Too Legit

Bread of deceit is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.
~ Proverbs 20:17

No one expected a Paris-Munich fusion R&B duo to hit big in the US in the late 80s, but that’s what happened. The duet named Milli Vanilli was an overnight international sensation and broke into the US market with the same propulsion. They were topping music charts and playing large shows as their fame exploded. Their sudden success at the end of the 80s merited them a Grammy for Best New Artist at the 1990 awards show.

The sweet bread of success turned to gravel in their mouths though. Their popularity had them appearing all over US media and interviewers found their English very rough and suspicions arose over how their singing could be so good and speech so bad. They experienced technical difficulties during a live show where the vocal track got stuck and repeated the same line over and over. By the end of 1990, despite the US album jackets crediting the pair for the vocals, it came to light they were lip-syncing their songs and had never sung those songs themselves. Their Grammy was revoked and they fell just as quickly as they had risen.

People were upset about the fact they presented themselves as something they were not. The whole deception also met with legal ramifications. To put it simply, Milli Vanilli was a fraud. Of course, if they had billed themselves as what they were from the start, a lip-syncing European dance act, they probably wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same success, but they wouldn’t have been impostors.

Pulpit Syncing

No one thinks the music industry a bastion of morality and ethics, but even they have their limits. A fraud is a fraud, unless, of course, you can get away with it. Audiences have a certain expectation that the performance they paid for is a performance of the performers actually performing. When it turns out to be a fraud, they tend to get upset and feel cheated.

Lip-syncing as such is a form of plagiarism. In the real world, plagiarism gets singers, songwriters, and producers fired. Plagiarism gets reporters, journalists, and editors fired. Plagiarism gets authors and publishers fired. Plagiarism gets students and doctoral candidates fired. Plagiarism gets college and seminary professors fired. But, plagiarism gets preachers fed and maybe even promoted.

There have been a few famous cases in broader evangelicalism where plagiarizing preachers have been exposed, but they don’t usually end up fired. Even in small, conservative Baptist churches, where public visibility is near zero, preachers commit pulpit fraud by plagiarizing sermons more often than you think. Preachers lip-sync the sermons of other preachers to their congregations and the congregations are being defrauded. They’re actually being doubly cheated. They’re not hearing their pastor, whom they supply with daily bread, and they’re not hearing the preacher being plagiarized either.

There are numerous good articles on the subject of pulpit plagiarism and the wrongs of it in recent years, so I’m not going to add to that pile. Go forth and read what has been written. Rather, I want to deal with a problem on the opposite pole from plagiarism—originality.

Same Difference

Not a few pulpit Vanillis have their consciences pricked by decrying pulpit plagiarism and palliate said wounds by asserting the impossibility of originality. No one is truly original, they say, and so everybody plagiarizes. I suppose if we crowdfund the guilt it gets a bit thin by the time we get to the pulpit. This objection doesn’t argue that the charge is inaccurate, but rather asserts that everyone is guilty, and when everyone is guilty, no one is guilty. That logic is also a fraud, but let’s proceed.

Originality in the pulpit can be a problem when the preacher is so original that no one anywhere has ever seen what he sees and preaches. Such preachers have immunity from plagiarism because they are so legit original. No one has ever said what they’re saying. These preachers are like the Athenians that Paul encountered who continually pursued something new (Acts 17:21). Luke contrasts them with the Jews in Berea who thought Paul was preaching something new and so they “searched the scriptures daily,” to see “whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). They found that while Paul was preaching things they had never heard, he wasn’t preaching anything new, in fact Paul himself defended his ministry by saying he preached “none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come” (Acts 26:22).

Just because you or I haven’t heard something before, that doesn’t mean it’s new. But, if it’s some imaginative extrapolation from Scripture that the Scripture nowhere teaches, it is new and should be rejected. Bible preaching is supposed to be preaching of the Bible. Therefore, it’s not original or new. It’s timeless. Anyone with the Spirit and faith should be able to see it from the Bible. That holds true for supposedly sound preachers who always seem to find new paths to old truths.

