I read a front page article in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal about pastors who were using the sermons of other ministers. Ed Young, Jr.’s photo was sketched out to the side, with information that this pastor sells his sermons for $10 a piece from a website. You can go his website, buy a sermon, and pretty much use any and all of it without fear of plagarizing the content. Apparently, this trend is gaining in popularity, as busy pastors buy sermons so that they don’t have to spend their own time in preparation. “He’s a better preacher than I am,” one pastor commented. The argument is that more time can be spent in administration and vision casting instead of sermon preparation. I recall a cartoon that demonstrated the tension. The first frame showed the pastor visiting with an elderly person but thinking “I really should be studying” and the next frame he is in the study but thinking “I really should be visiting.”
Welcome to the pastorate.
A few of my church members read the WSJ article also. One jokingly told me that I didn’t have to spend time studying for sermons when I could buy them. Another told me that my own sermons were good enough to sell and that I ought to be in on this new business venture. I much preferred the latter comment to the former, and it got me to thinking about the whole process of preaching.
The Apostle Paul said to “preach the Word” and that pretty much is what I have tried to do for the last ten years or so. I’ve tried not to preach someone’s else’s word. Looking back at some sermons from my first pastorate, I wonder what I was thinking at the time. It is a wonder that people sat through those early attempts, and I suspect the same is true of many other pastors as well. The process of preaching, beginning with prayer, preparation, and planning, is a daunting task and one that I take very seriously. And it really isn’t any of my business whether other pastors take shortcuts and get their sermons off the internet. I’m not accountable to the Lord for their congregation or how they “feed the sheep.”
On the other hand, I am concerned about the state of preaching in Baptist life if this indeed is a growing trend. Somewhere along the way pastors have started thinking that preaching is a secondary concern and their time is better spent doing other things. I don’t go along with some of his theological views, but I have to agree with Dr. John McArthur that pastors are “preachers first and foremost, not vision-casters. . .” (LeaderLife, 11/06) Now, there’s a place for “casting the vision” and “equipping the saints.” But, there is no greater responsibility and privilege than preaching. Those first disciples knew that the church was growing which meant more people and more ministry to do. However, they maintained focus and called upon others to wait upon tables while they focused upon “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). I recognize the challenge of communicating this importance to the people, and thanks be to God if you have a church that understands and appreciates this mentality.
Stories and illustrations from other sources are fine, and some of them have been passed around so much that it’s hard to remember where they originated. It’s like they are public domain. I can see paying a certain amount to have access to websites where illustrations are shared. However, there’s something missing when pastors use entire sermons from other preachers to present to their own churches. Why not just play a video of that preacher giving his own message? Besides, why does the church need you if they can plug into a satellite feed of someone else? It sure would be less expensive.
There’s a special dynamic when the pastor stands before the people to share God’s Word. This event starts way before Sunday morning. For me, it starts in planning my preaching several months ahead so that I might “preach the whole word” and not my pet peeves. I go into my study with my books and with the faces of the congregation, knowing that many of them are going through difficulties and that they give me 30 minutes every Sunday to speak God’s word into their lives. This is an awesome task, one of which I am not worthy. Frad Craddock’s classic preaching text “As One Without Authority” comes to mind.
It isn’t only the preaching part that’s important, but the time spent digging into the text and allowing the Holy Spirit to bring it to life. Preaching is more than a prepared message, it has to come from a prepared messenger. This happens through the course of a week of ministry all the while brooding over that sermon and allowing time for it to “gel” in your heart and mind. Oftentimes preaching comes out of the overflow of material and learning that I’ve received in a given week. It’s true that there are times when I feel rushed to handle the urgent things rather than the important ones. I’m called upon to do a number of ministry tasks in a given week, but recommit myself daily to let those go if I’m not ready to preach. There’s that internal clock that tells me how long to study and when I can put the sermon down.
I’ve said all this, not because I think I’m a great preacher but because I seek to become one. There are many other preachers out there who are better at it than I am and folks usually know where to find them on TV (some of our folks listen to Charles Stanley or David Jeremiah before hearing me on Sunday morning). Preaching is about sharing life with people, and that can’t be done using someone else’s sermon given to someone else’s congregation. Sermons aren’t sit-coms that can be used in syndication. They are birthed out of hard work and holy sweat. Preaching should be done in context, and importing someone’s else’s sermon isn’t authentic, at least not for me.
Pastors who buy their sermons run the risk of being turned into program directors on cruise ships that happen to be called churches. It’s lazy and a disservice to God’s calling as a pastor to rely upon another preacher’s material. There’s a mystery about that preaching moment, and when it’s really right there is a sense that the church is on holy ground. It wouldn’t feel right getting there with a syndicated sermon.