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The Island Syndrome: When the Only Sermons You Ingest Are Your Own

Much has been said recently about the dangers of sermon plagiarism, but the effect can be a misguided shunning of others' sermons. Growing preachers study the messages of other outstanding preachers.
The Island Syndrome: When the Only Sermons You Ingest Are Your Own
Image: Marek Okon / Unsplash

Not long ago someone asked me how I felt about having transcripts of my sermons posted on the Internet. "Does it bother you that someone might download your sermons and preach them as their own?" Others have asked me similar questions. Each reflects the same basic assumption: What reason, other than plagiarism, would a preacher have for reading someone else's sermon?

Writers read the classics to learn about style and language. Artists study the paintings of the masters to discover their technique. Musicians listen to the works of great composers to understand the dynamics that shaped their distinctive sound. Preachers learn by reading and listening to others. Preaching, like other art forms, is partly imitative. Eloquence, Saint Augustine observed, is learned by hearing, not by rules.

In a seminar on preaching I attended some years ago, noted pastor and author Kent Hughes revealed that one of his hobbies was collecting old sermons. He found these volumes, often sold cheaply in used bookstores, to be a rich resource for illustrations in his messages. But illustration is not the only reason to read someone else's sermon. In his book Preaching & Teaching with Imagination, Warren Wiersbe tells why he reads sermons by pulpit greats like G. Campbell Morgan and George H. Morrison: "When I read a sermon, I first read it as a sinner who needs to hear God's voice and receive God's grace. I imagine myself seated in church, hearing the voice of the preacher."

But Wiersbe also reads these classic sermons as a student of preaching. "After I've gotten the blessing from the Word, then I read the sermon a second time as a preacher seeking to develop his skills," he explains. "How does the sermon show imagination? Why did the preacher develop the text as he did? Was the message true to the text?"

There is something about a good sermon that makes me want to be a better preacher.

The example of Kent Hughes and Warren Wiersbe has been invaluable to me. I, too, have discovered that when I turn to the sermons of others looking for a good quote or some personal encouragement from God's Word, I often come away with much more.

Sermons that shape me

The chief benefit of reading or listening to someone else's sermon is the potential it has to surprise and inspire me. There is something about a good sermon that makes me want to be a better preacher. I find that I need to hear God's Word taught in other voices. Not because I do not know how to preach, but because I do. Preaching has become too familiar to me. The path of sermon formulation is so well worn that I can fall into writing my messages in a way that is predictable and, thus, dull even to me. I'm alone on an island with me, myself, and I.

Some years ago Jill Briscoe visited the campus where I teach and in her chapel messages urged us to read a series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer by Helmut Thielicke. A Lutheran pastor who preached during the allied bombing of Stuttgart in World War II, Thielicke's messages are some of the most powerful I have ever read. He asks the hard questions I am afraid to voice without offering pat answers or trite solutions. His sermons speak faith into my heart like few others and make me want to be a different kind of preacher.

I read others' sermons for more than freshness. Sometimes I look to other preachers to see how they have handled my text. Their sermons help me check my interpretation and provide ideas for illustration and application.

But the greatest gift of others' messages has been to teach me how to preach. For example, from Helmut Thielicke I learned how to combine pastoral compassion with powerful metaphors. Thielicke was a shepherd with the heart of a poet.

Nineteenth century Scottish preacher Alexander MacLaren was another master of metaphor, whose vivid comparisons have made me more aware of the language I use in my preaching. The sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones display his skill in the art of reasoning. A medical doctor before becoming a preacher, he was a true doctor of souls who used his audience's own experiences to help them diagnose their spiritual condition. Lloyd-Jones often entered into dialogue with his audience, enabling them to examine their own thinking in light of the biblical text, and that has affected my preaching.

I also turn to other preachers to jump start my thinking when I find myself suffering from writer's block. When this happens, I open a favorite preacher and begin reading at random. I do this not to find ideas for my sermon, but to stir my soul. When my mental gears are frozen, the words of another are often the oil that sets the works in motion again. Interestingly, it is not uncommon for their ideas to trigger something in my own thinking about the passage I happen to be studying, even though it may not be the focus of their sermon.

An angle of vision

In one of his sermons, Scottish novelist and acclaimed children's writer George MacDonald notes that each person is a unique being made after his own fashion: "Hence he can worship God as no man else can worship Him—can understand God as no man else can understand him. This or that man may understand God more, may understand better than he, but no other man can understand God as he understands Him." If MacDonald is right, every preacher not only speaks with a distinct voice, but each provides a unique perspective into God and his Word. Someone else's sermon can help me see God's truth from a different angle of vision.

