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beware recycled sermons

I stopped by The Wartburg Watch to have a look around today; I have been so busy with one thing and another I haven’t read more than a handful of blog posts in the last couple of months, but it seems like the folks at TWW occasionally comment on topics I’m interested in that I don’t see much elsewhere.

In particular there was a link to Bruce Gerencser’s blog; he’s a former Baptist preacher and current atheist. Let’s just take it as read that I mentioned that it disturbs me somewhat how many people who start out devout, lose their faith in a particular group within Christianity, and end up losing their faith altogether. Not all who wander are lost, I suppose, but some are.

Gerencser offers an article on sermon craft [link] that starts out headed in the direction of sharing secrets of sermon craft but ends up being mostly a collection of anonymous anecdotes about poor preaching. Here are a couple of pull quotes:

Many pastors recycle their sermons. The average Baptist pastor changes churches every 2-3 years. No need to craft new sermons. Just reuse the sermons you preached before. If they worked well in Ohio surely they will work well in Texas.

I remember one well known, Bob Jones associated, evangelist who kept long silver cases filled with recordings of his previous sermons. After doing this for many, many years he would just pick a recording to re-familiarize himself with the sermon and then preach it that night. Rarely did he preach “new” material.

I don’t know how to make sense of the “2-3 years” point here; most of the preachers I knew who were gone in two or three years were either failed preachers or were transitional figures in failing churches. The churches I attended were dominated by career men who lasted ten years or more. Gerencser’s comment about preachers with no new material is apt, though; I have yet to figure out why someone would continue to attend a church where the preacher mostly recycles a handful of his own “goodies.” I’d be inclined to start looking for a new church the first time I heard a preacher’s candidate sermon recycled.

Years ago I was acquainted with a pastor who had horrible preaching skills. I mean horrible. He was a Bible college graduate and didn’t even know how to make a sermon outline. I tried to show him how to do so but he had a hard time understanding the whole process. His approach was simple: read the text, chase the rabbits, bring it back to Jesus. pray, and give an altar call.

Yes, I’ve sat through some of these, and so have you.

Many pastors would have you believe that their sermons come directly from God. I know I believed this for many years. I was certain God was leading and directing me to preach on a particular text. I believed that God was guiding me through the delivery of the sermon all the way to the altar call. I was simply a mouthpiece for God.

As I look back over the thousands of God inspired sermons I preached I can now see who it was that was guiding me. It wasn’t God. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was me. Through my own thought process I decided what the church needed to hear. Sometimes I had an agenda that I wanted to advance and what better way to do so than to couch my agenda in “thus saith the Lord.”

This is a tough topic, and one I rarely hear discussed. Gerencser, now an atheist, is mostly obliged to say he was never lead by the Holy Spirit, but I would be inclined to agree that it’s fair to ask where a sermon comes from, and in particular what’s inspiration, what’s revelation, and what’s something other, lesser, or baser. We might hope for some sort of interleaving between what the Scriptures have to say and what’s just the preacher’s opinion, but I don’t know that we think much about how to distinguish them.

It wasn’t news to me that preachers sometimes borrowed or recycled content in sermons; I’d seen books of sermon illustrations and basic sermon outlines for sale in Christian book stores back in the early Seventies, and couldn’t imagine they went away in the meantime. But I have to admit I was surprised to discover that some preachers sometimes reuse other peoples’ entire sermon series. See e.g. the feedback section at Creative Pastors [e.g. link]; here are a couple of comments, one from the static page, one from the feedback pool:

“I’ve been teaching the In the Zone message series at our church and God has really been blessing us with supernatural results. The last several weeks our budget giving is up approximately 40%!” -John Cross, Senior Pastor of South Biscayne Baptist Church, North Port, Florida

We are a brand new church plant that has reached young couples. A church our size (200) should be able to receive a good offering; but we didn’t. This series got such great feedback from new church attenders and those who have been in church for years. After the second week, about bringing the tithe, we received more than half our monthly budget! I thank God that there are creative ways to present His Word to people who don’t understand God’s principles. Jamie Noel, The Journey Church, Springfield OH.

I’m at a loss here; one the one hand I wonder what Mr Cross and Mr Noel are thinking when they decide to preach Ed Young’s sermons, and on the other I wonder if the people who attend their churches have any idea they could have skipped church and just used Ed Young’s “downloadable mind map” instead.

If I had to offer you a single simple takeaway here, I’d encourage you to be a careful consumer of messages, as much if not moreso than you would be watching television or reading a mainstream publication.

We are a brand new church plant that has reached young couples. A church our size (200) should be able to receive a good offering; but we didn’t. This series got such great feedback from new church attenders and those who have been in church for years. After the second week, about bringing the tithe, we received more than half our monthly budget! I thank God that there are creative ways to present His Word to people who don’t understand God’s principles.

Jamie Noel
The Journey CHurch
Springfield, OH

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