We’ve all experienced that “back against the wall” scenario: a week that didn’t go as planned—crises appearing from nowhere as crises are most likely to do—and study time set aside in the face of more urgent tasks. Now exhausted and distracted, you sit at your desk staring at a stubbornly incomplete sermon. You may even begin to wonder if people will notice whether you just rehash a sermon you preached a few years back. Change the title and some key illustrations and surely they won’t notice. Right?
Sunday looming, another solution presents itself. With just a few clicks and some creative searching, you could access the entire wealth of the internet: blog posts, commentaries, even entire sermons. You could be done in less than an hour, leaving space for some badly needed time with your family.
Maybe just this once.
After all, is it really that big of a deal if you’re the one who does all the research? Shouldn’t it be enough for you to craft the final product, shaping it to meet the needs of your particular church? Does it matter who does the grunt work?
In one particularly interesting passage in On Christian Doctrine (4.29), Augustine wrestles with this same issue. And, as he often does, he takes the question even a step further, envisioning a situation where it might be advisable for this to be an ongoing practice in the church, not just a one-time thing.
There are, indeed, some men who have a good delivery, but cannot compose anything to deliver. Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable), and yet not many teachers; for all deliver the discourse which one real teacher has composed.
Augustine specifically has in mind people who are gifted communicators (he calls these “preachers”) but not gifted at researching and writing sermons (these are the “teachers”). In other words, they can present a sermon powerfully, but they can’t write a powerful sermon. Or, in our context, we might even include gifted communicators who simply don’t have the time to write powerful sermons, focusing their attention instead on other meaningful activities. And Augustine argues that it’s perfectly legitimate for such pastors to memorize sermons written by other people and preach them to their own congregations, as long as they do so “without deception.” In other words, just tell people where you got this brilliant sermon and you’ll be fine.
In my next post, I’ll offer some reasons that I think Augustine’s proposal is worth considering, so long as we do so thoughtfully and openly. But, before we get there, I think it’s important to pause for a moment and reflect on four reasons to be careful with any suggestion that pastors should let people do the hard work of crafting a sermon for them.
- A good preacher needs to be shaped by the text. Before preaching the sermon, preachers need to soak in the text and allow it to shape their lives. And the only way to do that is to do your own homework. You have to wrestle with the text yourself before you can challenge others with it.
- A good preacher checks their sources. Everyone preacher uses resources when putting together a sermon. After all, you can’t know everything. But the danger of using someone else’s sermons is that you have to assume they got it right. Not a safe assumption no matter how brilliant your source. If you’re going to stand before God’s people and preach God’s word, you should probably invest some time to make sure you’re doing it well. I hear God takes that rather seriously.
- A good preacher needs to contextualize the text. As I mentioned above, every preacher knows that a good sermon is written for a particular audience. But there’s more to contextualizing a sermon than just reading someone else’s sermon and figuring out how to say the same thing to your audience. Good contexualization arises from good interpretation, and that only comes from homework.
- A good preacher needs to adapt on the fly. Even people who manuscript their sermons know that a good preacher should be able to adjust the sermon on the fly. Reading the audience, you can tell when you need to dwell on a point just a bit longer or explain something just a bit more clearly. But that means you have to own the material well enough to make such adjustments without losing the thread of the sermon.
With these four reasons in mind, we need to be careful with advice suggesting that pastors can outsource sermon preparation, whether that advice comes from an online service or someone as influential as Augustine.
Nonetheless, as I said earlier, I do wonder if there’s a way of capturing the value of Augustine’s collaborative approach to preaching while still guarding against the dangers we’ve just discussed. And that’s what we’ll pursue in my next post.