A friend in another part of the country recently told me that he and his wife had been unexpectedly pleased by their pastor’s Christmas sermon. It was unexpected because they had been concerned of late that his preaching was consistently a mixture of thin soup and “avuncular rambles.” They found themselves pleased, that is, even though they were pretty sure the sermon had been downloaded from the internet. “But he delivered it well.”
My friends’ consideration as to whether they should go and talk to the pastor about the issue of his preaching is, perhaps, food for another blog post. For my purposes, their report brings to mind a growing, uneasy intuition I have that more and more sermons are being downloaded by more and more preachers.
This is discouraging and disturbing at many levels. The first, of course, is dishonesty. Unless the preacher is informing his listeners of the source of his sermon (yes, some may be), he is not only plagiarizing, but erecting a kind of wall of deception between himself and those with whom he has an ongoing pastoral relationship. The deception goes beyond the legalities of plagiarism; a sermon, unlike a speech or lecture, is a unique concoction of the word spoken into and out of the context of the community that is the church. The lives and experiences of parishioners and the community (including the wider community of the world)* is every bit as much a part of the process that results in a sermon as is whatever goes on in the preacher’s study. The downloaded sermon renders this inter-relationship irrelevant.
A few years ago I discovered a collection of sermons by the great twentieth century Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart. I was so charged up by reading these sermons that I decided to deliver one or two of them to my congregation (with full disclosure). In my opinion, the endeavor fell flat. Stewart did not write these sermons for these people or for this time. They had some inspirational appeal, but they didn’t work as sermons preached by this preacher. (This also raises the obvious question of delivery: Should a preacher simply be “reading” a sermon to his congregation?)**
Another possible deception practiced by the internet sermon downloader is the theft of time. Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there’s plenty to do in parish ministry, and time not spent reading, studying, writing, and preparing for a sermon can readily be sopped up by other areas of ministry. (Perhaps the preacher is spending all that time, like Doonesbury’s Rev. Scot Sloan, as “the fighting young priest who can talk to the youth.”) But even if a pastor was spending 60 hours a week in youth ministry, hospital visitation, committee work, administration, education, and counseling, that would only beg the question: “What about preaching?” and how is the preacher’s time being used if not in study and sermon-writing?
While some of my colleagues may disagree with me, I confess that I give “preaching” top priority in any list of ministerial duties, for the reason that it is at the center of most preachers’ “letter of call” (job description), and because the weekly worship is the only time in the life of the parish when the whole congregation is (at least potentially) gathered together.
Preaching calls for time and care. My homiletics professors urged twenty hours a week in sermon preparation. Rather than dismissing that as “impossible,” I rather see it as a goal and experience a sense of frustration when I realize how often I fall short (precisely because of the other things on the list) of that reasonable standard. Sermon preparation in the life of a parish pastor is exhibit A in support of the maxim: “That which is urgent but not important crowds out that which is important but not urgent.”
In my first parish, I once strolled past the open-door office of my senior colleague, Charlie Mays (of blessed memory). Charlie – recognized widely throughout the church as a great preacher – was sitting at his desk hunched over a book. I walked past a few hours later, and he was in almost the exact same position – still reading. It struck me as a revelation: “He’s not afraid to let people see him wasting time reading a book!” It’s one of the many ways Charlie served as a model for me.
I’ve written elsewhere about how the freedom of the study granted by the Anglican system of “the living” or the “freehold” has given the world the great poetry of the Revs. John Donne and R.S. Thomas. (Or perhaps I should say that their congregations have given these gifts to the world by granting their preachers the time.) But as Bill Bryson, in his new book, At Home, and Jane Austen remind us, this Anglican system has historically also been rife with preachers reading out sermons from published collections while spending their time at the garden party up at the manor. How they would have loved the internet!
If you have any involvement with the church, dear reader, how much time, really, do you expect your pastor to spend in sermon preparation?
*I agree with theologian Karl Barth, who said, “The preacher should prepare the sermon with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.”
**A true story: A committee of the congregation approached their bishop with concern about their pastor’s preaching. “I think he’s just reading them to us, out of books, and he doesn’t even read that well,” said the committee chair. The bishop agreed to check it out. One Sunday morning he slipped unnoticed into a back pew. As the sermon progressed, he recognized it as one of his own – it had been published in a collection. At the conclusion of the service, the committee chair approached the bishop. “Do you see what we mean, Bishop? And this one was really bad!”