On Hitting Homiletical Home Runs

Tim Brister —  July 11, 2007 — 23 Comments

Or should I say holimetical reruns.

There has been considerable talk in recent days on the subject of hitting home runs. Less than a month ago, Sammy Sosa became the fifth player all-time to hit 600 home runs. Just this week MLB had their annual Home Run Derby, an opportunity for the best home run hitters to duke it out. But getting even more news is the realization that the most cherished record in baseball, Hank Aaron’s home run record of 755, is about to be broken by the ever controversial Barry Bonds. But Major League Baseball is not the only place we are hearing about home runs. In recent years, the talk about hitting homiletical home runs has surfaced on numerous times, occasioned by the discussion of pastoral plagiarism which has become inevitably linked to the analogy. Let me explain.

The issue of pastoral plagiarism initially surfaced in the blogosphere in March 2006 when Justin Taylor (here and here) and Ray Van Neste (here and here) addressed the growing trend of pastors preaching word-for-word messages of other pastors (I wrote about this briefly as well). The central article discussed was written by Steve Sjogren entitled “Don’t Be Original–Be Effective!” In his article Sjogren quotes Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church in Korea, in a Q&A session at a seminar. Someone asked, “How do you put your weekly messages together? They are so powerful!” Here was Cho’s response:

“Honestly, I have never given an original message in all my years of ministry here at Yoido Church. Each week, I preach word-for-word messages from either Billy Graham or W.A. Criswell from Dallas First Baptist Church. I can’t afford to not have a home run each weekend when we gather. I don’t trust my own ability to give completely original messages.”

Sjogren concludes his article with this anecdotal statement:

A wise mentor of mine brought great liberty to me when he was coaching me in the area of how to put messages together. He said, “There once was a man who said, ‘I will be original or nothing;’ in the end he became both.” Dare to step out of the box. Regardless of what you have heard or been taught – hit a home run this weekend with the help of a message master!

Dr. Van Neste’ responded to the idea of hitting homiletical home runs, asserting, “How man-centered, performance driven is that? This is the real problem. The assumption behind the writing is that the big issue is a great performance in the preaching. So, if you can’t give a great performance borrow someone else’s. But, this is not what our people need. Performance is available in abundance. The word of God is not so available.”

A couple of years ago, I was told that there was a megachurch pastor in the area who had a group of interns that developed various parts of his sermon. One intern’s job was to hunt down illustrations; another to form the outline; another is to find jokes; and yet another for historical background. On Thursday morning, all the interns (I was told 10-12 of them) meet in a board room to craft the message together with the pastor. The pastor then takes the final version and preaches it the following Sunday. As you could imagine, the goal was to have a home run prepared every Sunday for the pastor to preach. The person telling me this confirmed that this was a growing trend, as even he was taking part in this type of project with his pastor (in a Southern Baptist Church).

Fast forward to June of this year (2007) at the SBC Pastor’s Conference in San Antonio. Before he began his sermon, Dr. James Merritt made a passing commercial encouraging pastors to go to his website and download a free Father’s Day sermon for pastor’s to preach “every word of it.” See for yourself:

Shortly after Dr. Merritt made his remarks, the conversation began over at Said at Southern. I was out of town and away from my computer the following week, so I did not engage in the discussion much further (I did comment a couple times early on). However, one thing I did notice was a passing comment made by Dr. Hershael York on his blog. In his blogpost of reflections about the 2007 Annual Meeting, he wrote the following statement (#11):

“Anonymously text messaging James Merritt just before he preached and telling him he better hit it out of the park or no one was going to even look at his website.”

Now, I do not know if this was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek (the other comments seem sincere and genuine), but even if this was to be taken in a light-hearted manner, it continues to speak of what Dr. Van Neste and others have pointed out. Indeed, regarding the usage of the “home run” analogy much can and should be said (ethically, biblically, pastorally, spiritually, etc.), but in this post I want to make a simple baseball point.

One of the major reasons why pastors have confessed to pastoral plagiarism (as aforementioned) is the desire to hit homiletical home runs every time they preach. Now don’t get me wrong, the primacy and centrality of biblical, expository preaching is crucial, so please don’t come away thinking I am trying to minimize the importance of the Lord’s Day message (actually, my emphasis is quite the contrary). However, for many megachurches who have adopted the attractional model (“Come and see”), the worship service becomes the end-all be-all for reaching seekers. While what constitutes a homiletical “home run” may be up for debate, allow me to press this often used analogy and see how it holds up with its reference point of America’s past time.

I have played baseball all my life and continue to enjoy the sport today as an avid spectator. One of the things a baseball analyst will tell you is that the best home run hitters in the history of baseball hit a home run every 13-16 at bats (Aaron – 16.4; Bonds – 12.9; Mays – 16.5) . Not only that, but some of the best home run hitters also have the highest strike-out/hit ratio, striking out an average of five times for every one home run. Moreover, if the only hit these Hall of Famer’s had during their lifetime was a home run, their batting average would average out to 0.061. So how does this translate in to preaching today? Here’s how it factors out:

The Hank Aaron’s and Barry Bond’s of the pulpits today will only hit three to four homiletical home runs in a full year’s preaching calendar. In addition to that, he will strike out 15-20 times in that same calendar year.

That in and of itself is problematic enough, but what is worse is that pastor’s today are trying to find the answer to this through plagiarizing other pastors’ sermons! And if that is not bad enough, pastors are encouraging this practice and making a profit while turning the “homiletical home run” slogan into a motif for homiletical reruns – all at a bargain price (go here and here for examples).

