The Art of Extemporaneous Preaching

Lessons from Charles Spurgeon

Article by

Professor, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

On February 23, 1856, Charles H. Spurgeon found a spare moment to write to a friend about the remarkable revival that was happening under his preaching. He had been in London for less than two years, and in that short time, his popularity had grown such that no building could hold the thousands coming to hear him. England had not seen the likes of Spurgeon since the days of Wesley and Whitefield. “Everywhere, at all hours, places are crammed to the doors. The devil is wide awake, but so, too, is the Master.”

With this growing popularity, the invitations to preach were pouring in. Just that week, Spurgeon had already preached eleven times. His letter concluded with a list of the fourteen preaching engagements he had the following week, preaching two to three times a day (Autobiography, 2:101–2). He would maintain this preaching pace for the first fifteen years of his ministry, and even as poor health began to limit his activity, Spurgeon still regularly preached four times a week in his own church, and usually two or three more times in other venues.

How did he do it? Amid pastoring a growing church, preparing sermons for publication, mentoring pastoral students, caring for his family, and more, how did he find time to prepare so many sermons? For Spurgeon, an important key was learning to deliver his sermons extemporaneously.

What Is Extemporaneous Preaching?

Spurgeon once delivered a lecture to his students on extemporaneous speaking, summarizing his approach on sermon delivery (“The Faculty of Impromptu Speech” in Lectures to My Students). He divided extemporaneous speaking into two categories: “speech impromptu” and extemporaneous sermon delivery.

‘Speech Impromptu’

The first is what he called “speech impromptu,” that is, preaching “without special preparation, without notes or immediate forethought” (227). His general rule was that no ministry should be made up primarily of this kind of preaching. Quakers or Plymouth Brethren preachers had the distinctive practice of not preparing and simply waiting for the Spirit to provide them a sermon. But Spurgeon believed such sermons tended to be repetitive and often void of solid teaching. “Churches are not to be held together except by an instructive ministry; a mere filling up of time with oratory will not suffice” (227).

“The ability to speak clearly and compellingly without preparation can be a tremendous gift to the church.”

At the same time, many unforeseen opportunities to speak arise in ministry: A church member speaks divisively at a meeting, and you, as the pastor, need to respond. A public meeting goes off course with unhelpful comments, and you are burdened to “counteract the mischief, and lead the assembly into a more profitable line of thought” (234). At a funeral, you are unexpectedly invited to say a few words. In all these events, the ability to speak clearly and compellingly without preparation can be a tremendous gift to the church.

Extemporaneous Sermon Delivery

The second kind of speaking is extemporaneous sermon delivery, where “the words are extemporal, as I think they always should be, but the thoughts are the result of research and study” (230). This was Spurgeon’s preferred preaching method. Spurgeon’s prodigious study habits are evident in his library, much of which resides today at the Spurgeon Library in Kansas City, Missouri. These six thousand volumes (half of his original library) contain works of theology, biblical studies, preaching, church history, poetry, fiction, classics, and much more. They give ample evidence of his wide and thoughtful study. Of course, his most important study was in the Bible, and his many Bibles reveal not only discipline but also prayerful meditation.

Beyond his reading, Spurgeon was always on the lookout for illustrations, anecdotes, helpful sayings, and anything else that could be used in a sermon. From his observations on the train to the latest headline in the newspaper to a bird on his windowsill, everything around him provided fresh insight into the truths of God’s word, and he attentively stored them for future use.

Of course, Spurgeon also dedicated time to prepare sermons. Throughout the week, he was constantly jotting down potential sermon outlines (he called them “skeletons”) out of the overflow of his Bible study and meditation. He spent the most time on his Sunday-morning sermons, devoting his Saturday evenings to preparation. A few hours on Sunday afternoons were spent preparing his Sunday-evening sermons, which tended to complement the morning sermon. For Monday and Thursday-night meetings, Spurgeon usually preached a more devotional sermon based on the things he found himself meditating on that week.

Fruit of Vast Labor

Both forms of extemporaneous speaking require a significant amount of hard work and training. Spurgeon warned students who saw this ability as an excuse for laziness:

Did we hear a single heart whisper, “I wish I had it, for then I should have no need to study so arduously”? Ah! Then you must not have it, you are unworthy of the boon, and unfit to be trusted with it. If you seek this gift as a pillow for an idle head, you will be much mistaken; for the possession of this noble power will involve you in a vast amount of labor in order to increase and even to retain it. (233)

“Step into the pulpit with less reliance on your notes and more prayerful dependence on the Spirit.”

