The Imitation Danger


Look at those robes! If I had robes like that, I’m sure I could preach like him.

I’ve been slowly reading through Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching, which thus far has been an experience both brilliant and enriching. Originally delivered at Yale in 1877, the series of lectures examine the life of the preacher and the construction of the sermon. Whether or not you are a preacher, Brooks’s insights into the ministry and the nature of formation bear fruit in many areas. If you are a preacher, I don’t know that I can recommend it highly enough.

In one chapter on how to construct a sermon, Brooks warns sternly against the danger of imitation in preaching—the unique pitfall of copying the style, mannerisms, and delivery of another preacher. One of the chief criticisms he offers is that, essentially, we are bad at measuring what makes someone successful. He writes, “that which is worst in any man is always the most copiable. And the spirit of the copyist is blind. He cannot discern the real seat of the power that he admires. He fixes on some little thing and repeats that perpetually as if so he could get the essential greatness of his hero” (167). We hear one speaker who tells great stories and conclude, “I ought to include more stories.” We hear another who exposits the text verse-by-verse and think, “I ought to go verse by verse.” One minister reads a manuscript, while another memorizes a manuscript, while yet another preaches extemporaneously. Each model is attempted as an avenue to a certain kind of success. In each case we miss the real point, and in imitation we are perpetually wont to ape secondary, rather than primary, things.

This is as true of church growth models as it is of preachers. Studies are performed which analyze and decode the elements of success which mark churches that grow—the casting of clear vision, administration, the humility of the members, healthy organization, buy-in, etc. Other churches, wanting to succeed, strive to imitate these elements. But in copying, they miss the heart of what brought growth to the church. In essence, all those features are secondary. Churches don’t seek humility as an end in itself, they seek Christ and are made humble in the process. Churches don’t seek good administration in itself, they follow Christ and are forced to learn administration as they follow. Churches don’t invent vision, they seek God’s vision and follow it as it pertains to their particular location, people, and needs. I remember reading about a minister who attended a Willow Creek conference. Returning, and energized, he announced to his church that he knew what they needed to take the church to the next level: they would remove their pews and replace them with Willow Creek style theater seats.

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Brooks admonishes, “if you really reverence a great man, if you look up to and rejoice in his good work, if you truly honor him, you will get at his spirit, and doing that you will cease to imitate his outside ways” (169). If we would truly grow our own ministries, or our own pulpit service, then our imitation must be in seeking the same spirit as those we admire, and not their accidentals. We must become adept at discerning between what C.S. Lewis once called in an essay “First and Second Things.” An application of Augustine’s Ordo Amoris, Lewis observed that we must love in the proper proportion those things which are most worthy of love. If we love second things first—an incidental rather than an essential—then we are on a path to losing out on both the first and the second thing. But if we love the first thing first, then we are likely to get the second thing thrown in as a bonus. Ape the style, and you will miss the soul. Great preachers are great not because they have great style, but because they are marked by a great and convinced love of Jesus. Great churches grow not because they are well organized and manifest all the fruits of the Spirit, but because they have sought and are pursuing a vision of Jesus in their midst.

All in all, you can never put on another preacher’s, or another church’s, success as your own. The clothes will not and cannot fit. At best, they will provide a temporary surge of energy. At worst, in distraction you will lose sight of your true call—which is not to attend to the success of others but rather to obedience to Christ where you are. Brooks has this to say as well, “The temptation of imitation is so insidious that you cannot resist it by the mere determination that you will not imitate. You must bring a real self of your own to meet this intrusive self of another man that is crowding in upon you” (169). The preacher must be true to himself—an individual exhibiting the transforming power of the Gospel as it is filtered through his personality, not the personality of another. In the same way the local church must be true to itself, manifesting the transforming power of grace to its people, in its location, in the flavor and aroma of its city. To do less is to cheat both ourselves and our neighbors of the power of the Gospel.

There will always be shining lights among both preachers and churches. Brooks, of these, says somewhat sardonically that, “There are some preachers who have done noble work, of whom we are often compelled to question whether the work that they have accomplished is after all greater than the harm that they have innocently done by spoiling so many man in doing it” (166). It falls then to individuals and churches alike to ward against the danger of imitation—not by ignoring God’s work done through these bright stars in ministry, but by connecting ourselves with their true source for success: our vine-tapped life into the living work of Jesus Christ.


