A number of varied sources recently have led me to learn that some well-known preachers and speakers are preaching sermons they, in effect, did not write and use research they did not do themselves. I know some names and I’m not afraid to use them but I won’t do that in this post.
To get more specific, some pay significant sums for researchers to do the exegetical and biblical work, sometimes involving writing introductions and even providing illustrations. Others are paying staff persons to do this for the preacher’s sermons and talks. Some even use the sermons of others. A sidebar question: Why do you think these resources tell their researchers they cannot tell anyone who they are doing research or writing sermons for? Why the veil of secrecy? I’ll answer these below. [I may have another post on the providers/resources as well as on pastors who both provide their sermons and encourage others to preach them.]
Before I get to the problems with working extensively using the research etc done by others for pay, we need to dip into other considerations.
What do your congregants expect? The congregants listen to a sermon thinking the person preaching is preaching his or her own sermon. The average congregant doesn’t ponder Where did the pastor get this or that sermon? They expect the pastor to be preaching her or his own sermon. This leads to a second question that pops up from the pastor who uses resources for substantive material in one’s sermons.
What do your congregants know? Here’s the point à does your congregation know that the Bible research in your sermon is done by someone else, someone more professional than you? Does your congregation know that the introduction to your sermon was written by someone else? Do they know your illustrations were found by someone else? Which leads to this: Do they know that what you are passing off as yours is actually not yours?
When someone stands up to speak, I expect that speech to be that person’s words. I expect someone’s sermon, someone’s talk, someone’s speech – if it comes off as first person or as someone’s sermon, talk or speech – to be theirs and not someone else’s. Most people in your congregation, if not all, expect the same. Many would be scandalized to learn you are not the author of your sermon or your research. Some would leave were they to learn this.
Here are some strong words, but I sense they are needed: To preach a sermon that is not yours is a deceit; it is hypocrisy; it is pretense.
The veil of secrecy over who is doing this exists because people would be scandalized to hear the truth. To preach a sermon that is not yours is to create an image of yourself that is not truthful.
What results from this approach to preaching? Is there (in the preacher) a genuine honesty or humility (about what one knows, does and can pull off)? Is one aware of the deception of pretending to a sermon? When you stand up there behind the pulpit – or in a cooler age – next to the stand, your people think you are responsible and the creator of the words you have to say. They pay you to do this yourself. A friend tells me politicians have to declare on a line item if they are hiring speech writers — shouldn’t you do the same? They come to hear you (in part) because they expect you to be you and not someone else.
What should be done? Tell the truth. Be transparent. Acknowledge your helps. Don’t footnote every sentence. Instead, work hard both to give credit to your ideas and being open about what you can pull off. Change the culture of expectations.
Yes, of course, every preacher studies the Bible, uses tools to study it more efficiently, reads commentaries and books etc. Every preacher gets help from resources. We congregants expect you to do these things and we expect you occasionally to tell us that you gained an insight from someone’s commentary or book. This is what happens in the normal course of preparing a sermon. If N.T. Wright outlines a topic in five points and you use that outline, tell your people “N.T. Wright provides this five-point outline.” Don’t use the five points and lead your people to think you came up with the five points when you didn’t. When Craig Keener or John Walton provide some outside texts and you look them up and summarize them, I see no need to cite Keener or Walton though you can. If you put a text or two on the screen, it won’t hurt you to tell folks that John Walton pointed you to these texts. Your congregation doesn’t expect you to know Egyptian creation texts and you shouldn’t lead them to think you do.
Here’s the basic principle: if you wonder if you should acknowledge someone, acknowledge them. Hedge on the side of acknowledgment. If you have questions, you don’t have questions. If you are overly scrupulous about this, this post isn’t about you.
In part this all comes to a simple question: What is a sermon? My definition: A sermon is preaching what a pastor has been given by God to speak to her or his specific church as a result of engaging God through Scripture study.
