Original post date: March 18, 2015
The moment we permit ourselves to think lightly of the Christian Ministry, our right arm is withered; nothing but imbecility and relaxation remains. (Robert Hall, Discouragements and Supports of the Ministry, 45)
It is the best of times and the worst of times for pastors. Technology has made more resources available than ever before; yet the demands of pastoral ministry outpace the ability to keep up. In those moments of feeling overwhelmed, it can be tempting to look for ways to bypass the hard work of sermon preparation.
Unfortunately, there are many ways to take shortcuts in preparing next Sunday’s message. One of the most popular is found in the tsunami of prepackaged programs designed by Christian publishers, promoted by Christian marketing companies, and sold at Christian bookstores. The appeal is simple. For a few dollars, you and your church can embark on “fifty days of this” or “ten weeks of that.” With the swipe of a church credit card, the pastor can put his preaching on cruise control, enabling him to get back to everything else on his busy schedule.
But is prepackaged sermon content really the ministerial boon it claims to be?
In a promotional video for one of these campaigns, the author describes his program as being so easy, you just “add water and stir.” That formula may work for a mediocre mug of cocoa, but it will never satisfy a mature believer who has an appetite for the meat of God’s Word.
My argument is that prepackaged programs (and the campaigns that go with them) are not an adequate substitute for the weekly feeding of God’s flock. Relying on such programs invariably leads to the neglect of the preaching gift (1 Timothy 4:14), and therefore a tendency to think lightly of the pastoral office. This is precisely what promotes the kind of imbecility and laziness that leaves the church anemic and vulnerable to all manner of false teaching and moral impurity.
With that in mind, here are six reasons to resist prepackaged sermons:
The preacher jeopardizes his sanctification. The preacher is relentlessly sifted and tempted by the enemy. If he is persuaded to replace time spent in study with time spent performing other duties, then he will defraud both himself and his hearers. The preacher must watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16), but both will see corruption if not tethered constantly to Scripture.
The preacher tarnishes his gift. Resorting to a campaign essentially circumvents the gift of preaching. The gift is not just communication, but preaching in every season (2 Timothy 4:2). What is seen publically in the delivery must be built privately in the study. Preaching without extensive preparation enhances the threat of glib confidence in one’s natural abilities. On the other hand, the sanctifying work of study will blunt the edge of pride. Daily work in the text polishes the gift until it shines and reflects the glory of Christ who gave it.
The preacher neglects his flock. One selling feature of the campaign is that “everyone goes through the same thing.” This means a uniform reverberation through your small group, quiet time journal, memory system, and DVD sessions. But is that what it means to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2)? No. Real soul care doesn’t come from products, but from preaching and teaching God’s Word. Shepherding means feeding and protecting. The preacher feeds by rightly divide the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). He divides and supplies that meat of the Word like a father would distribute sensible portions to his children. In contrast to one-size-fits-all, a true shepherd knows what would be most beneficial for believers in various stages of maturity (1 John 2:14).
The preacher deprives his students. Some of the casualties in a prepackaged campaign-style ministry are future preachers. They need a mentor who feeds the flock and is “trained in the words of the faith and in the good doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:6). What they get is a man who tries to stay current with the ever-shifting landscape of market driven ministry. Young men need to see a seasoned fighter trained with the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). If a shepherd intends to protect the sheep, then he must be skilled with his sword.
The preacher surrenders his leadership. Ultimate authority in the pulpit comes from a submission to the authority of Scripture (Psalm 119). To abandon personal study in favor of a program dilutes the potency of the message. The authority of the preaching is lost, and the entire leadership mandate compromised. Movies based on a true story rarely match the real story; likewise programs might be based on Scripture but roll limply off the pulpit because the messenger hasn’t lived them. A pastor has to be affected by the text before he can be effective with the text.
The preacher disappoints his Lord. The greatest risk of adopting a prepackaged program is that is does a disservice to the Lord. A good soldier (2 Timothy 2:3-4), hard working farmer (2 Timothy 2:6), trustworthy steward (1 Corinthians 4:2) and dedicated athlete (1 Corinthians 9:24-27), will not be attracted to anything that might disqualify them in their duty to the Lord. It’s hard to imagine that the coveted words “well done good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) will be heard by a pastor who subcontracts the most essential part of his calling to an outside team of market researchers.
A Final Exhortation
If you care about the flock you have been set apart to feed, then you must do the work necessary to bring forth a harvest. Obviously, there are helpful tools available today that make the work easier. However, time-saving tools don’t necessarily lead to a better sermon, and defaulting to a “just add water” solution will never satisfy. Paul does not say, “Shop around for the best program” to show yourself approved. Instead he calls for diligence, committing maximum time and effort to show that you are faithful in handling the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
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Jonathan Rourke has served since 2011 as the pastor at Community Bible Church in Vista, California. He is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary (M.Div, Th.M), and served on staff at Grace Community Church for ten years.