Noteless Preaching and the Preacher’s Task

The following lengthy passage, taken from Charles Merrill Smith’s “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious,” offers a piercingly satirical vision for the life of an ambitious minister.

Bishop CoverNotes on Noteless Preaching:

Let us now turn our attention to some do’s and don’ts of preaching, little practical suggestions—each by itself a small thing perhaps—but put together adding up to great things for you so far as preferment in your calling is concerned.

At the top of the list of those items which you should do is this: Always preach without manuscript or notes of any kind.

Young clergymen seldom grasp the value of perfecting themselves in the “noteless” style of sermon delivery. Most of us have weak memories and feel horribly insecure without the comforting presence of a manuscript on the podium in front of us. Not one person in a thousand feels naturally inclined to this style of delivery. It is this very scarcity of noteless preachers which works to the advantage of the man who is one.

When you preach without notes, the focus of attention for the congregation is not your sermon but your performance. Since most of your listeners are paralyzed and inarticulate in front of an audience with everything they intend to say written down and before them, they are vastly amazed that anyone can stand up and talk for twenty minutes or so without visible aids to the memory, no matter what he says.

This situation obviates the need for undue concern over the content of your sermon since hardly anyone will be more than casually interested in what you say, thus lightening your preparatory labors and granting you many extra hours every week to do with what you please—hours which your less gifted brethren of the cloth will spend sweating over the manufacture of a manuscript for Sunday morning.

You may have observed already that the possession of a noteless preacher is a genuine status symbol for a church, the ecclesiastical equivalent of a chinchilla coat or recognition by the headwaiter at Le Pavillon. These confer status because they are rare, and rare status symbols cost quite a bit of money. This law operates just as surely in the ecclesiastical world as in the secular world, and a noteless preacher always commands a higher salary than even the most profound of his brethren who encumber themselves with manuscripts.

Those fortunate few congregations blessed with a noteless preacher become inordinately proud of him, and brag about him much as they brag about breaking 80 at golf or being invited to the Governor’s for tea. They never comment that their preacher is learned or witty or forceful or devout or thought-provoking or inspiring. They always say, “You know, he preaches without a single note.”

Also, the noteless style endears you to the extremely pious members of your flock who tend to be suspicious of written sermons on the grounds that excessive advance preparation allows insufficient opportunities for the workings of divine inspiration. The extemporaneous homily seems to them to come from the heart instead of the head, and is thus a sure sign and seal that their preacher is “spiritual.”

~ Charles Merrill Smith, “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious” 38-39.

As a preacher who has personally made the transition from sermons in full manuscript to preaching with only minimal notes, I read the above passage with no small amount of mirth. There is something strikingly true about the tacit change a listening congregation undergoes when a preacher preaches without notes. People’s faces are more engaged (largely because you are looking at them and making eye contact), they respond with greater emotional resonance to the things you say, and one receives more positive general feedback (of the “I enjoyed your sermon” variety). Regrettably, this transition has made me suspicious of my own congregation. Suspicious, because I know for a fact that my shift into “noteless” preaching has not resulted in an improvement in sermon quality. Quite the opposite, I am confident that the overall quality has in fact decreased.

When I first began writing sermons, now almost thirteen years ago, the writing process was labored. I would brainstorm, reflect, and write out the sermon word for word. A sermon, let us be clear, is not simply a matter of “just speaking to people.” A sermon is a carefully reflected piece of rhetoric, born of devotion, study, prayer, and intentional construction. The preacher who neglects any of these elements has no right to stand before the Church and instruct, because his casual attitude toward the sermon disqualifies him from service. For my part, those first sermons were tinted by some real awkwardness—I hadn’t yet learned how to write for my own voice. There is a real difference between writing to be read, and writing to be spoken, and I think most people only learn this when they try to read what they’ve written out loud. It can be shocking to the reader! In time, I learned and became adept at writing so that the written word matched my spoken voice in cadence.

