A female podcast listener who requests to remain anonymous asks, “Pastor John, I go to a pretty small church with limited resources and over the past two years I have noticed our pastor using more and more ‘pre-packaged’ sermon series. So much so, that I can search online and find the outline or another church that has done the series and listen to almost the exact sermon beforehand. What are your thoughts on this? Is it biblical or permissible? It just doesn’t sit right with me, but I’m not sure why.”
I am glad she asked that question instead of asking me what she should do about it, because I have very strong feelings about the question she asked, and I find it easy to answer. I wouldn’t have such strong convictions or clear ideas about what strategies she should take now.
“It is unthinkable to me that authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word.”
I have tried over the years to imagine a situation in which I might feel peace or authentic in using another person’s outline or sermon as my own. And I have never been able to imagine such a situation. It seems, frankly, utterly unthinkable to me that authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word. Now to be sure, my sermon should be an echo. It should be an echo of the voice of God. But not an echo of an echo of the voice of God.
So that is my conviction. Now here are a few reasons why. And keep in mind I am not talking about the problem of plagiarism. That is plainly a sin. I am talking about the use of another man’s sermon or outline even if you do acknowledge that it comes from another person, in which case it wouldn’t be plagiarism. You are giving him credit for it. Perhaps it goes without saying, but not really. Preaching in worship is warranted by the Scripture. It is not just something we thought was a neat thing to do. And it is warranted by the very nature, I think, of God’s truth.
Right after describing the inspiration and usefulness of all the Scripture in 2 Timothy 3, Paul says, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). So it is right there in the context of the usefulness of the word in the life of the church. And the Greek word used for “preach” is not the same as “teach.” It is a word for heralding and exulting in the thing spoken.
“Preaching is a heralding of beauty the preacher has seen and an exulting in beauty the preacher has felt.”
My definition of preaching is: expository exultation. “Expository” in the sense that there is always truth and explanation in it, and “exultation” in the sense that the preacher is never indifferent to what he is explaining. He is exulting over it. He is glorying in it. He is worshiping through it and in it. So preaching is not the same as teaching, even though there are elements of explanation and teaching in it.
The context in 2 Timothy is the church, not just street corner evangelism where you might imagine lifting up your voice and heralding, but in the church week in and week out. So, at the very heart of preaching is seeing the beauty of truth and feeling the value of truth. Preaching is a heralding of the beauty the preacher has seen and it is the exultation in the beauty the preacher has felt.
Now that means that the first reason I have problems with secondhand sermons is that they seem to expose a failure on the part of the preacher to see the beauty of truth and feel the value of truth. He is having to go to someone else to see what he ought to see in the word. He is having to go to someone else to express the feelings he ought to feel when he reads the word. This is a symptom of something gone deeply wrong and in need of quick remedy in the preacher.
Second, I have problems with secondhand sermons because I think preaching and teaching is the pastor’s calling. It’s his job. He is supposed to spend whatever it takes to know the Scriptures and to make them plain for his people. And as a pastor of a local church, his job is to read the Scriptures and understand the Scriptures specifically in relation to the needs of his flock. He is not supposed to be a generic preacher. He is supposed to guard this flock and feed this flock, because he knows and loves this flock.
“A preacher must understand the Scriptures specifically in relation to the needs of his own flock.”
Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Now that last phrase — “those who labor in preaching and teaching” — defines the calling of the preacher. This is his work. He should labor in the study of the Scriptures until he sees God’s word for his people and feels it with joy. That is the second reason.
Here is the third reason that I stumble over this whole issue of secondhand outlines and secondhand sermons. First Timothy 3:2 says that an elder should be apt or able, gifted, to teach. In other words, it is not just our calling to study and preach the word. It is our gifting. And if it isn’t, we should not be in this role, the Bible says.
The gifting for teaching means that you don’t have to be a secondhander. That is what the gift means. If you have to be a secondhander, then you don’t have the gift of being a firsthander. Seeing and savoring and saying what God said, not what someone else says God said — that is the gift of preaching and teaching.
So in conclusion, God is not calling pastors to be eloquent. He is not calling for the best preaching in the world. He is not calling for the most clever turn of phrase. He is not calling for the most relevant reference to the news or the media or some profound insight into the text that only somebody else can have. What God is calling to every pastor is that every one of us be faithful, authentic in our encounter with the meaning of the text for the sake of our people, delivered with heartfelt passion for God and for the people.
“Pastors, get on your face before the living God over his word on behalf of your people.”
I just think the people want their pastor to be their pastor. See what is in the text for us, pastor. Love us with the word, pastor. Teach us what you have seen in the word, pastor. We don’t want your canned borrowings from other people. We want you to get on your face before the living God over his word. Plead with him. Wrestle with the text until you see what we need to hear from his word.
So yes, I am very, very concerned about secondhand sermons and I pray that God would give fresh life and fresh gifting and fresh calling and fresh eyes to every pastor who is using other people’s outlines and other people’s sermons.
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