This is also true when it comes to the theological perspective of the preacher. Reading those whose theological tradition differs from my own has helped me see things I would otherwise miss. As a Lutheran pastor, Helmut Thielicke's view of the presence of Christ profoundly shaped the way he viewed the terrors his congregation faced in World War II. According to the Lutheran view of the Lord's Supper, although the elements are not altered during communion, Christ is truly present "in, with, and under" the bread and wine. This was the theological lens Thielicke used to help his listeners interpret the tragic circumstances that had enveloped them as they lived through the final death throes of the Nazi regime and watched allied bombs rain down around them. In one sermon Thielicke preached: "In, with, and under the world's anguish and distress, in, with, and under the hail of bombs and mass murders, God is building his kingdom."

I do not need to agree with Thielicke's theology of the Lord's Supper to benefit from the point he makes. Indeed, because the points where we disagree will be more apparent, reading the sermons of those whose theological tradition differs from my own can help me see how much our theology can influence the sermon.

In another sermon Thielicke used the doctrine of divine sovereignty to help his readers see the hand of God behind the terror of nightly bombing: "It is as if God intercepts these originally evil and disastrous missiles of fate, catches them in his fatherly arms, and sends them in the direction he wants them to go for the benefit of his children."

Avoiding the risks

There are risks as well as rewards when we listen to someone else's preaching. One risk is the danger that we will draw too much on the ideas of others. It is possible to turn too quickly to someone else's sermon. Like reading a commentary before we have done our own study, listening prematurely to what someone else has to say about a passage can predispose our approach to the text. This is especially true if the sermon is by someone we respect.

There is also the risk that we will become so enamored of our homiletical heroes that we simply mimic them and lose our own voice in the process. The goal of reading or listening to the sermons of others is not to ape their style but to learn their techniques and make them our own. The best preachers speak with a unique voice, and I'm not referring primarily to their delivery. There is something distinctive about the way they deliver their message. In writing, "voice" is a combination of the author's unique point of view and the way he or she tells the story. Voice is to writing what personality is to the individual. The same is true of preaching.

In a famous series of lectures on preaching delivered to the students of Yale University in 1877, Phillips Brooks stated that the two key elements of preaching are truth and personality. "The truth must come really through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen" Brooks observed. "It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being." Adopting the persona of your favorite preacher is like preaching while wearing a mask.

A related danger is the temptation to plagiarize. The easy availability of sermons on the internet has made this unethical practice more common than ever. Fortunately, the Google search engine has also made it easier for church members to spot plagiarism when it occurs. The plagiarizing preacher goes beyond drawing on others for an occasional illustration or a quote. Those who plagiarize take an entire sermon or large portions of a sermon and present it without citing the original source. Admittedly, there is a derivative element in most sermons. Like writers, musicians, and painters, preachers often echo the themes and style of the masters who influenced them in the study, and of course we are all preaching the same book and largely the same theology. Plagiarism crosses the line by claiming ownership. It presents the distinctive work of others as if it were my own.

Plagiarism isn't the only danger, though. Even if we give proper credit to other preachers when it is called for, a preacher may use others' sermons to neglect the responsibility to engage the text personally and deeply in thought and prayer and to bring a message to the church that is uniquely tailored for the congregation. The sermons of others should enrich our study, not replace our study.

For dedicated preachers, the benefits of reading the sermons of others far outweigh the dangers. So why don't we read other preacher's sermons, in particular the sermons of our contemporaries, more often? When a colleague recently asked me to name my favorite preachers, it occurred to me that most of the people on my list are dead. One reason, I suspect, is our self-sufficiency. When it comes to the pulpit, we are not amateurs. We are skilled professionals with years of training and experience. Many of us harbor a secret conviction that no one else can preach as well as we can. We believe that we do not fall far short of many of the preachers we hear on the radio or at the conferences we attend. This certainty, whether or not it is well founded, can lead to a kind of skepticism that makes it difficult to learn from our peers.

To some extent this is understandable. Pulpit giants like Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, or Martyn Lloyd-Jones have a proven track record. When I read one of their sermons, I can be fairly certain that it will be worthwhile. I do not have the same guarantee when I read the sermons of a peer. But I suspect that the real reason I prefer the voice of the dead to that of the living is my own ego. I want to be the best. Unfortunately, my preference for dead preachers may actually work against this goal. The sermons of the masters show me what was effective for previous generations, but reading them exclusively may rob me of the benefit of learning from contemporary voices.

I have been enriched by the preaching of my peers. For example, a recent sermon by my colleague Winfred Neely revolutionized my view of Jesus' exchange with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7. For the first time, I understood the significance of her reference to the crumbs that fall from the master's table. Jesus praised this woman, not because she was willing to be satisfied with so little, but because she saw how generous the grace of God really is. God's grace is so great the crumbs alone would be enough to sustain us.

A message based on the first verse in the John's gospel, by Rosalie de Rosset, another of my colleagues, has helped me see the theological significance of the language I use in my preaching. "Language is not, after all, so much the dress of thought as the incarnation of the thought," de Rosset said. "The word is truth become flesh. Language is the body of the idea, and it is only in the body that we become aware of it."

This ultimately is why I read the sermons of others. Their words have the power to make truth come to life. They show me how to put flesh on the bones of my ideas.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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