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?