Gateway Originality

Originality is something of a gateway drug for those who pursue it. A preacher dabbles with novel notions and the finding of types and symbols no one has seen, and ere long he is a fount of original ideas. Once you become that legit original, you’re too legit to quit, though quit is exactly what you should do.

Better Than The King James

For we write none other things unto you, than what ye read or acknowledge; and I trust ye shall acknowledge even to the end;
~ 2 Corinthians 1:13

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky quoting his father Walter Gretzky

Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time? Is he better than The King James? Debates on that question are endless. If you look at the career numbers, the two are very close, with a slight edge to LeBron. Of course, one big difference is that James has played in almost 300 more games than Jordan did, but their per game averages are very close. A team owner would be glad to have either one on their team, but I don’t see how anyone would pick peak LeBron over peak Jordan. Allow me to opine.

Jordan’s professional record has been perfectly preserved as the only player to have two three-peat championships, along with several other still-standing records. It’s impossible to think Jordan could be improved upon. He was tried seven times in the playoffs (1985-1991) before he won his first championship on his seventh consecutive trip to the postseason. He went on to win the next two championships making three in a row before retiring for a little while and then coming back and winning three more championships in a row.

You may wonder how his old school game would translate into to today’s modern game. LeBron plays in today’s game, so there’s no reason to think Jordan wouldn’t. Players today understand Jordan. In fact, everyone playing today is trying to be Jordan. The eye test of watching both play clearly shows Jordan played with double the inspiration of James. The bottom line is that Jordan was good enough for grandpa and he’s good enough for me. I conclude Jordan is better than The King James, but I’m not mad about it.

The Shots You Take

Over the course of his professional career, Jordan missed 11,148 two-point shots, 1,197 three-point shots, and 1,445 free throws. He missed 13,790 total shots in his 15 seasons. I know we usually talk about shots made, but that’s a large number of shots missed. I’m sure he intended to make everyone of the shots he took. If I am permitted the liberty of adapting Walter Gretzky’s wisdom, You intend to make 100% of the shots you take. But, you don’t make them all.

When it comes to winning and losing a game, intentions don’t count. You either made the shot or missed the shot. No matter how much Jordan wanted in his heart to make those shots, or how often he dreamed and envisioned the ball going through the hoop, he missed 13,790 times. No matter how hard he tried to make them, nor how much he thought they would go in, he still missed half the shots he took. His career field goal percentage was 49.7%, though it was better from the foul line at 83.5%. Obviously, no one would be upset with those career numbers, nor with the career results of Michael Jordan. However, he still missed a lot of shots.

The point is that a miss is a miss, no matter the intentions to make it. This principle is objective and applies to fields beyond basketball or hockey. If a comedian tells a joke and no one gets it, or only one guy laughs, that’s a miss. He intended to be funny, but he failed to communicate the humor. He took a shot and missed. On the other hand, if he tells a joke and everybody in the room laughs except that one guy, that’s a make. A comedian gets up to do a set and each bit doesn’t get a room full of laughs, but if most of the people laughed most of the time, he made enough shots to be successful.

Nobody Shoots 100%

No one makes every shot they take. 50% may be a great career field goal percentage, but it would be a terrible pulpit percentage. Preachers are taking shots every time they preach. The preacher’s job is to explain the written word of God in its original contextual meaning and accurately apply it to the hearers today. Every time a preacher fails to preach a text, he misses. No matter how much a preacher intends to preach the Bible, if he doesn’t actually preach the Bible in an understandable way, he misses.

The gift for preaching refers primarily to the ability to communicate clearly. The pastor must “be able” to “exhort and convince” (Titus 1:9). He must “be able to teach” (2 Timothy 2:2). He “must be … apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24). That doesn’t mean that every misunderstanding is a miss on the preacher’s part. Paul defended his ministry as being honest, open, and clearly communicating the gospel of Christ, but acknowledged that the truth was hidden from some because their minds were blinded, not because he failed to communicate (2 Corinthians 4:1-6).

