One of my favorite preachers is Dr. Normal Nagel. His sermons are like listening to a homiletic version of a Bach Cantata. I have only ever heard him preach once, now many years ago. I do not recall the delivery style, but I am told he preaches from a manuscript – slavishly so. As does, I am told, the synod’s new chaplain.
So do I, for that matter. Not that I am anywhere near the preacher they are. I suppose, for those who do not preach regularly in the congregation, it is fun to plan and execute a perfectly prepared sermon n whatever style one would choose in ideal situations. But for those of us who must preach 80-100 times a year, while also attending to the many duties of parish life, a manuscript is a vital tool in the pastor’s toolbox. Here are several reasons why I prefer manuscript preaching (and my people prefer it too.)
I stay on topic. No wandering into the underbrush of recently thought up gems. When I preach from an outline, wandering invariably happens.
The sermon is therefore more focused. No dithering in unimportant matters. That is to say, it is shorter. I don’t waste people’s time.
With rare exceptions, I don’t say anything that must later be clarified or corrected. (Except, of course, the time at the District Pastor’s conference when I said that Mary saves us. No, really.)
When people say, “Can I have a copy of that sermon”, I can say, “Sure, it’s on the pulpit.”
I can make sure that what I am saying applies to my people, addresses the false doctrine in their hearts, binds their wounds, and brings them the salve of the Gospel, without saying something that will needlessly offend.
I can focus during the first part of the service on the Divine Liturgy, not on “Ohh, I could add this, and change that around, and then do thus and such…” which, invariably I do when I don’t have a full manuscript.
That is not to say that I never preach from on outline. I do, for the midweek services. And those sermons are often better than the Sunday ones. Of course, they are often not as good. It depends which midweek and which Sunday sermon you are comparing. Of course, what I think of a sermon is oftentimes very different from what my people think.
I am blessed in my current parish to have monthly midweek services. This gives me a chance, beyond just Advent and Lent, to preach a second sermon during the week. But it puts pressure on the schedule. While a preacher must be ready in season and out of season, it is also true that there is only so much one can say/write/preach before the well just runs dry.
My advice to new pastors: Use a Manuscript. Or not. Do what is comfortable for you. Every so often, when you get a chance, and things are going well and you have the time to invest in it, do it the other way. Try preaching with no notes at all. Try preaching with a full manuscript from which you never deviate. Try an outline. Try some new form as yet undiscovered. But whatever you do, preach the Word. Preach Christ crucified. We have enough to try and do that properly. We don’t need to tear each other down about the method, or amount of paper on the pulpit. Let no one make you feel bad because you preach a certain way. Do the best you can and trust that the Holy Spirit will do His work.