Perhaps you have come across the phenomenon of pre-packaged sermons series for purchase. Now, before another word about it, let it be known, every faithful preacher pinches, poaches, and procures sermonic bits, illustrations, and illuminations from others. If this were not the case, the market for Biblical commentaries would cease to exist. Indeed, the same could be said for countless volumes of published sermons. I, too, have my favorite expositors and routinely appropriate their work and rework it for the contexts within which I serve. As the late Reverend Don Preisinger once said, “A good preacher is a great plagiarizer.”
The difference, however, between buying a hermetically sealed sermon series and appropriating worthy material from others is the former requires no labor and no wrangling with the text, while the later appropriates content precisely because the preacher is wrangling with the text for his auditors. Matters of integrity and relationship are compromised when pastors preach pre-packed sermon series.
Here, then, are a dozen reasons why not to purchase canned sermon series and preach them like your own:
- Pre-packaged sermons series are not your own. But if you do preach them, then as a matter of integrity offer an honest disclaimer prior to preaching them like the ones we hear on TV and radio. Something like: “The views expressed in this sermon series may not be reflective of the opinions of your pastor because he has not actually reflected on the texts.” Another good option says, “Expressed written permission to preach this sermon has been granted by way of a financial agreement between the purchasing agent (your pastor) and the selling agent.” In the bulletin, you could add a little bio about the intellectual property, right owner, so the congregation gets to know that person better.
- This leads directly to number two: You usually do not know who wrote and edited them or why. Sermon series may come from traditions quite antithetical to your own, from persons not rightly called and ordained to the office of preacher. The integrity issue here is how pastors must own the responsibility of sermon composition and delivery—not the application of the Law and Gospel to the hearts of people (that is given to the Holy Spirit). The point being, if someone else wrote the sermon, the preacher can shift at least part of the responsibility and ownership of the sermon to an anonymous other.
- Canned sermon series have not arisen from the purchasing preacher’s prayerful consideration of the texts. This should not be underestimated. Worthy of its own essay is the discipline of prayer and sermonic composition. Spending time entreating the Holy Spirit of God for light and clarity on the text brings significant relational interaction with the Spirit of God. This can only soften and humble a pastor’s disposition as he finds his need for the Spirit to show Christ in all of Scripture and from that posture considers God’s Word for his congregation.
- A purchased sermon series undermines the preacher’s personal familiarity with the texts through meditation. Related to prayer, meditation is uniquely more contemplative, more ruminative than prayer. Meditation usually takes place over several days as you turn the Word of God over in your mind and see it related to the things of Law and Gospel, death and life.
- Glossy sermon series neither emerge from, nor rightly facilitate a personal address from the under-shepherd of Christ Jesus (namely, the pastor-preacher) to his flock. Jesus says to His apostles, “He who hears you, hears Me.” Unless, of course, your people really are not hearing you, but rather someone else. Hereby the preacher basically performs someone else’s sermon like a voiceover actor. The intermediary role of the pastor, to stand and speak in the stead of Christ, takes on a bizarre and confusing form as he speaks for someone else (the actual sermon writer) while speaking for Christ. Who in this case is the true under-shepherd when the sermon takes place since the preacher is once removed? Is the preacher supposed to be proxy for someone else while proxy for Christ? This would seem to undermine under-shepherding. The relationship of pastor to parish is compromised.
- Ok, I am going to say it. Purchasing pre-packaged sermon series bespeaks of pastoral laziness or, worse, inability to compose and deliver a sermon as the Word of Christ to the Church. It says, quite frankly, there are better things to do than write sermons. Sadly, this may point to the painful reality that such a man is ill-suited or educationally unprepared as an under-shepherd. Truly, could anything be more disconcertingly consumeristic than pastors purchasing their sermon series online? Please, let us not yield the craft of preaching to abject consumerism.
- Preachers should not purchase completed sermon series because someone has done the interpretive work already and almost certainly has not done so in accord with the ecumenical creeds and (hopefully) your subordinate standards to Holy Scripture (e.g. The Augsburg Confession). Put bluntly, they may not be trustworthy or true.
- Hermetically sealed sermon series are market driven and, therefore, the Law and the Gospel are not guaranteed to be present, much less properly distinguished one from another. Indeed, as C.F.W. Walther has written, the art of properly distinguishing the Law from the Gospel is an exacting and hard-gotten discipline. Pre-packaged sermons yield this awesome responsibility to writers and editors—possibly from another tradition you do not know or share—doing it for you.
- Such sermon series are composed for mass appeal to the widest possible market. We are talking about spreading a wide net for profit. This means the content within these sermon series has been factored down to the lowest common denominator. Rather than building your people up in sound doctrine and the Theology of the Cross, you may be working in the opposite direction to the needs and maturity of God’s people under your care.
- As I have canvassed these pre-packaged sermon series, it became clear how they failed to address children and teens while concentrating their address on white, working-aged, middle-class auditors. That is point number ten: monolithic composition for a monolithic audience. As such, they do not represent the dynamic composition of the Body of Christ—the Church.
- Boxed sermon series have no authentic voice. There is, in fact, an absence of voice from the pastor-preacher of a particular congregation. This “voice” to which I refer is the personality, dispositions, propensities, and idiosyncratic expressions of the preacher. When we read Philippians, we are reading Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. His personality, his voice resonates through the letter, indeed, it saturates the letter and makes it what it is. So, too, with the preacher. His communication is with the totality of his person, history, and personality. But what if the words are not his at all? Then two things are certain: loss of authenticity and loss of voice. Congregations know and feel this. It has a negative effect, akin to listening to a speech from a politician who reads it from a teleprompter. It is artificial. We know someone else wrote it. So does your congregation. And if they know and feel it, your practice may even engender a hint in their minds that it does not mean much to you or, worse still, they do not mean much to you that you would fail to take the time with God’s Word to craft a sermon for them.
- Lastly, purchasing an entire pre-packaged sermon series seems to me to be an ethical issue related to stewardship. What congregation either permits or facilitates an expenditure for sermons which do not arise from the pastor whom they remunerate (at least in part and certainly by commission from Christ) to rightly proclaim the Word of God in sermons?