A sermon is not a performance of a talk written by someone else. A sermon is not an act to impress an audience, to keep up one’s reputation for great sermons and talks and speeches, and it is not an opportunity for the preacher to illustrate one’s brilliance or even faithfulness. A sermon is an intimate act between God, the preacher and the congregation. How can some research group know your congregation? Only you can know.
A sermon is a specific pastor’s engagement with a specific congregation. No one else can do this.
It takes time to prepare a sermon well. Those who don’t have time to prepare their own sermons ought to do something else. The one thing they ought not to be doing is getting on stage to satisfy an audience, to keep the numbers high, and to do what it takes to make those happen.
Do your own work, preacher. It is a pretense to preach someone else’s sermon or to give the impression the work is your own.
Yes, I know it is hard to preach weekly and it is even harder to be at your best every week. Especially in those big churches. I’m not a pastor but when I am asked to preach a new sermon, which happens at our Church of Redeemer, I do it in the midst of my own busy schedule – so I know a bit of the challenge of carving out time for sermon preparation and writing. But, I’m not a pastor and I don’t know the fullness of the pastor’s routine sermon work.
Though not a complete explanation, I think that what I’m seeing more and more of is the problem of persona: very very few preachers or pastors are brilliant exegetes, eloquent preachers, capable of illustrating each sermon with wonderful stories filled with pastoral impact, and able to bring into each sermon timeless quotations from famous authors. In fact, I’m not sure I know of any who have all these capacities.
So, what’s going on? Here is my “fictional” creation of the path to pretense by the preaching pastor.
It began with study, personal Bible study, on your knees with the Greek NT open, and the right commentaries well used and the solid books read and marked and digested. It began with exegesis and commentaries and theologians and church history and other sermons and sociological insights from outside readings. It began with reading the text, doing a word study or two, reading the commentaries and packaging the whole thing yourself. It began routinely wondering if what you had to offer would be good enough.
Something happened… time constraints … the crush of expectations… discovery that others were using research assistants or sermon research services … the impressive “perceived” quality of someone else’s sermons… criticism from a congregant who asks naively, “Why can’t you preach like Andy Stanley and make it simple?” … worry that one’s not a good enough preacher… the growth of someone else’s church who is using assistants and storytellers and ghost writers … something, doesn’t matter what:
You decide to find some research help. That’s fine. In some ways a research assistant, which is often (not always) a sign of privilege and wealth, ramps up one’s work. At this point the pastor is still doing some study but knows that he or she needs some extra research because she or he has some time constraints.
Right here you tell your congregation and your elders and your spouse and your pastor friends that you have a research assistant. Tell them specifics of what that assistant contributed to your sermon. If you are afraid to confess this, don’t have an assistant. Until you are humble enough to acknowledge their help and that someone else knows more than you do, don’t have an assistant.
Back to the fictional narrative…
The assistant then is not enough for some reason: too many time constraints, too many expectations, too many demands… see the picture? The pastor now does not have time do what a sermon is (see above), wants to spend time elsewhere, and now has someone else doing the deeply engaging and intimate work of what preaching actually is. Someone else is doing the packaging. It’s no longer a sermon. It’s something else. I’ll clarify that below.
Stop right there and return to the old ways.
But many don’t. The assistant becomes, because the pastor and the church have the privilege of wealth, Pay-for-Research, Pay-for-Introductions, Pay-for-Stories, Pay-for-Poems with this obvious result:
The sermon or talk or speech is “no longer your own sermon” but is researched and written by a professional sermon researcher and writer, and the result is a very very impressive sermon series that has everyone talking, editors approaching, and numbers increasing. The sermon is better than you are a sermon writer.
The problem with this true fiction is this: the pastor has become a performer, not a pastoral preacher and teacher and sage.
Integrity means your sermons won’t be as good if you do it yourself. That’s fine.
[And, yes, I had some friends read this post and make suggestions, but I’ll leave their names out of it to protect them.]