As a kid I loved T.V. dinners—frozen entrees heated and served in flimsy aluminum trays. That was before microwaves, so mom would pop them in the oven for 45 minutes and serve them up on makeshift T.V. trays just in time for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Wonderful World of Disney, or Fantasy Island.
Honestly, it was the thrill of family “T.V. time” that I relished. The meals themselves were, well . . . Salisbury steak doused in salty gravy to hide the fact that the meat suffered from acute freezer burn. Peas and carrots that had the consistency of Styrofoam packing peanuts. Mushed (not mashed) potatoes that approached the consistency of Elmer’s glue. Yes, the T.V. dinners tasted like refried dog food and their very existence lampooned the four food groups, but preparation was painless and the cleanup effortless. Besides, with our eyes and ears fixated on the T.V. screen, we mindlessly consumed the meals with the discriminating palate of garbage disposers.
As I reflect on those T.V. dinners I so enjoyed as a kid, I realize now that they serve as a physical forerunner to a spiritual counterpart in the church of the twenty-first century. Call them Microwave Messages, Instant Homilies, or McSermons. Not consumed by qualified, conscientious, and diligent shepherds of a beloved flock, but devoured by the lazy, the burned out, the distracted, the desperate, the incompetent, the ill-equipped, or the dishonest. Members of that sad sort download these canned sermons from the internet, buy them in a book, or mine them from the repertoires of celebrity preachers. Regardless of how they come by those so-called “ministry tools,” the result is the same: “sermons-to-go” that require no actual biblical, theological, or homiletical expertise and negligible prayer, meditation, reflection, and preparation.
In my mind, buying sermons or preaching somebody else’s sermon is the equivalent of picking up KFC and telling your family you prepared it yourself. Or it’s like stepping into a university classroom and spending the hour reading directly from somebody else’s text book. Or like buying term papers from online vendors to earn your degree. Or maybe like an average Joe donning a white coat and stethoscope and pretending to be a doctor by mimicking characters he saw on T.V. There’s just something creepy about pastors who don’t care enough about their congregations to wrestle with the biblical text, engage with its theological and practical truth, and then craft their messages to address their own churches’ real needs.
Please don’t mishear me. I’m not talking about using illustration helps. Or even quoting from fellow pastors and teachers. I’m not even worried about getting sermon ideas or outlines from others. The seeds of excellent messages can be planted by numerous sources—and cross-pollination from other preachers is healthy. What I mean, though, is when most of the message is drawn directly from another, even if that source is acknowledged. There’s plagiarism and then there’s lack of pastoral responsibility. Neither of them is tolerable for those trained and ordained for the pulpit ministry.
Let me suggest three reasons why McSermons are simply unacceptable for a responsible preaching pastor. In these three reasons, I’m focusing less on the plagiarism problem (which everybody should clearly see) and more on the pastoral problem (which many overlook).
First, canned sermons weren’t written for your church. A preacher’s primary responsibility is to provide spiritual leadership to the particular congregation in his charge. He is not primarily responsible for other churches or for all churches. The pulpit ministry in a local church is most effective when the pastor knows the members of his congregation, understands their spiritual needs, has his finger on their spiritual pulse, and can accurately gauge their doctrinal and practical growth. Only then can the pastor craft a message that applies biblical truth to the church’s specific needs. Let me suggest that a message that had been preached at another church or a sermon template designed to be preached to any church will likely fail to effectively shepherd your church. Popping the cork on bottled sermons might provide a polished presentation and impressive content, but it will always lack sincerity, authenticity, and heart-to-heart exhortation. In the end, the congregation may be foddered, but they may not be nourished. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (ESV). In order to reprove or rebuke, a preacher must know the failings of the flock. In order to exhort, a preacher must understand the areas in need of growth. The authors of canned sermons don’t know your church. They can’t reprove, rebuke, or exhort your flock any more than reading some other parent’s written lecture could discipline your child.
Second, canned sermons turn the preacher into an irrelevant middle man. As far as I can tell, pastors who draw extensively from somebody else’s sermons are simply buying wholesale and selling retail. It won’t take long before the congregation feels a little ripped off. Why should a church listen to a second-rate communicator present the work of a first-rate preacher? Wouldn’t it be more desirable to go straight to the source? Why bother with the middle man? Oh yes, the middle man can provide more personalized service and a pulpit presence, but the message itself comes to the church through a stand-in who parrots somebody else’s words. I’m not surprised when members of the congregation feel their pastor’s messages lack depth, conviction, and passion. And I’m less surprised when church members lose attention because the middle man in the pulpit is mindlessly channeling the thoughts of another. We would do well to mediate on the words of Paul to the young pastor, Timothy, and reflect on how seriously he was expected to take his personal responsibility for that church in Ephesus: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:13–16, ESV). I see no room in Paul’s instructions here for a pastor who neglects his responsibility to exhort and teach, pilfering the content of his messages from a nameless, faceless supplier who has no relationship with the end users.
Third, canned sermons indicate a pastor’s loss of focus and misplaced priorities. The apostle Peter provides great counsel to those responsible for pastoral care: “I exhort the elders among you . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1–3, ESV). The picture Peter draws is one of church leaders who know their flock because they dwell among them, setting examples and providing oversight by word and deed. A pastor’s primary responsibility is to minster the Word of God to his particular flock with care and diligence. Sadly, the modern image of a pastor as a vision-setter, goal-getter, marketer, C.E.O., or shop-keeper has displaced the biblical image of the shepherd, mentor, and spiritual advisor who leads his flock through personal counsel and corporate preaching. As such, many pastors have been so over-burdened with day to day administrative and management tasks that they have no time for the activities that lead directly to effective sermon preparation—prayer, study, research, meditation, visitation, and preparation. Such pastors are forced to take short-cuts, and sometimes this means either shoddy, shallow messages thrown together on a Saturday afternoon or worse—canned sermons purchased from a Sermons-R-Us service and presented as if they were his own.
If you’ve become a connoisseur of processed, pre-packed messages, stop. Or if you’ve been tempted to snatch a fast-food sermon from a drive-through vendor, don’t. Take your responsibility of pastoral leadership more seriously. Take the time to get the training necessary to fill your workshop with the tools needed to craft sermons from the Word to minister to your world. Then carve out a generous amount of time to pray, study, meditate, and mold messages of both substance and significance.
[Originally posted at www.retrochristianity.com May 19, 2012]