Sermons, tried and tested....

An interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on sermons sold, traded and appropriated. (Thanks, Wayne)

I've written in support of using others' sermons in the past--partly because I've done so with my brother's sermons 10-15 times over the years. Vineyard minister Steve Sjogren ably defends such sharing in the article. Interestingly, preachers most likely to be quoted by others (megachurch pastors such as Sjogren and Rick Warren) are also most sanguine about others doing so and least likely to seek attribution.

But there's also a deeply slimy aspect to the sale and slavish recreation of others' sermons--even down to the appropriation of the original preacher's personal illustrations.

If we'd stop referring to such preaching as simple plagiarism and speak about the issue in light of Scripture's definition of the shepherd's call--without reference to the standards of academia and commercial publishing--we might come to consensus on what is and is not appropriate in this area.

I suspect, for instance, that in plenty of good churches Martyn-Lloyd Jones is followed pretty explicitly when preachers are preaching through Romans. Perhaps this isn't ideal. But Lloyd-Jones has inspired a number of my sermons--how could he not when a young pastor is preaching in Romans and reading Lloyd-Jones? Plagiarism? I don't think so. Utter originality may be a transcendent value in academia, but faithful believers are unwise to make this a test of preachers of the Word.



There's a word for complete originality in theology: heresy! My sermons are usually carefully culled notes from the commentators that are then pressed together in a (hopefully) seamless way so as to produce a coherent narrative. I don't take whole sermons. But I do shamelessly take other people's ideas and use them in my sermons. I think it is necessary if the sermon is to be in any way a good explanation of the text. Not to do so is to give our people only the white bread of our own ideas, when what they need is the whole wheat of the centuries of the Christian church.

I'm not sure who, perhaps it was Bob Dewaay in his excellent series on Rick Warren ( who said that one of the main virtues in struggling to prepare expository sermons week after week is that the Spirit uses it to change you, the pastor. And so the problem with Sermon in a Box comes when the pastor goes from 10-15h a week preparing a sermon to 2h a week as he reuses sermons to save the "hassle" of having to study the Bible.

It's probably an obvious point. And it has nothing to do w/liberal use of commentaries, which I hope all pastors do.

I agree that there's absolutely no substitute or excuse for studying and studying more, even if one is not a pastor. How much more if he is! I think it is also worthwhile to point out that the idea that one must struggle to get one's own take on the passage first before one reads any commentaries is not very helpful. Rather than broadening one's horizons to the issue, it narrows the pastor's mind such that the commentators don't really challenge one's mind so much as rubber-stamp one's own (often shallow) interpretation. I will do my word studies, to be sure, before I do my commentary work. But then I read the commentaries. Here are Spurgeon's thoughts on the matter:

There is nothing wrong with following the exegesis of other men who have gone before you - so long as you are not blindly taking their word for it.

But a pastor is more than a *preacher*. He must illustrate the truths and **apply** the truths to his specific congregation. I may be unusual (and dense), but that is what takes up the bulk of my sermon preparation time. I want my illustrations to be helpful - to "be windows letting in light to the room of the sermon" (to quote a friend and mentor) - and my applications to be direct and pastoral (both encouraging and warning).

A man cannot do that by copying another man's sermon; but he can do that by following the main structure of a Lloyd-Jones sermon, for example.

"There's a word for complete originality in theology: heresy!"

Amen! And what's more, God hasn't put a copyright on the truth.

I've never had the heart to tell my pastor how much of what he says in his sermons I've already seen on the Internet. I can't blame him; he's excellent at just about everything else he has to do except preaching on Sundays. If he has trouble writing his own homilies, well, it's a good thing he can find ideas elsewhere.

When preparing a sermon, the fundamental ideas one might present from a passage are not what elude, at least for anyone who can read. Commentaries, devotionals, and similar materials are out there in abundance. For this purpose, others' sermons afford very slim pickin's indeed.

The challenge for me -- and I expect this is a challenge for many -- is one of selection and focus. Of all that I might say in any homily, what *should* I say to *my flock* on *this Sunday*? In all the various ways I might apply an obvious theme of a passage, which one should I select and bear down on?

These are pastoral issues, not exegetical ones, and exegesis will never provide answers to these questions. Some other shepherd's sermon will never "fit" the needs of my own flock, except by sheer coincidence. Even in those instances, the formulation of the pastoral message will necessarily vary with time, locale, demographics of the flock, and similar considerations.

So, why take a look at others' sermons, especially recent sermons (those composed in the past few years?). These are reasons enough for me:

1. When skimming 20 or 30 such sermons on the same passage, several helpful things emerge. The understanding and applications might be all over the map; or, they might be surprisingly narrow. Depending on the passage involved, either characterisitic of the "group sense" could be helpful, either to avoid a ditch, or to notice a spiritually profitable way to handle a challenging idea.

The idea here is to watch a lot of others tackle a pastoral challenge before attempting it myself. No need to re-invent anything, or to fall into the same ditch everyone else is falling into

2. I often stumble across the seed-crystal of an idea, or concept, or story, on which I can efficiently organize the data of my study. Again, in solving one problem (what does the passage tell me?) I create a second one (how do I coherently present and apply something of value from all my notes?). Skimming others' sermons not only helps me reclaim some view of the forest, it can also present me with a useful tree -- so I may hang all the exegetical and expositional notions I've gathered in a disorganized pile.

3. Someone mentioned illustrations of ideas or other data. Yes, I find these too by reading others' sermons, especially recent ones. I have *never* found standard illustration resources to be indexed in any way that I could use efficiently. Instead, I skim others' sermons for illustrations as they are dealing with the same passage I am preparing to preach -- and, this means looking at 20 or 30 sermons in the space of 15 minutes. Rarely rarely do I come up empty handed.

4. Here's one for you -- I see a LOT of very bad sermons, and these too are helpful. Their badness is obvious, but I can just as easily make the same mistakes in less obvious fashion. Others' sermons warn me away from things far more often than they guide me to a destination.

Finally, my parishioners know that I consult internet archives of sermons. I occasionally refer to sermons I've see on line. My flock knows the URL where my sermons are archived, so they can revisit their texts (I manuscript all my sermons), or refer their family and friends to one they think would be useful. This archive collects the sermons (thousands of them) of other contemporary pastors. It has an acceptably useful search engine.

The point is not lost on them, I think. I do not fear their ever finding me to lift some other shepherd's sermon and present it to them as if it were my own. On the other hand, I get an occasional note from another pastor, thanking me after he has cabbaged on to something I had archived. These notes encourage me that my labors are profiting others' flocks. And, the Great Shepherd of the sheep cannot be displeased with that.

When I was teaching Sunday school regularly, I used to say things like, "You cannot fill your mind with moral sewage and be a holy person, it's as simple as that." It couldn't be said any better, why change the words. It is also awkward to stop and say, "by Joe Bayly" anytime things like that slip out.

Also, there are many many times when I would say something that I had read or heard before that I could not remember where I had come across it. In the academy you have the time and requirement to research, in the pulpit you would be a fool to waist your time with such research (unless you sermons will be turned into books).

I like what my brother Lane Keister says; that something completely new can generally be described as heresy. While certainly the preaching I've heard is tailored to the congregation, I don't think my pastors have spent years in school learning church history and such only to "depend on themselves and Scripture only" when they start their vocation. To do so would be to admit years of wasted life.

Moreover, those pastors I've known who claimed to be "nothing but the Bible" turned out to be the most slavishly devoted to other peoples' work, ironically. Robbed of Matthew Henry, Spurgeon, and Luther, they were easy prey for others.

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