On average, 1000 written words equates to about ten minutes of spoken sermon, therefore an average 30 minute sermon would then be composed of no less than 3000 words. This means that the preacher, in preparation, is each week researching and producing a 3000+ word presentation for public consumption on Sunday morning. This fact elevates the sheer difficulty of memorization, because only the most exceptional of minds would be able to memorize such a treatise each week. Further, if you as a minister are committed to manuscripting and then memorizing, your sermon each week, the time commitment for such a process will drain you from all the other tasks asked of the professional minister. There simply isn’t time to keep it all up.

Sweating ProfuselyFor five years of full-time ministry, I manuscripted and read my sermons each week. I did not memorize, because I was aware of my own limitations in that area. Additionally, I knew that while the written word was well-crafted and honored all the nuance and depths which the Scriptures called for, whenever I strayed from the manuscript the product was diminished. Speaking on my own meant speaking with less poetry, less craft, less depths, and less overall insight. A manuscripted sermon for me ensured that the depths of teaching were secured.

However, I recognized that there was an element of fear involved in this as well. One of the reasons I didn’t want to stand in front of the congregation and preach without notes is because I had come to trust in the manuscript as a buffer of safety between me and the congregation. I’m not sure if this fear was warranted or not, or if my thoughts were justified or not. At the same time, I began to feel that I had stalled in my development as a preacher. The next option to attempt was to change my style to a noteless—or at least minimally noted—format. This was met by fear, but I also felt that it was something I needed to attempt. Thus, the choice to preach without notes was for me an act of trusting God.

Not having to manuscript and “rehearse” a sermon each week has released an enormous amount of time into my schedule. Consequently, Charles Merrill Smith’s words about the time saved for a noteless preacher struck close to home. I spend less time preparing a sermon, and need less time to practice it. I still study and outline heavily, but there are significant portions of what is said each week that is not prepared. This leads to a number of uncomfortable questions. Am I trusting in God’s Spirit for those utterances, or am I relying too heavily on my own natural gifts at public speaking? Am I lazy in preparation, or am I simply utilizing those assets God has given me in effective ways? There are not clear answers to these questions, however I am confident of two things: first, that the quality of my sermons has diminished, and second, people like my sermons more.

This is where Smith’s criticism comes home most clearly to the congregation, because he identifies neatly the brute fact that noteless preaching draws the attention of the congregation away from the content of the sermon to the virtuosity of the preacher; it can make of congregants spectators at an event rather than hearers of the word, and shifts the heart from evaluating the Word to reflecting on how I felt at the time. Now, every effective sermon ought to touch hearts as well as minds, but something in the noteless sermon weights the experience for the congregation on the “heart” side of the matter and minimizes the mind. This is a dangerous propensity.

Slain in the Spirit

Look Ma, no notes!

To the congregant, then, I say this: the sermon is a moment of weekly instruction, not performance; it is a prepared event of teaching and proclaiming that requires your attentive listening, and is not a passive reception which you either “feel” or don’t. At your weekly church service, you are not, and have never been, a spectator.

To the preacher, however, I want to say something else—or, rather, five somethings else.

1.Let people be people. We must acknowledge that people will be people. They are emotional beings who respond in emotional ways to the things we do in our public service. We ought not to chastise them for responding in accordance with their humanity to a public worship service. However, by means of our own faithful self-offering, we must seek to instruct them well, calling them to deeper reflection and insight into the Word. The sermon is never anti-emotion, but is best when it harmonizes heart and mind.

2. Stand in service to the Word, not the congregation’s desires. The appeal of different styles of preaching is that some appear to connect more readily with the congregation. The preacher must guard his own heart against the allure of adjusting style for the sake of congregational happiness. This doesn’t mean that we preach in a way that is intentionally obtuse, or that we make the sermon difficult on purpose—quite the opposite, it is a critical part of the preacher’s task to know his people and speak to them where they are. But he must also be aware that the people are not always the best judges of what they need or want. People like comfortable things, and the Gospel is a profoundly uncomfortable thing. The wise preacher will unwaveringly apply the discomfort of the Gospel but seek to do this through means that the congregation will be able to hear. In this, the preacher’s loyalty is always to the Word, first, and only to the congregation’s needs as they are met by that Word.