If a preacher frequently leaves people questioning what he meant, he is missing a lot of shots. He may have intended to preach the Bible, but he missed. The preacher’s job is to communicate clearly. That’s what he’s up front to do. If a preacher leaves the pulpit failing to have explained the Bible so the people just have to take his word for it, he missed. If a preacher preaches “the truth,” but fails to preach the text or clearly show “the truth” from Scripture, he missed.

No preacher hits 100% of his shots, but that should be the goal. The preacher should aim for clarity every time he opens the Bible to preach it. If he’s not aiming for that, what is he aiming for? The alarming truth is that not every preacher is aiming for biblical clarity in the pulpit. Many are aiming for something else, and that is probably worth a separate post.

Everyone Loses

Regardless of which version of the James vs. Jordan debate you prefer, can we agree that it doesn’t matter all that much? People talk a lot about goats today, but, of course, goats refer to something else in church speak. Is Jordan better than The King James? I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter, but when a preacher shoots 50% or less for his career, everyone loses.

50 Million Opportunities

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
~ Matthew 12:36

Spurgeon was an average preacher.

Did I really just suggest Spurgeon was an average preacher? If you know anything about Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), you have reason to be suspicious. He started preaching at 17 years old, and by the time he turned 20, he had preached over 600 times. For most of his ministry, he preached about 10 times a week. Spurgeon preached for 38 years and died at age 57. For much of his ministry, his weekly sermons were published in 20 different languages and sold 20,000 copies per week. His collected and published sermons filled 63 volumes with around 25 million words, and is the largest set of books ever published by a single author. In 2017, a two-volume set of his previously unpublished sermons was released. He preached to crowds of many thousands at a time and it’s estimated he preached to over 10 million people in his lifetime.

Spurgeon also managed do a few things outside the pulpit. He wrote over 140 other books besides his published sermons. He pastored a congregation of 4,000 members, edited a monthly magazine, and answered 500 letters per week. He read around six books each week, usually of substantial Puritan theology, and could remember what he read. He founded and oversaw over 60 organizations, had a pastor’s college that trained close to one thousand preachers in his lifetime, and he regularly counseled what he called difficult cases. In other words, all the hard situations no other pastors could figure out were referred to him. He had a wife who was near invalid and twin sons. He also lived with constant physical pain and criticism and slander. It’s estimated he donated nearly 50 million dollars to ministries in his lifetime. Even this is not everything that could be said about him. Oh, and he did it all without a Macbook or iPhone, or even electricity since the first public electricity generator wasn’t installed until 1881 in Surrey. For that matter, he did it all without a college or seminary education.

I know what you’re thinking. Nothing about that sounds average, and you’re right. It’s not average, and it’s one of the reasons it’s laughable whenever anyone compares a modern preacher to Spurgeon. Spurgeon has not been equaled, and the only safe or sane estimate is to expect that record to stand. But, in what way was Spurgeon average?

Average Numbers

I confess I am not a Spurgeon scholar, or any other kind of scholar while we’re on the subject of my deficiencies. I have read a lot of what Spurgeon wrote and a lot of what has been written about him. So far, I’ve only found one measure of Spurgeon where he was average, and that was his speech in the pulpit. I realize Spurgeon was famous for his unmatched eloquence in the pulpit, but I’m talking about his rate of speaking words in the pulpit. It has been figured to have been around 140 words per minute, which is within the average of 120-150 words per minute for public speaking. Spurgeon wasn’t a fast talker, neither literally nor figuratively. Here is one area where we preachers can take heart that we are very much like Spurgeon. We probably speak words in that same average range for public speaking like he did.

You might to be tempted to take small comfort in that fact, but we can make something of it. If Spurgeon preached 140 words per minute for an average of 40 minutes for the first three years of his ministry, he preached 3,360,000 words in those 600 sermons he preached. If he preached an average of ten times a week, then he annually preached 2,912,000 words. The average pastor today preaches 2-3 times per week. Let’s take the higher number and say the average pastor preaches three times a week for 45 minutes at a rate of 140 words per minute. Each sermon would be 6,300 words and add up to 982,800 words each year. That’s a lot of words, but still less than 34% of Spurgeon’s annual output. Even when Spurgeon was average at the number of words he produced per minute, he still managed preach three times the number of words preached by the average pastor in a year. Maybe he wasn’t so average after all.

