On preachers borrowing from others -responding to John Benton and the evening service debate

John Benton has written on the London Seminary blog about why pastors should continue to fight for the Sunday evening service.  I don’t want to rehearse all the arguments relating to this now.  First because Steve Kneale has already done an excellent job here and secondly because I’ve engaged with the arguments previously. 

Like Steve, I’m happy for a church to have a second meeting if it works in their context.  We introduced an evening gathering at our last church which provided a second service for some and a first opportunity to meet for others.  Oh and to follow up on Steve’s point, yes were qite happy to add more than one gathering with 4 services on a Sunday and a Saturday night because we wanted to be available whenever and wherever people were able to gather to hear God’s Word and worship him. 

However, I want to particularly respond to what John has to say about making the most use of your gifts. I was a little surprised by the direction he took this. Usually the emphasis is on the additional meeting giving more opportunities for others to use their gifts, more space for other preachers, more opportunities to pray, share testimony, lead worship etc. However, John took us down a different route arguing that this gave more opportunities for the pastor to use his preaching gift.

He says:

Plainly, only having one Sunday service a week means less work for a pastor. But God has gifted you as a preacher to speak for him and you should try to make the most of that gift (Rom 12:11).

Many pastors have had it drummed into them in their training that every sermon they preach must be original to them and they feel (perhaps understandably) that they can only manage one such sermon a week. There just isn’t time for more. Hence the morning only Sunday suits them. But they forget that our calling is not to be original but to be helpful. I’m not saying you should just rip off other people’s sermons from the internet and read them out. You have got to preach things that have touched your own heart. But that means that it is not wrong to use other people’s material—that which has spoken to you and fed you spiritually can feed others. Ever heard of the Synoptic problem? The idea that we must never use other people’s material is simply not scriptural. And was it so wrong of Jude to ‘rip off’ 2 Peter (or vice versa)?

As it happens, the realisation that more gatherings gave more opportunities to preach was part of our thinking when we added services.  However, I would strongly contest the suggestion that we make the most of a gift by frequency.  Sometimes less is more. Sometimes it is better to reduce the number of times we speak but work on the quality.

Indeed, the way that John writes suggests a misunderstanding of what the gift of preaching is.  If preaching is just about my skills in oratory, then to be sure, I can make more use of the gift by maximising the number of times I stand in the pulpit. However, it’s not. A significant part of the gift is in the ability to spend time in the week digging into God’s Word and getting to the heart of its meaning, being able to see how it applies to our context. 

So, the question isn’t really about how to minimise workload and whether or not the material has to be original.  I think it is actually possible to prepare two or three sermon for a Sunday and in any case, most churches and definitely those with a viable evening service are likely to have others on the preaching team to share the load. Furthermore, if our responsibility is to ensure that people are well fed with God’s Word, then strictly speaking there should not be more time required to prepare because if I think a full sermon is required on Sunday night, that suggests there wasn’t sufficient food in the morning. In other words, the choice shouldn’t be between more preaching of God’s Word or less, rather it’s whether or not we serve it in one or two sittings.

However, the idea that we can simply re-use the work of others simply doesn’t cut it.  John’s reference to the synoptic Gospels and 2 Peter/Jude is in my opinion a misunderstanding of exactly how those books relate to each other.  If Luke is using Mark and Matthew, then its not in the sense of a cut and paste job.  There is a craft to how the Gospel writers draw upon sources, interact with each other and bring their own specific witness to bear on the text. This means that if I’m to make proper use of other people’s materials then I am not just going to pick up their sermon, make a few adaptions and them preach it more or less as per the original.  This at best makes me a reader of someone else’s sermon and at worst a plagiarist. Not only that, remember that one of my primary responsibilities is to contextualise application to our setting.  It seems to me that the time I spend understanding, reshaping and re-contextualising that sermon by John Stott or Terry Virgo could be better spent going straight to Scripture.

If I think that something from someone else is genuinely helpful for our church family then I should be open and up front about it. Instead of smuggling in their work as part of/the majority of my sermon, I would do better to point them directly to the person.  We can encourage church members to read books, listen to specific sermons on line, follow blogs etc. 

There has been much comment in recent days about Matt Hancock’s obsession with hitting an artificial target for COVID tests during the first lockdown and how that might have affected decisions that could have saved more lives.  Well, lets be careful not to pursue the target of x number of sermons a week to the point where we change the gift of preaching into something different.

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