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Spinning sermons off a web of deceit

Rev. Jack Van Ens

While preaching in a church near Philadelphia during the 1970’s Bicentennial era, I got fired. A publisher of religious periodicals heard my preaching and offered me a part-time position with his firm. I would stay at my church but ghostwrite sermons that he published.

He told me that many preachers lack formal theological education, so crafting a sermon is out of their league. Other preachers are swamped with tasks. They lack sermon preparation time. Some preachers are as flat from the pulpit as a penny laid on a railroad track. They need someone like myself to give some sparkle to their prose. The publisher admitted a bulk of the clergy subscribers to his literary preaching helper get lazy as their careers tumble forward. Shortcuts for sermon preparation allure them. Why not crib from someone who writes for them. Besides, what ego boosters for clergy to think that they do exactly what most presidents pull off. They have a stable of speechwriters who invent memorable phrases and polished prose. Why shouldn’t successful preachers pamper themselves with the same literary aid?

I delivered two batches of sermons in a month. After using some of them for publication, the publisher telephoned to say that he no longer needed my services. He said that my sermons were not chummy enough. I sorted truth from error too much. Folks like to hear sermons that are folksy, not thought provoking. Preachers who subscribed to his preaching service didn’t want sermons too erudite. Worshippers would know, then, that their clergy had not produced them. Sermons full of cozy stories that preachers could adapt to their family situations made the best copy. Preachers who habitually talk about their relatives in sermons demanded the same from ghostwritten scripts, or they cancelled their subscription to canned sermons.

Tom Brandy, senior editor, for “Net Results” aptly details the market niche that my sermons miserably failed to fill. “Modern Christendom wants a nice, down-home, respectable, user-friendly, family-oriented experience of the Holy that will motivate people to respect their neighbor’s privacy and give to the United Way. Instead, the Christianity that revolutionized the apostolic age,” concludes Brandy, “carries people to extremes. People don’t like real apostolic Christians, not because they are mean, but because they are so aggressively merciful; not because they are good neighbors, but because they are Good Samaritans.”

I guess my sermons were read as too extreme, so I got axed as a ghostwriter for preachers. Today, cribbing sermons is easier than a quarter century ago when preachers had to subscribe to journals for packaged sermons. Now all we need do is hit the right key on our computer, download sermonic gems from a multitude of sites, touch the print key and in seconds we have a sermon to deliver which is finer than anything we could crank out, using our own mental muscle.

Randy Cohen, a New York Times syndicated columnist, offers a column called “Everyday Ethics.” Readers press Cohen with their quandaries. A churchgoer asked what should be done with a pastor, who repeatedly passed off as his, plagiarized sermons from the Web. Such preachers wink at the sage’s warning to “Remove dishonesty from your mouth. Put deceptive speech far away from your lips” (Proverbs 4:24).

Cohen feels sorry for preachers who flunked creative writing, whose prose limps across the page and whose sermons make worshippers chafe in a verbal endurance contest. “If an otherwise excellent pastor is clumsy with his pen,” Cohen commiserates, “his parish would be better served by hearing him deliver the profound and stirring words of a more talented author.” Cohen even draws God into this tawdry mess. He puts the Deity to work perfecting His specialty. Since God forgives sin, maybe a plagiarizing clergy should continue to filch text not his own. Then God can stay in practice throwing forgiveness his way. Sin the more that grace may abound! Advises Cohen, “However, [the preacher] is in the business of sin, repentance and redemption and so is surely entitled to be a beneficiary of the doctrine he proclaims.

Preaching Professor Ernest Campbell split time between Manhattan’s Riverside Church pulpit in the 1970’s and Princeton Theological Seminary where he taught me how to craft a sermon. He asked feedback recently on the perennial question of the acclaimed Riverside Church founding preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What’s the matter with preaching today?” I wrote Campbell about what I have observed in several churches.

Traveling through our nation with MAJESTY, I sample sermons from pastors who assist us as we lead worship. Three trends emerge, raising suspicions that preachers are spinning sermons cribbed from Web offerings.

I hear preachers delivering sermons as a professional duty. Few seem to believe in the Word’s power. I find missing passion, conviction, an irresistible urge to find the Holy amid the mundane. Because preachers have not internalized what they lift from the Web, their delivery is a step behind, like an athlete who doesn’t quite have the plays down.

An interior, feel good gospel predominates. I hear success stories about how swell we are. Missing are both a graceful polemical theology and a truthful political theology. Opra’s Dr. Phil on TV has more of a bite when he takes a whiff of sin in stinking human relationships and releases fresh air by honestly riveting on what’s wrong. Canned sermons skirt sin.

Theology fortifying preaching has been trumped by therapeutic fads. Uncle Charlie trots into sermons because he experiences whatever headache we endure. Preachers take stock illustrations from the Web and interject their favorite relative into them. The personality-speak of loving ourselves, accepting ourselves, finding ourselves, fulfilling ourselves through maudlin stories that make us cry sells from a touchy-feeling Web.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister serving with MAJESTY, featuring creative music for worship. MAJESTY can be reached at P.O. Box 8100, Avon, CO 81620. Web site: http://www.majestyministries.org. Van Ens’s book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes” is available at local bookstores for $7.95.


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