Beyond the Numbers

Pastoring is, or should be, a long game. Most pastors would hope for 25-30 years of fruitful ministry. Some do get beyond that. 6,300 hundred words preached in a single sermon doesn’t seem like much. Of course, three sermons a week come out to 18,900, and 156 sermons a year add up to 982,800. The average pastor today is producing around one million words from the pulpit every year.

Those words really start to stack up when you count ministry in years. After 5 years of ministry, the average pastor has preached 4,914,000 words. 10 years doubles that number and 20 years quadruples it to 19,656,000 words. If you make it to 40 years, you will have preached 39,312,000 words, and 50 would be 49,140,000. Think about that. 50 years of preaching will produce around 50 million words preached. That is a lot of words. Of course, the average pastor in 50 years of preaching would still produce less than half the words of Spurgeon in his 38 years, which would be 110,656,000.

Let’s forget about Spurgeon for the moment and consider what these numbers might teach us. David and Moses both teach us the benefit of numbering our days ahead of time (Psalms 39:4; 90:12), so numbering our words ahead of time should benefit preachers. Considering the number of words we are likely to speak in public is especially sobering when we consider that we will have to account for each one (Matthew 12:36). Jesus said that every careless word will be accounted for and surely this will be a part of the accounting we all shall have to give in the future (Ecclesiastes 12:14; Romans 14:12; 1 Peter 4:5).

Every word a preacher speaks from the pulpit is an opportunity to get it right and get it wrong. We get it right when we accurately expound the text in its original contextual meaning and speak according to the analogy of the faith. We get it wrong when we misinterpret or misuse the text, but we also get it wrong when we speak carelessly. Careless words are spoken without thought and consideration.

Who’s Counting

I’m scared to think of how many of the millions of words I’ve preached to this point have been careless words. I know there have been wrong words in there, since I’m not infallible and don’t have all knowledge. I’ve been preaching for over 20 years. Do I have another 20 years to go? I don’t know. Only God knows that.

I do know that words from the pulpit will be judged with greater strictness than words spoken on the street (James 3:1). Since Jesus said every careless word would be accounted for, he’s obviously keeping count. How many preachers’ words are careless when they get in the pulpit with little preparation, study, and forethought? How many times do preachers just rare back and let ‘er fly? Will those words still be counted careless if they said what was true, but it was almost accidental because they gave it little to no consideration beforehand?

These thoughts should make us tremble over the words we have spoken and will yet speak. Each word matters and each word is an opportunity for right or wrong. The only way to assure we are preaching thoughtful and true words and minimizing careless ones is to follow the preaching program Paul charged Timothy with, “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Paul meant “all scripture” (2 Timothy 3:16). Preach the words God gave in the way he gave them and you can make your words count for good.

Clower Power in the Pulpit

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.
~ Proverbs 15:17

Haaaaaw! is a word.

You may not know it to look at me, but I love humor, love to laugh. To this day, Jerry Clower is my favorite comedian. My Dad introduced me to Jerry Clower via cassette tape when I was pretty young. I immediately loved the southern humorist and listened to those tapes in such a manner that if he had managed to be paid per play, I would’ve been a top contributor to his estate. With that southern drawl and southwest Miss’ssippi brogue, you would think he could make the instruction manual for the cassette player I used to listen on sound interesting.

What was it that made him so successful? During different shows, he told about his breaking into show business. Any sort of success on that level requires some right-place-right-time breaks, but that is not the whole story. He still had to have something that enough people wanted they were willing to pay for it to succeed. Without that something, all the breaks in the world wouldn’t be enough. Just think about why we talk about one hit wonders.

Secret of Success

Some of his trademark charm was owing to being a somewhat stereotypical southern man. He was also a quintessential southern man of a bygone era. He was born in the rural Deep South almost half a century after Reconstruction. He was born before the stock market crash, lived through the Great Depression, and served in the Navy during World War II. By the time he began entertaining in live shows on stage in the early 70s, he was a bridge to a world that no longer existed. He delivered homespun humor and wit from a simpler time with authenticity.

