with the text. I reflect on it and meditate on it throughout the days; while I’m on my elliptical machine, while I’m driving, while I’m praying. I research the original language, the commentaries and other sermons. Then when Sunday comes, I feel confident to speak with authority (the Scripture’s authority, not my own). Is it extemporaneous? Probably not. But great amount of preparation, and few if any notes. I’ve gone from one extreme to the other in two years. Hopefully I’ll find the happy medium in the years to come.

  4. I’ve just read the book “Preaching on Your Feet” by Fred R. Lybrand. This guy has really done his research on this topic. Great read. I highly recommend.

  5. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I read this, and automatically I felt conviction within my heart about the importance of ministers to take the charge seriously that Paul gave Timothy in 2nd Timothy 4:1-5. I know that I can, and most definitely should be spending more time fellowshipping with God in prayer and His Word. There are most likely going to be more “impromptu” times in our experiences that if we are ready can be the most powerful moments for the spreading of the gospel. I confess to all who would read this that I watch too much t.v., I procrastinate on a daily basis, and many other things that keep me from being the tool I can be in the hand of God. Would someone be willing to pray for me and all of God’s people who are a “chosen race, a royal preisthood, a holy nation, a people of His own possesion that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 peter 2:9) And also the call of the minster, or preacher, evangelist, pastor teacher. Great article, great job posting it and thank you.

  6. Hi , I have been doing this extemporaneous preaching/speaking in short bits(about 10 minute messages) for about three years now.I never knew there was such a thing until I stumbled across it while reading the memoirs of Charles Finney. I was really surprised and excited to find that what I have been doing is an actual method of preaching used by very succesfull preachers. I’m not yet trained for ministry, but am applying to begin my education next year. I have been speaking each week at our midweek evening at church and have been a member of a local toastmasters club.I find that for me the extemporaneuos method of speaking is most natural,has most impact on the audience and is the most exciting way to present a message. I have an absolute blast with it and people enjoy watching me fly when I do.I find it more difficult to create and use notes and such.I think of course that how you preach is , or at least should flow from how you are naturally and spiritually gifted(how you’re wired to work).
    Chris Putman

  7. Revisiting this idea and adding in a few more cents worth, I have to say that my style does tend to stray from the outline/text I have- often adding an illustration that drives a point home or illustrates something in the text.

    I appreciate the fellow who posted his comment that he uses a basic outline and index “cue” cards to stay on track.

    Once in awhile, I will create a “study sheet” based on my outline, to pass out to the Congregation. The study sheet will have some of the main points or statements with one or two words blanked out in each of those sections. In this way, I force myself to return again and again to the outline.

    1. I typically use a very basic outline when I preach, and I believe it just depends on how God has made you. Truth is, Spurgeon had a mind that was rivaled by very few, and just because he was able to do something, does not mean all can. A cursory read through his sermons and books will reveal that.

      That being said, preaching without being tied to notes allows me to “feel” the congregation better. To know when to stay on a subject for a while and when to move on, and also when to stop. When to elaborate on something, and when to skip over it, etc.

  8. I’m not a preacher-yet. But I have many deep and passionate feelings of concern for our state of “Christianity” today. Outstanding to me is the congregations of what must be millions of so-called followers of Jesus that are asleep, uneducated in the scriptures, void of any expressions of the mercy/grace of God in there lives, and probably never had a prayer answered or actually “worshipped” God. So pardon me, but this charge has few causes. The fact is that the gospel has not been presented in a way that people are convicted by it to earnestly become promoters of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now upon the earth. The church of today here in America is not prevailing and warring the gates of hell- in fact the opposite is true. I have to go, but when are we going to take responsibility for our condition and get our families, co-workers, and friends into the kingdom. I don’t apologize or back peddle one bit. Get into the marketplace of the common man and dump this crap of humanism brought into the church years ago. How can we follow these psychologists into revival? We can’t! Let’s do it God’s way and quit offending the Holy Spirit by our worldly lifestyles.

  9. Been awhile since I viewed this discussion and I remee mber it quite well.

    I liked the points that have been made and want to offer a bit of a summary of what I learned both from the discussion and further meditation on the issue.

    1) There is always a place in ministry for speaking from the heart of the things that God has taught us and is teaching us.

    2) Most of the time, we need a focus to remind us of what we should be sharing. The devil can try to rob us by allowing us to chase rabbits. God doesn’t want us to be “Elmer Fudds” while in the pulpit (asking the congregation to be silent while we chase rabbits- grin)

    3) Speaking directly from the text and allowing the text to be the outline is an excellent way to avoid inserting too much of you and deleting too much of the context.

    4) Topical messages have their place, but we must be careful about removing a verse from its proper context.

