Extemporaneous Preaching: An Interview with Larry Trotter

Joel Richards, an alumnus of Westminster Theological Seminary who is currently undertaking an internship at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, sat down with Larry Trotter, who is currently the pastor at Florida Coast Church in Pompano, Florida, and Adjunct Professor of Practical Theology at Knox Theological Seminary, to discuss his recent book on preaching, How to Speak a Sermon: So That People Will Listen.

Joel: Why did you want to write this book? I know that you said that there are many preaching books around, but what was it that made you feel like you had to write this particular book?

Larry: This book has been in the making for decades, really. But what pushed it over the edge, I suppose, was my dissertation research, in which I discovered so many things that were wonderful about methodology in the nineteenth century. Those discussions about preaching methodology then took me back to the classics and to some of the ancient writers. I felt like I had discovered a treasure trove that I didn't know was back there. And what I was discovering in these writings was helping me in my preaching and really explaining to me some of my own experiences that I didn't have words to explain very well. But these men, these giants on whose shoulders we are standing, opened this up to me to help me understand my own preaching, particularly with respect to the dynamics of preaching and the methodology of delivery. So I thought what was helpful to me and what was a discovery for me, I could package it and perhaps make it available to other preachers.

Joel:  Some of those giants you mentioned are truly fascinating. Who are some of those influences?

Larry: The first one that opened things up for me was Robert Lewis Dabney. I heard about him through Dr. Tim Keller when I was a student at Westminster, and it was one of those books down the list that, well, maybe someday you'll want to pick this up and take a look at it. And so I think it was my first year out of seminary that I picked up Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric by Dabney—I loved it. I concluded that he was a unique homiletical genius and was talking about things that no one else had talked about. But then when I got to my dissertation research, I realized that he was talking about the kinds of things that were talked about in the nineteenth century. And so what I ended up doing with my dissertation was to start with Dabney and work backwards. If you look at the preface to Dabney’s work, he mentions Aristotle, Cicero, Horace, Quintilian, Campbell, Whately, Vinet, and others. And so what I did was just ask, “Okay, where did he get this stuff?” And I went back and read those sources as well and tried to put together what he was experiencing and what he was trying to practice himself. I also delved into his manuscripts, particularly his sermon manuscripts. There are some 400 of those at Union Seminary in Richmond, and I spent time in the archives there trying to “hear” Dabney again to try to figure out how he put into practice what he was teaching his students to do and what he had learned from his forebears.

Joel: I was rather interested in Dabney. In fact, I wrote in the back of my book early on that I need to buy Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric after I finished reading this book. So it's on my to do list. Are there any current extemporaneous preachers that you think are good models? After reading the book, I kept wondering to myself, “Who are guys today that are doing this that might be encouraging to listen to so that you can kind of see what it looks like?”

Larry: I think there are probably many, many amazing extemporaneous preachers that we've never heard of. And they're faithfully serving in their churches around the country and around the world. They're preparing carefully and they are preaching with freedom on Sundays (other days, too), and we've never heard of them. Some of the ones who are well-known for their extemporaneous delivery would be R.C. Sproul and John Piper. You get the sense when you listen to these guys that they have a great deal of freedom based on their amazing preparation. So they're not just speaking off the cuff, but they're speaking with great freedom with resources available to them on the spot to bring to bear according to the need of the moment. So those are a couple of people. Eric Alexander was one of the ones in my day that really amazed me. He was the senior pastor when Sinclair Ferguson was first at the church, I think it was called St. Georges Tron. Eric Alexander was the senior pastor there, and he came and spoke at Westminster and spoke at Tenth Presbyterian when I was a student. I'd never really seen anything quite like that: the depth of the teaching, but also the mastery of the moment, as he seemed to be so in touch with the congregation that we were feeling what he was feeling. And he seemed to be able to, in a good sense, play the strings of the congregation so that we could feel the importance of the text before us.

Joel: That's excellent. I'd be curious and eager to hear some of his sermons as well.

Larry: You could probably find some in Westminster Media and maybe old archives of Tenth Presbyterian Church. I'm not sure. Or you can look up his church in Scotland. I'm not sure which one it would be, but it would be worth a listen.

Joel: Attempting to try extemporaneous is intimidating. I'm afraid the lights are going to go out and I'm just going to forget everything and lose the structure. Can you share some advice you have on maintaining a logical structure? 

Larry: Well, that's always a possibility and one of the frightening things about it. But one thing I would say is that extemporaneous preaching should not be equated with off-the-cuff preaching. It's just the delivery aspect, but it depends on a tremendous amount of exegetical and structural work with the text, as well as working on application and illustration and introduction, conclusion, all the normal components of a sermon. So it's not the idea that you just get up and speak; the idea is after spending tens of hours of work, you are so full of the text that it comes out with freedom. A second thing is that extemporaneous preaching, if it is exegetical preaching, no matter what you have before you in terms of notes or manuscripts or a tablet, whatever it might be, you always have the outline of your sermon before you in the biblical text. If your job is to explain the biblical text, no matter what happens, the outline is always there. And as you teach from the text, you will probably experience what I think most people experience—that your research and your investigation into the text, and your preparation—it's all there hanging on the text, ready to be reaped in the moment. The fear of losing yourself completely is not invalid, but if you've done your exegetical work and you've done your structuring work in your homiletical work, then it's there and it can be, as I say, reaped in the moment as you need it, as the demand of the moment requires. Also a third thing is that extemporaneous preaching does not necessarily mean preaching without notes. Extemporaneous preaching may use copious notes. The aspect of the extemporaneous preaching on which I tend to insist is the freedom of it, so that if there are notes, they're an aid, not a straitjacket.