But the greatest contributor to his success was that he was funny. If you had asked him if he was funny or if his stories were funny, he would’ve answered he was funny. I’ve read that he once said something like, he didn’t tell funny stories, but rather he told stories funny. While he certainly embellished his stories, he also said he thought the funniest things actually happened. The core of his humor was real life.

Jerry and the Pulpit

Several of his bits involved churches and preachers. I recall a short bit that told of a church that got a new pastor and all of his sermons for the first few months were on baptism. After a while, the deacons had a meeting with him about his preaching. The preacher suggested they select the next text he would preach. They settled on Matthew 3:10 and he agreed. Come Sunday morning, the preacher read the text and quickly got to his point. He said the only reason anyone would lay the ax to the root of the trees was to cut down the trees to dam up the creek to have a hole deep enough for baptizing. He proceeded to preach yet another message on baptism.

That story is funny because it is true to life. I don’t know if it really happened as told, mostly happened with added embellishment, or if that particular scenario never occurred. It was true to life because we have probably all known preachers who were about like that. They have their favorite subjects and can pivot from any verse in the Bible to talk about those subjects. I once heard a message that started from a text about the Ark of the Covenant, but became a message about the hellish public school system. So, it happens.

This old Jerry Clower bit gives us an opportunity to think about something else. Preachers who aren’t committed to the sequential exposition of the whole Bible tend to preach repeatedly on a handful of subjects. They use the same verses, same illustrations, and same jokes again and again. They can find their pet topics in Bible verses the Holy Spirit didn’t even know was there. Even long term pastors can become not much better than traveling evangelists who have five sermons and a thousand different titles.

Reconstruction of Another Kind

Let’s conduct a thought experiment for young preachers. Let’s think about reverse engineering the Bible. Let’s say there was a group of people who had no access to a Bible. All they had was a library archive of your preaching for twenty or thirty years. After listening to the whole archive of your sermons, what would they think the Bible was about? What would they think were the most important themes and messages of the Bible? What would they think was of first importance, like what Paul wrote about the gospel to the church at Corinth? What proportion of subject mentions would they deduce?

If they had an archive of Jerry Clower’s preacher, they would think baptism was the most important message of the Bible. If they listened to some preachers, they would think public schools, clothes, and the hellivision were written about on every page of the Bible. From some, they might not even suspect the Old Testament existed. From others, they would think the church was mentioned more often than the kingdom by far.

There is another way to think about this too. From listening to your sermon archive, how much of the Bible could they actually reconstruct? Some have said you could reconstruct nearly the whole Bible from the writings of the church fathers. That claim is a stretch, but they did reference much of the Bible. It is not a stretch, though, to say that of John Gill, who pastored the same church in London for over 50 years and preached verse-by-verse through the entire Bible. I don’t agree with all of Gill’s conclusions and views, but it’s hard to argue with the comprehensiveness of his ministry.

Perspective

I’m not suggesting that you have to preach every verse of the Bible or your ministry is a failure. Even Spurgeon did not do that. This thought experiment is an opportunity to think about ministry from a larger perspective. We sometimes think too much about the next sermon and not enough about the next five, ten, or twenty years of sermons. I’m also not suggesting that you plan out twenty years of sermons and stick doggedly to your schedule. If you commit to sequential exposition of the Bible and preach from the different genres of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, you will preach the word, preach the whole counsel, and fulfill the ministry you have been given (2 Timothy 4:1; Acts 20:27; Colossians 4:17). You will preach the subjects the Bible actually addresses and in the balance the Bible presents them. You will probably still hear complaints about something though. Sorry, I don’t know what to do about that.

To Preach a Book: Sermon 7 – God is Not Silent

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

The seventh sermon covers the short, transitional scene in Ruth 2:18-23. This scene is like a bridge to move from the important events earlier in chapter 2 to those in chapter 3.

Sermon Introduction

I gave a brief review of the climactic resolution of the previous scene. Ruth went out empty, but came back full after a day of gleaning in the field. As important as that was, it was more important that she met Boaz.

