Do I have to write my own sermons?

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine raises the question of what to do with people who are gifted communicators, but not gifted teachers. In other words, they can present a sermon powerfully, but they can’t write a powerful sermon. And he argues that it’s perfectly legitimate for them to memorize sermons written by other people and present them to the congregation (presumably without suggesting that they’d actually written the sermon themselves).

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.  On Christian Doctrine 4.29

Augustine doesn’t elaborate, but he seems to envision a situation in which one gifted teacher prepares a sermon that is then presented by several different preachers, each in their own community. And, since these are preachers who aren’t cut out for writing their own sermons, this appears to be an ongoing situation. In other words, these aren’t preachers who just borrow an occasional sermon, but people whose entire preaching ministry would be based off material written by someone else.

When I first read this years ago, I rejected it out of hand. Of course preachers should prepare their own material. I could see presenting some famous, historical sermon on occasion. But for at least three reasons, I could ever see the value of doing this regularly:

  • 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 needs to contextualize the text. A good sermons is written for a particular audience. Granted, the greatest sermons hit on universal themes, making them applicable to a wider audience. But in general, good preachers write the sermons they do because they know that these are the sermons that this people needs to hear at this time.
  • A good preacher needs to adapt the sermon. 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.

After reflecting on it a bit more, though, I’m wondering if there’s more wisdom in Augustine’s idea than I first appreciated. Over the years, I’ve met quite a few people who fit Augustine’s description. They were gifted communicators, but they were somewhat less gifted (I’m being charitable) in the other skills required for good sermon preparation. And it wasn’t laziness. People are just wired differently. So, rather than saying that such people can’t be preachers–or worse, that their churches should be condemned to bad preaching–why not conclude that sermon preparation can be a team effort and pair them with people who are gifted in ways that they are not? (This would also address the converse problem: people who are gifted exegetes but horrible communicators. And I’m sure we can all think of at least a few people who might fit in this category.)

Assuming that my three earlier concerns are still valid, though, here are some principles that would need to be in place for this to work:

  • The “teacher” must be local. I still don’t think this would work if the person writing the sermon is not connected to the local community of believers. But, if we’re talking about someone who lives and ministers with that local community and works in partnership with the one who presents the sermon, then this gets more interesting.
  • The “preacher” must study. This isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for the preacher. You shouldn’t teach a text that hasn’t first taught you. So the preacher still needs to wrestle with the text. But the preacher no longer needs to do so alone.
  • The “preacher” must own the sermon. And the preacher can’t simply take the completed sermon and present it to the congregation (i.e. no emailing the completed sermon the night before). The preacher will need time to digest and own the sermon so that it can be presented effectively and adapted when necessary.

I know many churches have “preaching teams” where they’ll plan sermon series and discuss ideas for upcoming sermons. But I don’t know many churches where the actual work of exegeting and constructing a sermon is done in collaboration like this.

What do you think?

  • What would you think if you knew that someone was providing significant help in exegeting and writing your pastor’s sermons? Would it affect the way that you listened to the sermon? 
  • Do you think this would be a legitimate way of affirming and using different gifts? Or do you see this as a copout for lazy preachers?
  • Do you know of any churches that are actually doing this?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on December 12, 2011, in Early Church, Preaching. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Hey Marc, at my last church the pastor used to occassionaly have visting speakers write outlines for a series of which they would do the first one. It worked quite well. When I joined the teaching team there, I would prepare the preaching plan and do suggested outlines for the other team members, so they still had to do the preparation and decide how to say things and come up with illustrations etc, but a (relative) exegetical expert set the general direction of the sermon. The outlines weren’t always followed – but it did mean preachers had a bit of a head start on making sense of the passage and also meant multi preacher series had a bit more consistency. I think millions of pastors use the Wiersbe “be” books for sermon outlines, and probably millions more rely on commentaries in preparation, so the whole having someone else do the work on your sermon is really a question of degree rather than kind.

    The big thing is, as you point out, whether the preacher “owns it” or not. Without conviction in the delivery there will be little conviction in the congregation. But then there are plenty of sermons where the preacher doesn’t seem to own it even after every word was their own work. :-s

    • The commentary issue is one that I probably should have mentioned in the post. If a pastor is simply grabbing a commentary off the shelf and using it as the exegetical authority, then that’s exactly the kind of “disconnect” I’m talking about. In that case, two of the three things I’m after aren’t happening: no wrestling with text and no exegesis in context. (BTW, don’t read this as saying that I have anything against commentaries!)

      What you’ve descried in your situation, though, sounds much more like what I’m talking about. I’m curious what you think about when they’d deviate from the outlines. Did they do this because of their own wrestling with the text and disagreeing with you about it. Or were these cases of homiletical values trumping exegetical ones?

      And you’re absolutely right that “owning” a sermon can be a problem even in the best circumstances. Something we all need to be mindful of.

  2. I think Community Christian Church in Naperville Illinois does this, at least for some sermon series. Dave Ferguson is the lead pastor.

  3. Don’t we do something like this with preachers who are just starting out, and are mentored by those with experience? On my first few (and so far only) sermons, I consulted with a couple mentors, studied, prayed, and wrote my manuscript. I submitted it to a mentor, who liked my supporting material, but essentially re-worked it on a much better frame (very gently, I might add), and the final result was thankfully much more Christ-centered. So in some ways I felt I was preaching Gary’s material, learning while I went.

    • I’d like to say that your experience is normal, but that’s not what I’ve heard from many beginning preachers. Unfortunately, many churches tend to assume that new pastors got everything they need at school and should be ready to go.

  4. We actually discovered earlier this year that a majority of our pastor’s messages were taken word for word from other teachers, without giving the sources any credit. Pastor puts tons of hours into the study of the word and can answer any nuanced question very capably, just feels overwhelmed with being a pastor in general sometimes. When lovingly confronted, he did change his practice(far as I know– we haven’t investigated in a while) and told the congregation that he was indebted to a popular preacher for much of that current series…. I don’t love that he has done this, but am still grateful to have a VERY good pastor, especially out in the sticks where we live.

  5. Elton Trueblood’s wife once told of visiting her daughter in California when the preacher used one of Trueblood’s sermons word for word without noting the source. As Elton’s first wife had died, there was no blood relation and no knowledge on the part of the pastor.

    Virginia said that she tried to use a side exit “to save the poor man the embarrassment” but a kindly parishioner made sure that she was introduced!

  6. Whatever it takes to advance the Kingdom of God – that is the stance Augustine takes, an attitude I can appreciate.

    Offer up the best of what you have and compensate for the rest.

    We are limited mortals attempting to expand an eternal Kingdom, creativity required!

    Sometimes the end does justify the means, especially when the end is never everlasting and the means temporal.

  7. I’ve seen a lot of preachers use other people’s sermons without attribution, so many that I wrote about the whole thing myself.

    http://kiwiandanemu.org/?p=533

  8. I certainly hope that no one is reading this thinking that I’m promoting the idea of preaching other people’s sermons without attribution. I made passing reference to that in the post, but mostly I’m assuming that people agree this is a bad idea. I’m picturing a situation in which a pastor would, with the full knowledge and support of the church, work together with another person(s) to craft sermons. Just copying a sermon would break all three points I mentioned above, as well as being dishonest.

  9. salem down under

    Surely every time you use another’s words, phrases, even similar outlines from the pulpit you do not have to interject with verbal footnotes? Like i mean to say, there is nothing new under the sun and what you borrow from time to time is mostly borrowed by those whom you borrow from! Get real guys! Preach the Word and in the process use the ‘gifts’ (other preachers) God has given the church to do so!

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