Over the weekend I found a few quiet moments to finish working on a few LifeWay sermon outlines that were due. Every so often I get a chance to write sermon outlines which are based upon the Sunday school curriculum produced by LifeWay. It’s an honor to write and to serve pastors in this way.
But I was thrown for a bit of a loop when, during a brief break, I read this little piece by John Piper: My Pastor Uses Pre-Made Sermons Should I Be Concerned. Piper was asked by a young lady whether she should be disturbed that her pastor is using pre-made sermons. He gives three reasons why she should be concerned. After reflecting on the role of a pastor and preaching, Piper gives three reasons for concern. First, pastors are to give the congregation what they are seeing and feeling from the text. Not what someone else sees. Secondly, it is the pastor’s job to deliver sermons. And lastly, if it is truly his calling and his job then God will supply the gifts to accomplish it.
Piper closes with this:
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.
I wholeheartedly agree with Piper. So, this rattled me a bit. Here I am preparing sermons outlines for pastors to use alongside their Sunday school curriculum. Am I helping to foster an environment where pastors aren’t preparing their own sermons? Do I call up LifeWay and inform them that I’m finished? I don’t want to perpetuate pastoral laziness.
I wrestled with this for a bit and here is what I came up with.
I’ve had companies call me up and inform me that they have great news. They have found a way for me to no longer have to spend time on sermon prep. All I have to do is use their pre-packaged material, present it as if it were my own, and then I can spend time doing what I really want to do as a pastor (golfing?). Using someone else’s work and passing it off as your own is plagiarism. It’s dishonest and it doesn’t fit in the pulpit. You’d get fired from a secular job doing this, so why is it acceptable for a pastor.
I had an experience with this one time. I heard a particular sermon from a pastor who I had respected. Then I found that exact same sermon online. I lost almost all respect for this man once I realized he’d been doing this for years and passing it off as his own. How could I trust him? He was presenting himself as something he wasn’t and presenting packaged sermons as if they were his own idea.
If this is what LifeWay was asking me to do, I couldn’t help. What I do for LifeWay is just providing a basic outline. I suppose a pastor could plagiarize, but he is going to have to do some work to get more than 5 minutes out of it.
But what Piper is talking about isn’t just plagiarism. He is talking about taking prepackaged material and even announcing that it comes from somewhere else. He’s talking about using an 8 week series on a popular book or something and then preaching based on that series. That is what he means by secondhand sermons.
I agree with Piper. (Though I might be a little more lenient with an occasional packaged sermon, provided the pastor announces where he got it). And so what am I doing helping pastors preach packaged sermons?
More Than Prepackaged Sermons
Here is why I’ll continue to write for LifeWay when given opportunity. I think Piper is correct but what he says isn’t complete. There is a difference between just preaching a packaged sermon as your own and using the work of another to spark your own creativity. This is what I believe pastors use the sermon outlines on LifeWay for. I know this is why I will occasionally go on the web and even look at a John Piper sermon for ideas.
I believe preaching is a community project. It is not just me and Jesus with an open Bible trying to decide what to talk about on Sunday. Yes, I do the hard labor of wrestling with the text and coming out of the study with a pretty clear understanding of what the text means. I even struggle through figuring out what that means for our people. But my task isn’t complete with this. I’ve still got a couple major questions to answer.
First, I need to make sure that I’m not totally off in my study. If no other pastors or commentaries are making similar points I really need to pause. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m wrong but I really ought to preach it with caution. Sermon outlines and even complete manuscripts online can help other pastors see how someone else handled the text.
Secondly, even if I know what the text means and if I have a vague idea of how it applies, I still have to figure out how best to communicate that truth. Piper is correct that God isn’t looking for great eloquence and creativity. But this cuts both ways. It also means that my idea of how to communicate a text may not be the absolute best. Don’t I at least owe it to the congregation to explore other ways to communicate that truth? Yes, we want our people to have us as their pastor giving them the Word. But that isn’t divorced from me seeing how others found effective ways to communicate a truth.
So if you use sermon outlines or manuscripts or prepackaged stuff then heed the words of Piper. Don’t use them as an end. Use them as a means to an end—a way to effectively communicate the truth of God’s Word. Don’t be a lazy pastor. Don’t neglect your fundamental job. But don’t study in a vacuum. See what others have done and come out of your study with your own sermon to passionately preach to the congregation God has entrusted you with.
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