I also introduced the third scene and highlighted its importance. The third scene resolves the dramatic tension built up in the previous scene. Providence had turned for Naomi and Ruth, but neither of them knew it. So this third scene turns on revelation, where both Naomi and Ruth learn what they didn’t know.

Verses 18-20 Naomi is Surprised by Grace

Ruth returned home to report to Naomi what happened. Naomi is surprised by the food she brings and inquires where she gleaned that day. When Naomi learns that it was Boaz’ field and what transpired between Boaz and Ruth, she is beyond elated. She prays a blessing on Boaz and recognizes God’s hand of providence at work. She reveals the family connection to Ruth.

Verses 21-23 Ruth Remains Faithful

Ruth gives further revelation to Naomi that Boaz not only blessed her for a day, but invited to glean in his field for the entire harvest season. Of course, Naomi advises Ruth to accept his invitation.

The scene ends with summary exposition. Ruth spent the next two months gleaning in the fields of Boaz. She stayed with his maid servants following the reapers. She was given safety and provision, which they both lacked when arriving in Bethlehem. Apparently, nothing further happened between Ruth and Boaz.

Sermon Conclusion

Ruth’s identity and character is further established by this scene. It is apparent that God was working for the good of Ruth and Naomi, while he was accomplishing his redemptive purpose in bringing forth David and the Messiah. We are furnished with a good picture of what daily faithfulness looks like. It means trusting God to accomplish his redemptive purpose and daily walking by faith according to his word.

Links

You can listen to the seventh sermon here.

Up Next

Next we will look at the eighth sermon in the series.

This post is part a of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

A Portrait of the Preacher as an Everyman

He is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass
~ James 1:23

Who are you?

Are you an artist? Pastors get asked all kinds of questions. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you haven’t. I was actually asked once if I was an artist. This question was a corker with no sort of warm up. I was caught by surprise but I didn’t need long to think about it. I am in fact not an artist. I can’t conceive of any possible description of an artist that would fit me. I have never even owned nor worn a beret. I did the only thing an honest man could do and admitted I was not an artist. Then I was told how the former beloved pastor, to whom I would never measure up, had painted this beautiful mural that really ought to be on display somewhere with other comparable works of true art. That wasn’t maybe the exact words I heard, but surely I’ve captured the sense of them.

As a preacher, you will be compared to other preachers. People have some preacher or preachers in their minds who are the ideal preacher. Every preacher stands or falls to them in comparison to that ideal. Some men do have multiple talents and skills. They could build a house, paint a picture, sculpt like Michelangelo, pilot a Cessna, perform brain surgery, execute a deed of trust, and move an audience to tears while playing their own composition on the violin, all while preaching sermons like an angel come down from heaven. They seem to have won life’s lottery while you could wallpaper your whole house inside and out with your losing tickets. That is of course, if you could hang wallpaper, which you probably can’t.

As a young preacher, you feel a lot of pressure to measure up and to be like some such lofty ideal. Years into pastoring, you become depressed because you can’t see any great accomplishments stacking up. Any honest barber would tell you, “God makes the heads. I just cut the hair.” All any of us have to work with is what we have to work with. Honestly, most of us preachers are single talent preachers. We are not Charles Spurgeon, or anyone else other than ourselves. Remember the parable of the talents or minas. Each servant was judged by what they did with what they received and not by what someone else received.

If you work hard at the ministry, carefully handle the word of God so that you preach it accurately, and love your people, you have done your duty. So what that you’re not the most naturally talented guy in the ministry. I have heard some preachers who have loads of natural talent who don’t actually preach as well as some preachers without as much natural talent. That’s because they lean on that talent and don’t work as hard as they should at the study of scripture and the exposition of the text. They are regularly praised without doing all that work, but are they being truly faithful to their calling?

One day, we all will have to give an account of our ministry to Jesus Christ himself (1 Corinthians 3:5-15). On that day, you won’t be asked if you’re an artist like this other preacher was, or if you could tell jokes like old brother pastor did. You won’t be asked why you didn’t preach like this one or that one. You will be asked how you fed Christ’s sheep. That is our charge.

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