The Reformers elevated the role of preaching in various ways. They emphasized that sermons should be in the vernacular of the people so that preaching is clear and understandable. They accentuated the importance of the education and training of the pastor so that preaching is informed and responsible.
But Luther, for one, also wanted to see preaching that was not lazy. He railed against indolent preachers whom he regarded as worthless.
Luther excoriated those “lazy, no good” preachers who get all their material from others, from homiletical helps and sermon books, without praying, reading, and searching the Scriptures for themselves. (Timothy George. The Theology of the Reformers. B&H 1988, 92).
Here are three signs that might reveal we are in danger of a kind of laziness that Luther detested.
1. Using Helps in an Unhelpful Way
Helps aren’t bad — they’re supposed to help. Books of sermon illustrations, anecdotes, humor and the like can assist the preacher. Most of us would consider commentaries, lexicons and the like as more than helpful. They’re indispensable. But not when they are used wrongly.
When we go to these books too early in the sermon process we are not being good students of Scripture. We are deliverers of sermon content, sure. Yet without the personal investment and diligent effort put into the study of the biblical text we will not have done the work of a preacher.
We don’t just deliver the Word of God, we delight in it (Psalm 1:2). We don’t just lead with the Word of God, we meditate on it (Joshua 1:8). We allow Scripture to equip us first so that we can then preach it (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2). Churches need their pastors to own the passage and for the passage to own them.
Helps are great when they help. But if we are bypassing our own study to simply repackage the studies of others, we are shirking our responsibility.
2. Prayer-less Preaching
I can easily go about preparing a sermon and at some point realize I’m not doing a whole lot of praying along the way. I can outline a passage because I know how to study it. I can put together a sermon because I know how to compose it. But perhaps I’m not driven to pray like I should because I am not wrestling with the text. I might take the import of the passage too lightly. I might agree with the verses too quickly.
When I bang through the steps it takes to develop a sermon and I realize it’s not requiring much prayer — prayer for guidance, prayer for clarity, prayer for understanding, prayer for confidence in God’s grace upon me — I am struck with the fact that it’s probably because I feel that my education and training is guiding me pretty well, thanks. I’m pretty clear on this text, I get the grammar and the context. I’m not praying because I’m confident that “I’ve got this.”
It’s probably not that I don’t want to pray or that I forget to pray. It’s more likely that I am too quickly coming to the conclusion that I understand it well enough. Or perhaps I’m assuming that the primary application is to a few people I have in mind at church rather than myself. It’s hard work to let the passage work you hard. But it’s vital and it should drive us to our knees.
3. Paint-By-Numbers Sermons
Those of us who have been preaching for a while know how easy it is to settle into a pattern of sermon preparation that has become habit and has quite frankly dulled from over-use. It’s called a rut. The introduction goes in the front, the conclusion in the back, the body contains your points and each one might benefit from a really engaging illustration. We develop a plug-and-play modus operandi where it’s easy to fill in the boxes each week.
In order to fill in these same old boxes each week, we reach for the helps. We might prefer to draw on the wealth of knowledge stored up in our own minds, but for many of us those stores of knowledge are not very wealthy. So we rely heavily on the “homiletical helps and sermon books.”
We need to spend the time and energy it takes to keep our own treasury of knowledge filled so that we have large personal stores to draw from. Rather than having the need for an illustration drive us to pick up a book, we should already be so well-read that our own illustrations, cross-references, insights and explanatory content are at the ready more often than not. We should be spending large chunks of our week simply reading and studying.
We should aim to be worthy preachers who do not get all our material from others. We should be preachers who pray, read and search the Scriptures for ourselves.