Churches that follow the three-year lectionary have the option in this Sunday’s worship to include some words of Jesus which, over the years, have provided preachers with both comfort and consternation.
The Gospel reading for the Third Sunday after Pentecost is Matthew 9:35-10:8, with an option to add verses 9-20. At the tail end of this extended reading Jesus says: “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19–20).
In the history of the Church, these verses have sometimes been used as a justification for what is known as impromptu preaching. Impromptu preaching is primarily associated with the Quakers, Pentecostals, and some African American preaching. It should be distinguished from extemporaneous preaching, which gives due preparation to the sermon but does not speak from extensive notes. Impromptu preaching, by contrast, in its extreme manifestations is spontaneous by design (note the oxymoron), eschewing preparation in favor of a putatively Spirit-filled proclamation.
The limitations of impromptu preaching are many. Donald Macleod notes inaccurate word choices, repetition of ideas, vague foci, and progression of thought, among others. In my book, Preaching by Heart, I refer to it as “preaching from the hip.” I especially appreciate the critique Harwood Pattison offers by way of the following anecdote:
“My lord,” a clergyman once boasted to his bishop, “when I go up the steps of the pulpit, I never know the subject of my sermon.” The bishop answered him, “No, and I hear your congregation does not when you come down.”
So, there are undoubtedly problems with impromptu preaching, and the mere thought of it for many pastors brings consternation. In the preacher-circles in which I run, though, I do not know anyone who seriously advocates for it as a regular practice. Therefore, rather than punch down on a straw man (they never pose an interesting challenge), I thought it would be worth reflecting on when and why one would preach impromptu, and if you need to do it, some brief thoughts about how to be prepared.
Ready in season and out
In terms of why one would practice impromptu preaching, I can offer both a biblical rationale and a practical necessity, neither of which will be foreign to seasoned preachers.
Beyond Jesus’ words quoted above, impromptu preaching clearly has a biblical pedigree. For instance, the Apostle Peter famously wrote, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Peter tells us we ought to be like swashbucklers who are ever ready for a fight to ensue, adeptly wielding the Sword of the Spirit.
Peter tells us we ought to be like swashbucklers who are ever ready for a fight to ensue, adeptly wielding the Sword of the Spirit.
Similarly, Paul enjoins young Timothy, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). Every season is preaching season, bro.
In the book of Acts, we see both of those apostles practicing what they preach, offering up impromptu messages at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), after the prison earthquake at Philippi (Acts 16:25-34), and elsewhere. The Scriptural testimony seems to suggest: You never know when you will need to preach.
When you are called to give a word
This leads us to the second half of my answer. Then, as now, there are practical occasions when impromptu preaching is necessary. You are probably not going to be miraculously sprung from the clink any time soon, but there are still ample opportunities to bear witness when you have had minimal or no preparation.
For example, you are attending the town’s Founder Days celebration. The reverie is paused for a few moments for a brief presentation by the mayor. Even though you are not there in an official capacity, and you are sporting your civvies, the city fathers put you on the spot: “How about a word, preacher?”
Or at a buddy’s wedding, you are not the officiant, but everyone knows you are a better public speaker than he is. He flopped his sermon and now they need you to pick him up at the reception with a rough and ready word of exhortation before the bride loses faith.
Perhaps you were not scheduled to preach this Sunday, but the associate pastor calls in twenty minutes before worship (thanks). He was not feeling right and just found out he has a positive Covid test. The runway is short, and the pulpit awaits.
So, suffice it to say that practical occasions arise which may call for impromptu preaching. How can you prepare yourself?
Three brief thoughts. First, learn by heart a couple of favorite Bible verses or narratives that can provide an easy touchstone. Scripture memorization is, of course, of great benefit apart from practical considerations. In the case of impromptu preaching, though, it is essential. One passage I often return to for this purpose is Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden...”
Second (and most preachers already do this), keep a few stock stories in your back pocket, those ones which always draw a tear or get a laugh. A good story can cover a multitude of homiletical sins. Also, telling a story you know well can calm your nerves if you are a little out of your depth.
And third, have in mind a go-to sermon template. The simplest is probably the so-called Four Pages (or Law/Gospel) structure. You quickly whip up in your head, “What is the problem? How does Jesus provide the solution? Why is that good news today?” Simple.
A daunting task
Impromptu preaching is a daunting task. The words of Jesus from Matthew 10 may bring some consternation. Ultimately, though, they should bring comfort.
Our guy Saint Augustine, whom we know was all-in on solid preparation, quotes those verses and says, “If the Holy Spirit speaks in those who are delivered to their persecutors for Christ’s sake, why should He not also speak in those who deliver Christ to their pupils?”
Whenever you preach the Word of God, with whatever preparation, it is evermore the Spirit who preaches. Thank the Lord for that.
Along similar lines, the story goes that an eager young preacher was chatting with a wise old hand about sermon preparation. The youngster detailed his extensive preparations, his study, his composition, his memorization. After giving an exhaustive account, the elder pastor was quiet for a moment and then said, “With all that preparation, what do you do during the sermon hymn?”
Augustine, On Christian Teaching, IV §89.