Joel: You have encouraged the idea that not everybody should do extemporaneous preaching. And my question is for those who maybe, through wisdom and not fear, decide that that's not for them, what's a takeaway you'd like for them to have from your book?

Larry: I tend to think most people should preach extemporaneously. But this is not a biblical mandate. It's a recommendation. And it's based not just on my experience, but on what I've tried to demonstrate, namely the wisdom of the ages for rhetoric and homiletics. But at the same time, extemporaneous preaching, as I think I've tried to make clear, can exacerbate some of the worst tendencies that preachers have. And so if we cannot control those worst tendencies, then we should probably limit our extemporaneity so that we don't do more damage by being extemporaneous. And I mentioned in one of the later chapters, I think it's the second to last chapter, that's where I back up and say, “Hey, here are some of those worse tendencies, and don't let extemporaneous preaching exaggerate these tendencies. Be careful with these.” I think I mentioned verbosity; I mentioned self-promotion; I mentioned laziness or negligence. So I mentioned those as the big three tendencies that extemporaneous preaching can make worse. And those are not necessary—we can, with preparation and with discipline and with prayer, we can overcome those. But if we can't overcome those, then stick to your notes, please.

Joel: What should I expect if I switch over to extemporaneous preaching? I know that I'm trusting that the Holy Spirit will be with me. But what should my expectations be for my first couple of sermons if I switch over from basically reading all the content from a full manuscript?

Larry: Probably what you would experience would be, on the one hand, greater nervousness beforehand, and then, on the other hand, you would probably experience greater freedom and interaction with the congregation. You may have moments of panic during it when you're not sure what's coming next. You may find that the sermon is choppier. You may find that things get muddled out of order. These are some of the negatives, but I think you will also find that people will not notice those things like you will. You will notice those things and be horrified by them. But the people to whom you're speaking will sense that you are speaking to them. And when humans speak to each other, we get things out of order. We lose our train of thought, we freeze up. Sometimes these are normal human things that happened. And so you won't be as polished. You will probably find yourself not feeling like you communicated better but actually communicating better, because people will feel like they were addressed by you. You spoke the Word to them.

Joel: That's really encouraging. I'm going to be a little bit selfish with my next question. Bilingual extemporaneous preaching sounds terrifying to me. What did that look like for you?

Larry: Well, some of my earliest sermons in Mexico had to have been terrible because my Spanish was so limited. But I am very grateful that they threw me right in. When I got to Mexico City, I was forced to speak. And it was a great training for me but it was probably painful for the listeners at first. For years, I prepared two sets of sermon notes. I would have an English set for the English congregation and a Spanish set for the Spanish congregation. But then as my Spanish got much better, I just prepared one set of notes in Spanish and preached the English sermon from the Spanish notes. Now, that tended to trip me up sometimes. Sometimes a word would blurt out in the wrong language. But at the same time, it was a good experience in what extemporaneous preaching is, because in extemporaneous preaching, you're going for the idea and you're looking for the best words in the moment to express an idea. The words that you prepared in your notes may not be the best words, because they were written down, and written language and spoken language are not the same. So what you wrote down may be very elegant and very good to read, but it may not be the best way to say it in the moment. And so if you're possessed by the idea in the moment, then your training, your vocabulary, your overall preparation come into play so that you have the ability in that moment to explain it in the best way possible. That's the goal anyway. If you're looking at one language on your notes and speaking another language—that takes years of practice. Or maybe you grew up bilingual, but that still takes years of practice. That's not something to do at the beginning. But it does make it very clear what you are doing. You're going for the idea and finding the language in the moment to express that idea.

Joel: Which did you prefer to preach in, English or Spanish?

Larry: That's a hard question, because people told me oftentimes in Mexico that I was better in Spanish than English. Which is kind of surprising, of course, because it's not my native tongue, and my Spanish will never be as good as my English. However, I think there are several factors there. One is the fact that I preached in English first and then I preached in Spanish. And so, in the second service, I was already more familiar with the material because I'd already spoken it to one congregation. Second, the Spanish service eventually became much bigger than the English Service. The experience of preaching to a larger congregation was also energizing, and it allowed for a greater vivacity. If you're speaking to a very small congregation and you get too wound up, it can look kind of ridiculous. But if it's a larger congregation, it allows for, and even calls for, more energy. And so I think that those are some of the explanations of why people tended to think I preached better in Spanish than in English. Another factor is that the Spanish speakers were more responsive to me during the sermon in general. And that's something I've had to get used to, coming back to the States, preaching to a largely English-speaking congregation. The facial, the verbal response is often not as not as exuberant as when speaking to a Latin congregation where there is interaction going on during the sermon, which is very encouraging to the preacher.

Joel: What do you think your favorite part of preaching is once you switched over to extemporaneous preaching? Is it that connection with the congregation?

Larry: The most amazing experience that I've had, and I think preachers can have, is that experience of the Holy Spirit taking over. The experience is almost as if the preacher were a spectator. And that's an experience I haven't had often. But it's amazing when it happens. When there is a locking together of the preacher and the congregation under the Spirit. And it's palpable for everyone. And that's not something that anybody can manufacture. It's not something that's guaranteed by any preaching methodology. But in my experience, the freer the preacher is to respond to the need of the moment, the more likely, perhaps I could say, it is that the Spirit will more obviously guide the preacher in his sermon.

Joel: I've got one final question for you: what's some encouragement you have for a future extemporaneous preacher? You've got me thinking and praying about it. I'm sure other people who read your book will be encouraged to do so. What's your last bit of parting wisdom you'd like to share with future extemporaneous preachers?

Larry: I would say pursue godliness. Pray. Study the text carefully and constantly. And then as much as possible, once you have done all of the very careful preparation, let yourself loose to speak to the congregation.

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