    5) God honors careful preparation, but he also honors what he has taught us in our hearts. As Scripture takes on meaning and molds our character and changes us- it also has the power to do the same to the people we minister to.

  10. Hey brother. I’m sure you’ve gleaned much knowledge in the 4 years or so since you penned this. But just from personal experience, the only thing Spurgeon did wrong there (if it was wrong) is that he selected a topic. In truth, God needs to be the Author as to what we are to stand on. Not a selecting of our subject out of the random catalog of happenings of our day. Very true we should be studied. No doubt. But I have to say I’ve seen the most success from preachers simply asking God through the week to lay a verse or passage of scripture on their hearts. Upon which time they read it, study on it, maybe run reference so they have a good working knowledge as to the context of the scripture and the events surrounding it; then they simply pray on it. Ask God what He wants to bring forth out of the verses or passages. And then prepare their hearts the rest of the week to be used. Then they get up, read the passage of scripture the Lord has laid on their heart to read in the congregations hearing; and then they fall back into the Unseen Hand and power is imbued to them from on High and the Holy Spirit is the One who PREACHES. We sometimes forget that WE are not the preachers. WE are just the mouthpiece that the Preacher uses. Remember, He even used a donkey to get His point across before. And if He can speak through a donkey then He can certainly speak through any man that has humbled his heart and is willing to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. 🙂 God bless you brother! Stay in the faith and do not waiver! Our Lord is at hand.

    1. Adam:

      Notice the occasion: not the primary worship time. The Spirit works in many ways– even in sovereignly bringing a topic to bear on him that we think he came up with. Plus it was always a product of study and prayer. What you say sounds very spiritual, but even here the Spirit was working. Let’s not limit God’s ways and means.

  11. I’d also like to exhort to people that education does not make you a preacher. There is no doctorate, certificate of ordination, etc that makes you one. You can have PhDs from the finest seminaries and STILL not be a preacher. You cannot decide that you want to be a preacher and become a preacher. I can speak from experience as one who turned the Lord away too many times that there is a DREAD to preaching. A FEAR. Our spirit most times runs contrary to God’s. You HAVE to have the CALL. What is the CALL? It is equivalent in power almost to the convicting power that you felt when your appointed time came and the Holy Spirit called you to repentance and acceptance of Christ. It is a heavy burden on the heart that makes your flesh often want to run in the other direction. Once you ANSWER that call and you proclaim God’s call on your life to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ; brothers, you are a preacher then. I leave you with this challenge to your studies…my grandpa was a preacher. I’ve heard him several, several times. Let me also say though this….my papa was illiterate. He could not read from the Bible he based his life upon. He could not read from the scriptures containing the accounts of our Savior and His teachings. But I never saw him fail to make the crossing. The Holy Spirit is the Preacher. Again. We are just the mouth piece.

    If we try to do it within ourselves, that’s when we are going to get in trouble. Or it is going to be a stumbling block. If the Holy Spirit is not delivering the message through you.

  12. Brother in Arms for the Gospel,
    I am a by the notes type of Preacher. My Pentecostal father would often say, “just open the Bible and let the Holy Spirit fill your mouth.” I cringe at the thought having heard far to many sermons from various persuasions who have taken to that theory to one degree or another.

    So, being an evangelical, believing in the gifts, and having been in the pulpit for nearly 20 years, with 10 years of youth ministry prior, I find safety in preparation, trusting that the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding me in all truth, at least I hope and pray to that end. I find that following and using my notes gives more substance that I feel I could give without.

    The other thought is that I have always been bi-vocational in ministry, never having had the opportunity to just Pastor a church and preach. Hence, keeping my notes in front of me has been a security net, so to say.

    Going back to many sermons that I have sat through, some of the extemporaneous preachers say the same thing all of the time, same illustrations, same applications, same. Yes all of scripture points to one central theme, and at the same time touches on the great themes of the human struggle. So I try hard not yo repeat the same thing all of the time.

    The salt in the wound, today I was told, “you read from your notes to much.” Maybe. But the statement came second or third hand, likely from one who has left the church recently. So my heart is tender, yet I will move on.

    But maybe, just maybe, I need to find a healthy balance between the two.

  13. A good discussion, but surely a diversity of styles has always been with us. The words that Moses spoke, Josiah read aloud, while Ezra and his team both read and added explanatory comments (Deuteronomy 1:1; 2 Kings 23:2; Nehemiah 8:2-8).
    Jonathan Edwards (as someone mentions above) usually wrote out his sermons, went over them many times, and kept the text before him as he preached. George Whitefield preached extemporaneously, without notes. [See George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003), 119, 206.] Yet the two were co-laborers in revival, and became friends.
    I appreciate the comments concerning deep life preparation. Surely we are preparing, not merely to deliver a message, but to “manifest” Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14; 4:10-11; 7:12; 11:6).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s