When Ministry Paradigms Collide

Two ministry paradigms collided within me yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what the wreckage looked like, because I'm not sure I really understand what happened. 

Yesterday I attended a seminar on preaching stewardship where we heard from a Lutheran pastor who, from what I can tell, seems to swim in somewhat different church waters than I do.  As I listened to him speak, I found myself saying at times, "Oh, we wouldn't do that in my church," or, "That's not the approach I would take."  I didn't really have any substantial reason to oppose or challenge what he was saying – in fact, much of it made all kinds of sense – but nonetheless it didn't set right with me.

And so I'm not sure what instinct to trust – the "a-ha" moments I was having while listening to him, or the gut-sense that his approach to church was just too different than mine.

For example, he offered an outline for a sermon series.  My gut reaction was to wince and mutter to myself, I don't do sermon series.  But, the series he presented was lectionary-based, making it a bit more appealing.  But still, for reasons rational or not – perhaps I'm just a snob – I don't do sermon series.  I have usually found them gimmicky.  Yet … yet I know that people in the pews often find such sermon series to be effective tools connecting various themes and helping them listen for something in the sermon.  (OK, my ambivalence about sermon series and sermon titles would make a full post, but that's for another day.)

Yet his sample sermon series was designed to respond to the question, "How do Christians live?"  A wonderful topic, but one that all but requires the preacher to preach about us, to make us and the way we live our lives central to the sermon.  But I've been taught, and I strive to put into practice, an understanding of preaching as proclaiming the Good News of God's work in the world, not a discourse about our work in the world.  Sermons have as their subject God, and as their object the world (including us). I'd be more than glad to teach about the Christian life, using his outline, but to preach about it?  I see preaching and teaching as different tasks.  But – and here comes the moment of realization -  when only a small percentage of the adults who attend worship show up for education hour, why not take the time to teach from the pulpit, when you've got them right in front of you?

Most significantly, perhaps, in describing his ministry this pastor talked alot about making disciples, helping people faithfully follow Jesus.  There was clearly an element of personal conversion in his tone, even if it was far from the "accept Jesus in your heart" conversion formulas of many evangelicals.  On the other hand, I tend to talk about being the church, gathering in community for a shared experience of faith, and the shared witness to Christ we make to the world.  I'm more likely to speak of conversion as something than happens within, and to, a community, than I am to speak about personal conversion.  He and I simply approach the work of the church differently, with different questions and different emphases.  Yet I can see the appeal – and the Biblical basis – for a stronger language of personal discipleship, particularly if set within a communal framework.

And finally, he mentioned that he once presented a large cardboard "golf check" to the director of a local non-profit organization, during worship.  Though I'm a fan of incorporating all kinds of blessings and prayers in worship – from blessings of backpacks to laying on of hands for the sick – the whole big cardboard check presentation thing seems better suited for a banquet or coffee hour gathering or congregational meeting, it seems to me.  On the other hand, worship is the largest weekly gathering of a congregation's membership.  So why not use that gathering to highlight how the congregation gives beyond its doors, and lift up in prayer and praise a community organization with as many church members as possible?  Such a public recognition of support for a community organization could have a great impact on the congregation, even if doing it during worship has a little bit of a "variety show" feel to it.

So I'm torn.  I can see how some of these tactics are or could be effective and appealing.  Nonetheless, I don't do such things.  I don't do preaching series, I try not to teach from the pulpit, and I do all I can to maintain worship as a time of prayer, praise, and blessing, and to save other rituals and gestures – as good and holy and wonderful as they might be – for other settings.  Is this just snobbery getting in the way of effective ministry, or a striving for liturgical perfection that too easily is becoming the enemy of otherwise good ministry?

I don't quite understand the "bigger picture" of the two paradigms that collided within me yesterday.  I can't quite articulate the theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological convictions that stand behind either way of doing church, nor the implications of those convictions.  Sure, I know that he and I approach preaching and worship in different ways, but I can't really tell you what those differences really mean, and what implications they have for the life of the church and the faith of the believer. I need to learn more.

All I know is that my own approach to doing church was challenged yesterday, and I am grateful for the thought-provoking experience.

Preaching and Plagiarism

To what extent is there an expectation that a preacher's sermon is original work?

Surely the expectation is that the preacher proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ.  But is there also an expectation that the words of the proclamation are original words composed by the person speaking them?

If sermons are borrowed from another source, should that fact necessarily be announced in the Sunday bulletin or even from the pulpit itself?  ("Today's sermon comes from Great Lutheran Sermons Volume 32").

What about particular ideas, concepts, or quotes?  Should the sermon follow the term paper rubric, such that every idea, concept or quote that comes from another source is cited?  How should those citations be shared in the delivery of the sermon?  Surely it could be cumbersome to speak and to hear a sermon that constantly references theologians or writers, for example.  Truly, how many of the ideas and concepts we share in our sermons are really original, anyway?

Most Lutheran congregations do very little that can be considered original on Sunday mornings.  Our liturgy and its prayers have been handed down to us over the centuries.  The readings are chosen according to a lectionary cycle and church year calendar that too has been shaped by a tradition that is much larger than the local congregation.  The hymns and anthems?  Almost always they are not original, but composed by others and given to us to use for the glory of God.

So should preaching necessarily be different than these other elements of our Sunday service?  I don't think it makes great pastoral sense to simply pull sermons from http://www.easysermons.com (not a real website) and deliver those week after week on Sunday mornings.  But if the point is to proclaim the Good News – and not to display a particular preacher's creativity, intellect, or faith – what does it matter the source of the sermon?  And if the sermon is not original, or if it is full of borrowed ideas, what is the best way for the preacher to give credit to these sources without clogging the delivery with endless citations and references?

I write all of my sermons, and have never borrowed sermon text from any outside source.  However, are my sermons "original work"?  Not entirely.  I borrow quotes and ideas all the time.  I will reference a source in my preaching if I read from a direct quote (ex, "as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his The Cost of Discipleship …").  Otherwise, when I incorporate substantive ideas or interpretation of a particular text from a commentator, I incorporate those ideas into my sermon generally without making reference to the source in my delivery.  However, when posting sermons online, increasingly I insert a footnote and a link, if available, so that readers might know the source of the particular idea.

At our evening prayer services during Advent and Lent, however, we do not preach original sermons but instead read excerpts from great pastors, theologians, and writers.  We will read from Luther, Bonhoeffer, the Church Fathers, contemporary theologians, etc..  Many of the readings come from the wonderful little prayer book For All The Saints, which includes as part of its order of prayer readings from theologians and writers from across the centuries.  These readings, and their authors, source, and a brief historical context, are always announced prior to the reading.