I have no recollection whether the hundreds of sermons I heard before seminary were preached by manuscript or not. I heard a lot of great preaching. The church I grew up in was known for its preaching. The large Christian university I attended attracted some of the best preachers in the evangelical world for our tri-weekly chapels. I even attended Chuck Swindoll's church for a while (though I could never stay awake during his sermons as a sleep-deprived college student!). But once I started seminary, it became an important question.
When I first began preaching, I didn't even know that people manuscripted sermons. For me, it seemed that almost every sermon I had heard was preached from an outline at the most and that is what I did. However, I am a writer, and I was sometimes frustrated that the way I had formulated my thoughts during the week did not come out as elegantly when I was facing a hundred people and was worried that I would lose my train of thought.
It was a shock to discover in my mainline Protestant seminary that manuscripting was expected. Honestly, this seemed like a cop-out to me. Reading a sermon was the easy way out, right? My first judgments were confirmed by the hippest students and pastors I knew. "I don't manuscript," they would say with a confident swagger. I was pretty sure manuscripted sermons were for wimps.
However, I could get away with manuscripts in my setting, so I began to experiment with them. I moved between outlines and manuscripts. I found no consistency. Some manuscripted sermons fell flat and some soared. Some spontaneous sermons connected me with the congregation and in others I felt like I was floundering in unformed sentences and poor transitions.
I watched other preachers. Some preached with hardly a note and were brilliant. Some got up without notes and rambled on endlessly, saying really nothing. One manuscripted sermon put you to sleep and another had you on the edge of your seat. One well-known preacher who I would have sworn didn't manuscript was clearly using a manuscript when I looked with an educated gaze. Another preacher who was known for his good preaching actually had the same outline week after week. His sermons were great, but pretty predictable in form. One emergent pastor eschewed manuscripts in favor of the "real" work of the Spirit in the moment. Another emergent pastor, with more tattoos than the other, preached winsomely and Spirit-filled from a manuscript.
I still float between manuscript and extemporaneous preaching. I find it easier to go without a manuscript in a congregation that I know well because it is more personal and interactive. When I manuscript, I must remember that the Spirit was not only working in the writing of the sermon two days ago, but in its delivery this moment. When I speak extemporaneously, I rely more on storytelling rather than teaching because that is what I do better without notes.
It's a pretty personal thing, the way you preach. It has to do with personality, context, and having a deep commitment to communicate, whatever method you prefer. Most people in the pews will have no idea what method you chose. But they will know if you genuinely engaged the text, if you care about what you are saying, and that you show up as your authentic self.