Far from enabling laziness, cultivating this skill will take more work than simply writing a manuscript. So why go through that work? Spurgeon believed extemporaneous delivery enables preachers to connect with their hearers far more than a read or memorized sermon ever could. Preaching extemporaneously enables the preacher to engage the hearer not only with his mouth but with his eyes and heart. This is why people in many other professions work at this skill. From politicians to freestyle rappers, they can develop an impressive ability to speak extemporaneously with eloquence and power.

So, why not the Christian preacher?

Growing in Extemporaneous Speaking

To be sure, extemporaneous speaking, and especially impromptu speaking, is a skill that not every preacher will be able to develop. But Spurgeon encouraged all his students to try. As an exercise, he would sometimes assign his students a topic for a speech on the spot. On one occasion, he called a student to speak on Zacchaeus. The student stood up and said, “Zacchaeus was little of stature; so am I. Zacchaeus was up a tree; so am I. Zacchaeus came down; so will I.” He sat back down to the applause of all his classmates and teacher (A Pictorial Biography of C.H. Spurgeon, 88). This student showed some potential!

What advice would Spurgeon have for developing this ability?

1. Study and prepare.

“You will not be able to extemporize good thinking unless you have been in the habit of thinking and feeding your mind with abundant and nourishing food” (236). Unless you have fed your mind with abundant study and have worked hard to meditate on what you have read, you will have little worthwhile to say. In one sense, extemporaneous preaching requires more work, not less, than written manuscript sermons, because rather than preparing a manuscript, the preacher must prepare himself.

For Spurgeon, one evidence of his study is that his sermons always had an outline, often with points and subpoints. Rather than just rambling through a text, he always organized his thoughts and prepared his sermon in a cohesive and clear structure.

2. Speak out of your own spiritual experience.

“Accustom yourselves to heavenly meditations, search the Scriptures, delight yourselves in the law of the Lord, and you need not fear to speak of things which you have tasted and handled of the good word of God” (236). Don’t feel the need to speak beyond what you have personally come to know. But insofar as the Spirit has revealed wonderful things in his word to you, speak out of your own experience and meditation. Share what has encouraged you and how you have applied these truths in your own life.

3. Select familiar topics.

This was Spurgeon’s practice, especially when it came to his Monday-night devotionals. “When standing up on such occasions, one’s mind makes a review, and inquires, ‘What subject has already taken up my thought 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?’” (238). Rather than working from a blank slate, speak on topics that have already occupied your thoughts or are suggested by your context.

4. Learn how language works.

Extemporaneous speakers don’t have the benefit of editing their sermons. So you must master the language from the beginning. “Like a workman he becomes familiar with his tools, and handles them as every day companions” (241). Spurgeon found it especially helpful to translate Latin classics, forcing him to understand how the English language works and how to use it effectively. Whatever you do, seek to master grammar, composition, and all those skills from your grade-school language class.

5. Practice in private.

Rather than waiting until you’re unexpectedly called upon, begin practicing in private, even if it means preaching to your chairs and bookshelves. Better yet, gather other aspiring preachers and practice with one another. Spurgeon would often speak out loud in his private study. “I find it very helpful to be able, in private devotion, to pray with my voice; reading aloud is more beneficial to me than the silent process; and when I am mentally working out a sermon, it is a relief to me to speak to myself as the thoughts flow forth” (242).

6. Cultivate dependence on the Spirit.

Public speaking can be terrifying, and even more so without a manuscript. How does the preacher not give way to fear and anxiety? Only by depending on God. “Everything depends upon your being cool and unflurried. Forebodings of failure, and fear of man, will ruin you. Go on, trusting in God, and all will be well” (243). This doesn’t mean we can count on the Spirit’s help if we’ve been lazy. But if we have studied, prepared, and prayed, then we can trust the Spirit to be with us as we seek to serve God’s people.

From Page to People

The aim here is not merely to develop a skill. Our task as preachers is more than simply to become skilled rhetoricians. Rather, the aim is to equip ourselves to best edify the church. So, whether you preach from a simple outline, a full manuscript, or somewhere in between, all of us can improve our delivery and our ability to connect better with our hearers. This is where Spurgeon’s challenge applies. Step into the pulpit with less reliance on your notes and more prayerful dependence on the Spirit. Work on speaking less from your manuscript and more from your heart. And keep your eyes less on the page and more on your people.

The best way to grow is by doing. Your first attempts may seem feeble, but who knows? God can use even your imperfect efforts to accomplish his powerful work. So, keep working at it. Look for opportunities to speak of Christ. Find other preachers to help you. And as Spurgeon told his students, “You must continually practice extemporizing, and if to gain suitable opportunities you should frequently speak the word in cottages, in the school-rooms of our hamlets, or to two or three by the wayside, your profiting shall be known unto all men” (247).

serves as Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and the Curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as an elder at Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. He is the author of Christ Our All: Poems for the Christian Pilgrim.