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A word fitly spoken


Can we program God to speak to us on demand? Most congregations would state an emphatic “No” while expecting their pastor to be on the receiving end of just such an arrangement. Such double standards are common in all walks of life.

The Index took a look at that rhetorical question last week when it explored how pastors struggle at times to get a clear word from the Lord in regard to their sermon preparation. There seems to be two clear camps on the issue. One group expects their pastor to present largely original content, while the other gives their pastor freedom to draw content from a variety of sources.

I personally prefer my pastor draw from as many sources as possible, with or without attribution. I’m not one of those who splits hairs over where he gets his content. If I believe he is God’s man for my church, I trust him to provide our congregation with the most relevant sermon content he can find. Some will come from divine revelation. Some will come from the revelation as first given to others.

Is that plagiarism? I think not.

As long as he is not trying to preach “Payday Someday” or something similar as his own, I am not concerned. I’m not saying I encourage laziness and a style which cuts-and-pastes sermon content from a variety of sources, warms it with a hastily said prayer, and then serves it up on Sunday morning. Pastors should first dig deep in the Word and let the Holy Spirit lead the way, which on occasion will be to the insight He has previously given to others.

No layperson should criticize a pastor’s sermon content unless they are first prepared to walk in their pastor’s shoes for several weeks – visiting the sick, counseling the afflicted, and managing staff. If we truly believe in the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer as we say we do, we are all open to God’s leading and direction. With that understanding, any layman should be prepared, in season and out, to bear testimony of that truth which is within.

That’s the idea behind lay speakers in pulpit supply. I truly think some of us would do better than others based on the time at our disposal in any given week. I certainly know I would be weighed in the balance and found wanting as my study and delivery skills are sorely lacking.

I am busy in my life and personally don’t always have the time to study and explore the mysteries of God’s Word. For that I am grateful when my pastor will lay a variety of points of view in front of me and help me understand what the scholars say on a topic. If I want to know more, I know I can ask for his sources and do further study on my own. I consider his Sunday sermons to be the Cliff Notes that I need for further research.

In that way we are partners together in exploring, as British author Ian Thomas discussed in his book of the same title, “The Mystery of Godliness.”

I think expecting pastors to have an original sermon every Sunday is unrealistic. We don’t expect that of Sunday School teachers. We don’t expect that of guest speakers who fill in on vacations or other occasions. In fact, to expect a pastor to limit his sermon to a percentage of content from others is to give an unfair advantage to those who would fill the pulpit during his absence.

Many congregations would quickly fall in love with the guest speaker’s eloquence and witticisms without knowing they are eating from the very table from which they forbade their own pastor to partake.

If I don’t trust my pastor with his sermons I probably don’t trust him in other areas, and that’s the real problem. It all boils down to a matter of trust. If he is above reproach in all areas of his life, I will trust him to blend the work of others into his content.

Pastors who talked to me last week at the GBC annual convention had two divergent opinions: those in their 20s and 30s, fresh out of seminary and still in their first or second pastorate, were rather harsh in their judgment of those who used supplemental material. Those much older in the ministry, who most likely shared the thoughts of their younger counterparts a few decades earlier, had a much different point of view saying, in effect, “Help me present a sermon under the tremendous demands of the church in which I minister.”

In both scenarios we are talking about pastors in smaller churches without strong staff support – the churches which make up the bulk of our denomination.

The message from the older generation was to the point: as one ages, one seeks more help. It becomes increasingly difficult to be largely original 156 times a year (3 times a week). Wisdom comes with time, but the availability of time does not grow in proportion to one’s age. There is no better visual image of the generation gap than we see in the two group photos in this week’s centerspread. Younger pastors (age 35 and under) are far more contemporary in appearance and exude a much higher energy level and sense of optimism; older pastors (age 65 and older) are more traditional, decked out in suits and ties.

The difference in perspective between these two groups is summed up best by Vance Havner, speaking late in life. He observed that when he was young he decided that he was going to be original or nothing, and soon he discovered he was both.

I believe there is a close parallel to the aging process and marriage. In the early years there is no lack of ways that many men find to express their love for their spouse. That dims in later years, not as a sign of a lack of love but a lack of freshness and originality. In marriage as well as in ministry, it takes dedication and a renewal of one’s vows in many small ways to keep the fire of commitment burning bright.

In hindsight in writing last week’s article, perhaps a better choice of wording could have been used. “Plagiarism” conjures up all kinds of malicious intent and is too broad a term to be used in the context of most sermon preparation. All pastors … and Sunday School leaders and lay speakers … draw on the works of others in their oral presentations. Even Adrian Rogers used content from others, as shown in the book Adrianisms which attributes many of his sayings to others.

While I did not describe such as plagiarism, I fear there are some who do. To describe using another’s outlines or illustrations as plagiarism is painting with too broad of a brush. It’s like driving a car … we all occasionally exceed the speed limit by 5 or 10 miles an hour and are guilty of speeding. But the penalty is not as great unless you are 20 or 30 miles over the speed limit – and in Atlanta it’s not unusual for folks to drive 80 and 90 in the 55 limit of I-285. By the legal definition we are all speeders, even at 5 miles over the limit, but few would argue that it should result in a charge of reckless driving.

As I said earlier, I believe it all comes down to trust and the relationship between the congregation and the pastor. I would not want to walk in my pastor’s shoes for anything in the world.