3. Style is an asset, and not a surrogate, to the Main Thing. The Main Thing in a sermon is the preaching of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ. Each and every style for each and every preacher is simply an asset to this main thing. When style becomes the surrogate, then our convictions and our content are made to serve our style, rather than our style serving our convictions. My experience is that this happens most often with story-based preachers, whose sermons are flush with humorous and memorable anecdotes and examples. The problem is that, very often, the listener remembers the funny story but not the Scriptural text which gave outline to the story. Thus, style has become the Main Thing instead of the Main Thing being the Main Thing. In the end, there is no such thing as a right “style” to preaching, there are only preachers who have sanctified themselves through dedication to the proclamation of the Word and who are causing their personalities to serve their message.

4. No Preacher can serve as a model for any other. This is a curious area of deception, that young ministers idolize certain preachers and model their ministries after those people. Just recently I had a gentleman ask me which preachers I listen to in order to learn my style, and my answer was, “No-one.” The truth is that nobody can teach you to be an effective preacher, because the primary quality of a great preacher is that the individual knows himself and is confident in who he is. I once had a conversation about preaching with a dear friend and former roommate (who, incidentally, is someone I actually think will one day be a bishop!). He observed that, when we think of it, all the so-called “great” preachers of our time—Tim Keller, John MacArthur, Erwin Lutzer, David Jeremiah, Alistair Begg—the one thing they each have in common (in all their diverse theology!) is that they are strong personalities. This was an eye-opening realization. Great preachers are not great because of their style, they are great because they are themselves. Therefore there is no model who can serve to guide you as a preacher, because none of those people can teach you to be you. The best you can do in the pulpit is to be truly yourself, and proclaim the Gospel as yourself.

5. Notes or no notes, choose the communication style that fits your maturity and capability. There is no sacred style of preaching. There is no single communication style. There is only a preacher with a given maturity, and a given set of capabilities, striving to serve God with the best that God has given him at this time. Consider the Word before you. Examine it carefully. Consider your people. What style of sermon will best communicate the conviction of your study to the people under your care? If you are a lazy individual, then you must consider whether preaching without notes is an extension of laziness. If you are careful individual, you must consider whether preaching with a manuscript is an extension of fear. Whatever style you choose, ensure that the choice is serving the message, and not the other way round.

Journalism and the Scriptures: Ground Rules

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An interesting read, but not for everyone.

An interesting read, but not for everyone.

Jake Adelstein is an aspiring Jewish-American journalist who surprisingly won a position as a reporter at a Japanese news agency. In his story, Tokyo Vice (Pantheon: New York, 2009), he retells his experiences as a young reporter learning the ropes of journalism in a foreign country, of mastering a difficult language, to his eventual work on the Vice squad, and ending with his efforts to expose Yakuza (Japanese mafia) crimes in human trafficking. His story is fascinating, gritty, and at times gruesome in its descriptions of human behaviour. (NB: Adelstein’s book is not for the faint of heart, and I would cautiously recommend it—with reservations—to others, like me, who enjoy crime stories, journalism, and are sometime Japanophiles.)

Early on in Adelstein’s career, an older, wiser, Japanese journalist pulled Adelstein aside and gave him an earful of advice—eight rules, in fact—on how to be a reporter. These rules come to form the basics of Adelstein’s journalistic ethics, but I was impacted, reading them, on how strikingly they correlated to the minister and his use of the Scriptures. The ethics of sources and writing, in other words, are very nearly the same as those of a preacher and the Word of God. Permit me, then, to quote Adelstein’s eight rules for you now. As you read, I expect that you will begin to immediately recognize the connections between a reporter’s sources and the Christian Scriptures. Still, at the end of the passage I’ll return to each of the eight rules and make the connections explicit.

The older Japanese journalist said the following:

“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.

“One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.”

“Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance, and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.

“Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.

“Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.

“Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to the unfolding investigation, and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of news let you forget about the unfinished news.

“Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.

“Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.

“Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it for you. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.” (Tokyo Vice, 26)

#1 Don’t ever burn your sources. The minister’s first responsibility is to the Scriptures and the faithful treatment of them. “Your source,” says Adelstein’s advisor, “is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.” Betray the Scriptures, and I have betrayed myself. Betray the Scriptures, and I am no longer a minister. I’m not even a man. Furthermore, “If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you.” If my ministry is based on the casual reading of Scripture, of mercenary exegesis, and convenient interpretation, then in time my people will learn to take my words as casually as I have taken my authority. I breed distrust, and breeding distrust I create un-faith. Betray the bible, and I betray the people I am called to serve. I must never, ever, ever, ever, treat the Scriptures contemptuously. They are my source, my life in ministry.

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh--seize the opportunity to talk about people's souls!

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh–seize the opportunity to talk about people’s souls!

#2 Finish a story as soon as possible. Sometimes ministry is about responding to situations, sometimes it is about planning for the long term. When those issues arise which burden the hearts of my congregation particularly—a natural disaster, a shooting, the death of a member, or some other tragedy—then I must teach from it quickly while the burden is present. I cannot sit and wait on issues while the issues go away. People’s souls need answers while their needs are strong—it is my job to answer those needs in a timely fashion. Therefore I must not wait on a scriptural story, or perhaps I will miss the opportunity for someone’s salvation.

#3 Never believe anyone. Above all, never trust yourself. A healthy doubt must accompany all personal theologizing. The scriptures are true, but I am deceptive and false, and I (and all others with me) will always squirm and worm our way out of the hard obedience. Measure all things against the Scriptures as our sole canon of Truth. Doubt everything else, especially yourself, appropriately.

Sometimes you find truth in the most unexpected of places!

Sometimes you find preachable truth in the most unexpected of places!

#4 Take any information you can get. One of the professors at my university famously said, “All Truth is God’s Truth.” He was right. If it is true, it is God’s, regardless of the human source. Therefore draw from any source you can—the sciences, humanities, pop culture, history, literature, or even books about crime in Japan—in order to facilitate the Truth of your message. Take from any source you like, only ensure that it is the Truth when you take it. Read theologians you agree with, and those you disagree with, and always be on the lookout for avenues and resources to communicate the Truth.

#5 Remember and persist. What are the long-term patterns in your ministry? What topics come up again and again? While you’re being faithful to address the temporary (albeit important) needs of your community, do you have a finger on the pulse of their longer-term needs? An issue that seems unimportant may be a harbinger of deeper concerns. One case of infidelity may signal many more! One sermon preached on a particular parable may come to be the focus of your entire ministry! Are you paying attention to those trends?

#6 Triangulate your stories. Back up what you say. Find theologians and authors who agree with your interpretation. Find a group of other ministers, also committed to the gospel, who will check and balance your teaching. Make sure you have people around you who have both the courage and the permission to say, “You’re wrong.” And make sure you have the courage to say, “You’re right.” Furthermore, don’t repeat stories if you aren’t sure they’re true. Many ministers have polluted the Truth of their message by repeating fabricated or convenient sermon illustrations. Is what you speak the Truth? Make sure before you speak.

#7 Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Write your sermons with your hearers in mind. Pay attention to their ability to hear you. Focus on take-aways and memorable moments. Make sure that, along the landscape of your sermon, the main points truly rise like peaks above the surface.

#8 Never put your personal opinions into a story. Present the Truth, and allow your people to draw their own conclusions. Present the gospel, and allow the Holy Spirit to cause the change. Speak the Scriptures, and allow the Spirit to convict people of sin. Seek, as much as is in your power, to eschew your own opinion and present the Truth of Jesus Christ. But don’t forget a dose of rule #3, and present the Truth with healthy doubt about your self. There is no minister so good that he will not be corrected, no minister so truthful that he will not fall short of the Truth in some way. This is a grace from God, because it means that we always have space for Him to move and fill our fallen sermons. Nevertheless, seek Christ first, present him above all, and leave your opinion somewhere else.

There you have it. Advice from an older, hardened Japanese reporter that applies to how ministers of the Gospel ought to handle the Scriptures (proving, again, that all Truth is God’s Truth). They are simple rules, but they provide a profound framework that shapes the ministry of the Word. May God grant that all His ministers be faithful to the Scriptures they are entrusted to teach.