How much of a given 30-minute Sunday morning message comes from the mind and heart of a local pastor? How much does he get from the illuminating work of the Spirit directly to his mind and heart versus how much comes from books, radio broadcasts or the internet?
Why is this Such an Uncomfortable Question First, because preachers generally aspire to doing original work in Scripture. Pride is a factor. Pride causes us to want people to believe that by our own brilliance and intelligence we see what each text is saying, how different passages relate to each other and the relevant application. We want others to believe what we say from the pulpit has not been plagiarized. That we are our own person, blessed with skill and perception. That we see what the pastor who is less insightful at the church a few blocks away does not see. And we don’t like being dependent on books or internet or anything else.
A second factor that makes this an uncomfortable question is the enormous pressure on a local pastor to make a church grow. The pastor is the leader. The sparkplug. The guy. Da boss. If he looks like plain vanilla and the people are ho-hum, the church will be status quo or slowly declining (maybe suddenly and sharply declining).
I have seen pastors be just as carnal as leaders in the secular world. At a ministerial meeting a new pastor was publicly asked, “How long have you been at your church and how many attend?” The room fell silent as this brother was being measured by the others. What was being asked was, “Can you stand the heat” (church controversies and leadership pressures)?” And “Are you good in the pulpit?” Read, “Are you dynamic enough to promote people to give?” Noses and nickels makes for a quick measurement.
Local pastors feel this keenly. They shouldn’t. We are supposed to rejoice with those who rejoice; not be in competition with one another.
There is also a dash of guilt. The logic goes like this: “If I was a more interesting preacher . . . if I had better illustrations . . . if I were smarter, then this church would be growing.” So we are defensive about how much comes direct from the Spirit and how much comes from people, books and the internet. No one wants to be an echo in the pulpit.
No One Offered a Figure Recently I was on zoom call with 15 people, most were pastors; six or eight were preaching regularly. All were leaders. I asked, “How much of a message on an average Sunday morning comes from the Holy Spirit directly to you, and how much comes from books, others or the internet?” One brother responded in a general way about the question, but no one offered a figure (Neither did I). The silence was loud.
Plagiarizing the Holy Spirit He is the source of every insight we may get – either directly from Him as we pour over our Bibles and invest time struggling with a text, or from others. By this definition all of us preachers are plagiarists.
Recently at our church the pastor spoke of using material from others. He rattled off the names of three authors I had never heard of. Then he said something like, “Maybe you will not come to church any more – you can just read what I read.” There was a laugh because no one would stop coming to church for such a reason. The Pastor’s stock went up because of his honesty and humility.
The Logic for Using Other Men’s and Women’s Material includes two factors. First, since the Holy Spirit gave insight through some expositor and that person wrote it in a book or put it on a website, why should a more average man expect God to personally send it to him when He has already sent it to Dr. Insightful? Is it legitimate to expect private illumination? Why should I think I rate a repeat?
Second, to some degree, a text comes to belong to a preacher through the delivering of the message. His body language, his tone of voice, his emphasis, and (hopefully) his illustrations that fill out the message. In some sense, it is sufficiently his for him to claim it.
Wrestle with the Text First This is a sensitive issue. Here’s what I have come up with from several decades of pastoring. God wants us to be growing in our Bible awareness. Increasing our depth of perception. Becoming better students of His Word. So read your text for four Sundays from now. Sit and look at the text for 15 minutes. Read it in three different translations. Labor over an outline. Put it aside for a week. Look at it again. Two weeks before you plan to preach it, get it out and re-read it. Give it 45 minutes. Then 10 days before you are ready to preach it, given it an hour. Like Jacob, occasionally it may be necessary to wrestle all night (Genesis 32:22-32). Having done that, you have done due diligence. Then, if insufficient insight or understanding has accumulated for a 30-minute message, go to the books and internet. And tell your people you are being a good message boy by handling on to them by what you’ve learned. Give authors credit for their work.
Continue studying and preaching (Jeremiah 20:9).