About that dog walking on two legs......

Posted by
A friend sent me this link earlier today.  It raises a number of issues in my mind, a bit like seeing a dog walking on two legs.  One instinctively knows it is strange and feels it is wrong; but as with many such well-intentioned things, it can be hard to articulate precisely why.  Well, here is my stab at an answer:

First, it is of course true that very few preachers simply read the Hebrew or the Greek and then write their sermons.  As we prepare, we use translations, commentaries, books of theology and collections of sermons.  We are all, therefore, dependent to some extent on the work of others.  Yet there seems to me to be a difference between personally wrestling with how to connect a biblical passage to a congregation and using various books on our shelves to do so, and sending our questions and requests to a group of paid researchers to do that work for us.  Why not simply ask them to write the sermon?  

Second, this takes valuable resources.  Theological training always does take money, of course, but for a church to pay for a man to be trained at seminary is one thing.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life, as the old saying goes.  But this is not training so much as an ongoing service which will take money on a regular basis away from kingdom work with no real, lasting results.   If you do not have a wealthy church, you should not waste its money on paying other people to do the work the church pays you to do.

Speaking of wealthy churches, this brings me to my next point.  Third, seeing the names who endorse this product, I was perplexed.  The ones I recognize are pastors of large, wealthy churches with big ministry teams to support them.  So why is their time being so squeezed that they find this service helpful?  Is being called as a congregation's pastor not being called to make serving that congregation by preaching the number one priority?  I can imagine the pastor who is a one-man band in a church of say a 100 people having a very bad week where a family has been bereaved  and there has been a tough discipline case to deal with.  I can see that in such circumstances he might perhaps need to depend a little more heavily than usual on someone else's commentary or notes or model for his sermon preparation; but the man with a large pastoral team behind him? Why would he need such service as this, and that apparently as a regular part of his routine?   Do I look as if I arrived on the milk float yesterday morning? If his ministry team does not exist to free him up to concentrate on his sermon preparation for the local congregation to which he is called, what exactly does it exist for?

Fourth, and I feel I repeat myself here: if James 3:1 holds, then I want to make sure that I consciously own every word that comes from my mouth in address to my congregation.  I am not going to trust an anonymous researcher in such a context.  I will want to verify the research myself by cross checking to those commentaries etc which I would normally use anyway.  In which case, this company's approach seems merely to add a layer of complexity and potential time-consumption to usual prep time.

Fifth, the nature of some of the commendations disturbs me.  Just a little too much about how 'my' time is saved by this ('saved' from what exactly?  Carefully preparing to preach God's word to those whom He has entrusted to me?) and how 'I' am improved and made to look good.  Perhaps they were ironic comments.  I do hope so.

Finally, once again I find myself worrying about the normative, aspirational model of ministry which this is projecting to men in seminary, looking for a call or in their first charge.

Underlying it all, of course, is American conservative evangelicalism's dirty little secret: the movement, such as it is, embraces mutually incompatible views of the ministerial calling which presumably must rest on mutually incompatible theologies of ministry.  There are those who think ministry is, above all else, about preaching the word in the local congregation and that that is to be the pastor's top priority bar none, from the choice of passage to its final delivery.  And there are those for whom ministry is - well, to be honest, I do not really know what exactly they think it is.  I cannot describe it because websites such as this are just more evidence that, whatever it is, I do not have the categories to explain it sympathetically to others.

And while I do not expect major discussion of this by the great and the good on the major webpages in the evangelical world, even if such does take place, I doubt that will come to any decisive or clear conclusion. Too many feudal ties and too much at stake for big tent movements to speak with prophetic or even common-sense voices on this one.   My guess is that, if it is mentioned in some quarters at all, it will be another of those things that people agree to differ on in order to keep the big ticket names on board.  It will have that  'Hey, we can face the hard questions but still maintain alliances' feel.  Asking hard questions is ironically not as hard as it is often cut out to be; giving hard answers usually proves to be quite another thing entirely.

As I see things like this, I remember Dr. Packer's comments of a few weeks back in giving advice to young ministers: dig deep, dwell deep.  Oh, and superficiality doesn't always recognize itself.

Posted June 1, 2012 @ 3:45 PM by Carl Trueman

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