Way back in 1768, a little-known Baptist pastor named Isaac Backus denounced a growing trend in preaching. By his day it had become quite fashionable to read sermons from a manuscript, instead of preaching extemporaneously. This, Backus argued, was an “upstart notion,” a newfangled approach to an old task. And it had two strikes against it. To begin with, “the reading of sermons is a dull way of preaching.” (He didn’t feel the need to elaborate that point; it just is.) Second, and more troubling, reading sermons from the pulpit made it easy for pastors to plagiarize. Though “people may know that their minister reads other men’s works [in the study] yet how can they ever know when he reads his own [in the pulpit]?”
If we stop there, Backus’s warning seems like a sampling from the fat folder titled, “The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same.” Plagiarizing sermons has only become cheaper and easier with the availability of illustrations, outlines, and full sermon manuscripts online. And the secret’s out. Suzanne Sataline published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the plague of pastoral plagiarism in 2006, which brought the issue into the light. Since then Out of Ur, Tim Challies, Ed Stetzer, the Gospel Coalition folks (and many others) have addressed the issue from a number of angles.
The deeper, more fundamental issue Backus was concerned about was that reading from a manuscript—even if you wrote it—indicated a lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit. “The method of true ministers,” he countered, “always was to preach by faith.” By this he meant that a preacher ought to meditate on the word of God, give himself wholly to it (1 Timothy 4:15) and then trust that “it will be given you in that hour what you are to say” (Matthew 10:19).
In fact, Backus suspected that a lot of what ministers did was intended to “supply the want of the Spirit of God.” If the Holy Spirit didn’t speak to you through the scriptures, you could always ramble on about what some key word meant in the original Greek, cite a few religious authorities, and dismiss before anyone noticed that you didn’t have anything relevant to say.
Church was simpler then. Folks sang a few hymns and heard a word from the Lord (hopefully). I have to wonder if much of what we’ve added to the churchgoing experience since then might serve to “supply the want of the Spirit of God.” Maybe I should put that another way, because I don’t mean the rock bands and fog machines (although those do immediately come to mind). I’m privileged to travel a bit and meet pastors of all denominations, and I find that on the whole, ministers are looking for the right strategy or curriculum or institutional philosophy to propel their ministry to the next level. Or at the very least keep the doors open. What I don’t hear is pastors asking how to rely on the Holy Spirit to take charge of their ministry.
Now, I heeded the advice of Brother Backus above when I was new pastor. More than once I studied a passage, prayed, and headed to the pulpit hoping that the right words would come when I needed them. These were not positive experiences. And I see more value in the original biblical languages than he did. But I feel he’s on to something worth considering. How do we know when we’re trying to compensate for the absence of the Spirit of God? And how do we avoid the problem before it starts and, as Paul put it, “keep in step with the Spirit?”