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Learning to preach: Preaching to learn

Posted by Ron George on April 17, 2017

Preaching to the Choir, by George Martin

The seminary dean wanted to see me in his office. We didn’t get along very well – long story; some other time – so it was a little unnerving to be summoned by a man who could single-handedly send me home to reconsider my vocation.

“You bishop has donated a video camera and recording system to the seminary,” the very  reverend dean said. “He wants you to deliver it.”

Wow. A free flight home. Overnight with an old friend. Some free meals along the way. Nice break for a dirt-poor seminarian and somewhat of a boon for the seminary. The dean wanted to use the video equipment to record students practicing for their senior sermons. It was 1975. Video equipment was relatively rare and expensive. No cell phones. Nothing digital at all. Even tape recorders were rare.

The dean said he hoped it would be helpful for future preachers to see themselves in action as well as receive considerable feedback from faculty and classmates on their pulpit performance. It was an opportunity, he said, to put 20th-century technology to good use within the traditional framework all of us embraced (to some extent).

Nothing changed in the classroom. Sermon preparation remained something done with books, paper, pen and prayer. It wasn’t just an academic exercise any more than the seminary was just an academic institution. There were classrooms at one end of the cloister and a chapel at the other. The curriculum aimed primarily at spiritual formation. Education was a subset.

It’s been years since I was in the harness, but I’m well aware of the burdensome side of preaching no fewer than 50 times a year – and that’s just on Sundays. Pastors are continually called upon to “say a few words” the other six days of the week in various venues, from modest weekday worship services to civic club meetings. Learning to preach is far more than learning to speak from a pulpit; it’s more like learning a lifestyle of constant preparation to speak coherently in public and private.

Pastors also do other things – many other things demanding more time than they have to give. No need to list them here, except to say that pastors often complain to each other that they don’t have enough hours in the day, even for prayer and reflection, both essential to preparing sermons.

Preaching, by Chuck Webster

Technology has come to the rescue, as it has in centuries past. The printing press, for example, made books relatively inexpensive; and, until the mid- to late 19th century, books of sermons were more popular than anything else, including the Bible. Some scholars say such documents improved preaching generally among undereducated clergy, who often were required to read in public the sermons of their superiors. (Such preaching was referred to as a homily; that is, reading aloud a sermon written by someone else.)

Nowadays, Internet technology gives pastors access to innumerable sermons preached by others. Most are offered without charge, although many successful pastors offer packages and subscriptions ranging from $4 per sermon to nearly $200 for a year’s worth. Rick Warren, pastor of a megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., runs a website dedicated to selling Warren’s sermons, books and other products. Transcripts of a recent 10-part sermon series sell for $45.

It’s been at least 10 years since pastors hotly debated whether it was ethical to download sermons from the Internet to be preached in one’s own pulpit. A few pastors lost their jobs after congregations or denominational authorities discovered the practice. The matter seems to have been settled or at least put on the back burner. It’s a local matter, some say. Some congregations are more tolerant than others; likewise, some denominations and non-denominations.

Still, I wonder how or whether those who teach others to preach also advise them about how or whether to use the Internet.

Some sites seem more ethical than others by offering resources and not canned sermons, except for the classics, which may have been preached centuries ago. Such sites comprise scholarly material aimed at making obscure biblical texts clearer, as well as other types of resources – church history, classical history and even classical literature. Other sites, however, permit preachers to post their own sermons; and, over time, this practice produces curious results.

For example, a pastor named Steven Kellett, of Marlette, Mich., posted a sermon at sermoncentral.com about 15 years ago titled, “The Empty Promises of Easter.” It began with a poem by the notable 19th-century Episcopalian bishop, Phillips Brooks, and generally made the preachable points that the empty cross, the empty tomb and empty grave clothes of Jesus constitute signs to Christians of God’s grace – forgiveness of sins, eternal life and personal relationship with Jesus the Christ. I don’t know whether Mr. Kellett originated this message, but it’s the earliest example of it I could find; and, it’s certainly not the only example.

Mr. Kellett’s sermon ends with a story said to have been told by John C. Maxwell, who is, according to Wikipedia, “an American author, speaker, and pastor who has written many books, primarily focusing on leadership.” It’s the preaching equivalent of a shaggy-dog story: Mr. Maxwell buys a blue blazer at Nordstrom’s that he realizes he doesn’t like, but rather than take it back, he hangs it in the closet for 18 months. Then he takes it back to the store to cash in on Nordstrom’s famous returns policy: In short, they’ll probably take it back, even without a receipt. Mr. Maxwell expects to be turned down or at least to get some guff, but the sales clerk gladly takes the blazer and outfits Maxwell with an even more expensive number – for which Mr. Maxwell does not have to pay! The sales clerk simply says to Mr. Maxwell: What took you so long?

The Sermon, by Gari Melchers (1886)

Which brings us to the punch line of Mr. Kellett’s sermon: “This morning, if you have never accepted God’s promises for your life, He is waiting, probably wondering, “For heaven’s sake, what is taking you so long?”

Slick, huh? And, apparently, irresistible to pastors on a deadline.

I found eight sermons online that lifted Mr. Kellett’s concept and most of his words into their own mouths; and, remember, we’re talking about a sermon published on the Internet 15 years ago.

Is there a big problem here? Maybe not. I’ve been told as much by friends I love.

I would suggest, however, that a 15-year-old sermon downloaded from the Internet may not be relevant to any specific congregation’s needs here and now; moreover, preachers who use it rather than letting themselves be formed by the spiritual discipline that ought to accompany sermon prep are cheating themselves and their congregations of what Christian tradition calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”  (In case you’re wondering, they are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”) (Galatians 5.22)

The bottom line: Preaching is hard work, but it is worthwhile because those who preach, over time, grow in their appreciation of the vocation they have embraced. Preaching builds relationships, which Christians believe is of the essence of God’s presence in the world. Preaching builds character for those who preach as well as those who hear. Preaching is not simply the next check-off public appearance one performs by virtue of one’s ecclesiastical position. It is, at root, the heart of pastoral care in the church setting. It is where all other ministry begins as inspired members of the Body of Christ reach beyond the four walls to offer themselves in love to a world in desperate need.

To preach is to learn what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus – and, in my opinion, I don’t believe preachers learn very much downloading sermons from the Internet.

 

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