The whole idea of hitting home runs with regards to preaching is most unfortunate in every sense of the word – spiritually, ecclesiologically, pastorally, and yes, even pragmatically. Pastors are growing more and more disconnected from the sheep and more and more disconnected from God’s Word. When Jesus restored Peter, he asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” When Peter responded in the affirmative, Jesus told him, “Feed my sheep.” When the day comes that feeding the sheep has turning into hitting homiletical home runs, I fear that we have developed all-stars instead of bondservants who only know how to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” We don’t need to focus on hitting home runs “with the help of a message master.” We need to be on our knees in prayer to our Master and Lord Jesus. We don’t need to focus on hitting home runs so that people will look at our website. We need to preach as one eclipsed by the cross to look only at Jesus and be enthralled by Him. It is my prayer that the sacred desks today will not find receipts from recently purchased sermons or church budgets with line-items to fund pastoral plagiarism, but that those desks will be the solemn sanctuary of God-besot pastors who have the fire of God’s Word shut up in their bones–pastors who shepherd God’s sheep with the whole counsel of God’s Word.

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  • http://motopolitico2.blogspot.com G. F. McDowell

    One of the elders of my church back home reflected on how we often ask the wrong questions about this stuff. “How were you convicted by that Sermon” has been completely replaced by “How did Pastor do?”. I think the things you’re pointing out are definitely some of the besetting sins of our man-centered church. Can there be any “successful” (by SBC standards) church where the pastor is not a professional tickler of ears?

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Guillaume,

    So now I’ve done it, huh? Well, I don’t think I’ve done much, except to say that the idea of hitting “homiletical home runs” is very problematic and should be avoided.

    Your point is one of several implications from this line of thinking. When I think of a home run hitter, I think of someone who is self-confident and relies on their abilities and skills. When I think of God’s messenger, I think of one who comes in dependence, weakness, and in fear and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3). Secondly, when I think of a “successful” sermon (assuming that would be analogous to a home run), I think of people being convicted of their sin, drawn to Christ in faith and repentance, and more obedient to the Lord through the revealed Word of God. A prophet out of step with his culture will say things that will not wow a crowd but rather may often result in getting stones thrown at him (did Jeremiah ever hit a home run?). What shall we say of Noah, a “herald of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5) who preached faithfully his entire life and only his family was saved?

    I must confess that I have often left services where I have focused more on the messenger than the message. I have been influenced with personality over the power of God’s Word, and often resulting in me “grading” his sermon rather than applying it to my own life. And it is often the case where there has been a lot of thunder and lightning, but no rain.

  • http://scripturealone.blogspot.com Eric M Schumacher

    Great post. You knocked this one out of the park. ;)

  • http://www.adamwinters.blogspot.com Adam Winters

    Very creative idea. I agree that we need more line-drive to left field sermons.

  • Jim Pemberton

    The message is just the message, but the Holy Spirit is the one who quickens our hearts. A polished, store-bought sermon can certainly be used by God to feed His people. I teach rather then preach, but I try to be original. I’m not a well-attended teacher and this can be discouraging. However, I base my teaching on my own personal interaction with God’s word, my study of greater teachers God has provided and the capacity He has given me to analyze the message, evaluate the need and synthesize a lesson. With all this, I don’t consider that I am a teacher as much as I am a fellow student who wishes to share what God has taught me. The game may not be won in a mere hour. Sometimes it takes weeks, months or years of struggling as I strive with fellow students, just as a winning team trains continuously for some time before a game. It’s hardly a “home run” but this is the discipline I believe that ultimately “wins the game”. Sometimes a bunt is in order and we need to learn to learn from and expect strikes and outs. As such I would consider a good sermon to be merely the initial impetus for a continual challenge to the life of a congregation and that the faithful message would be discussed and applied continuously in the fellowship and activities of the church.

  • http://stephennewell.wordpress.com Stephen Newell

    As an old ball player, this warms my heart and strikes a huge chord. How easy it is to get enamored with hitting homers rather than “manufacturing” runs. Reliance on home runs to win ball games just doesn’t work. If you can’t manufacture runs, you will lose more games than you win on a regular basis.

    Oh, it’s all good and well to hit homers, but see, homers are only effective if you’ve been wearing the pitcher down with base hits, steals, and good solid fundamental baseball. One single, solitary homer, say a solo homer, can be easily shaken off by the pitcher.

    Do you guys see what I’m saying? “Homers” in preaching are only effective if we’ve been manufacturing our runs on a regular basis. If we’re not preaching the Word in season and out of season, the lost AND the faithful are just going to shrug off the homers we hit from time to time. BUT if we’re faithfully preaching the Word each week, when we finally bat cleanup, they will be, as Romans 1 graphically illustrates, without excuse.

  • http://baptistreform.blogspot.com/ Travis Hilton

    I would have said, “you knocked this one out of the park”, but someone beat me to it! Adam took the other euphemism I thinking of about preaching, so there’s nothing left to say but “dittos.”

    I guess I won’t be hitting a homerun in this comment section. :-)

  • http://motopolitico2.blogspot.com G. F. McDowell

    Now Timmy, after goading me into asking that question at the Prez Briefing, you should have known there would be payback. ;D You know I love you, man!

  • John Fariss

    I recall that in one of the earlier posts/blogs on the subject, someone made the comment that there was little difference between being inspired by some other message or quote and preaching someone else’s message verbatim. I did not respond, because it rather angered me, and I did not trust myself to answer in as a Christian should. If we preachers cannot be inspired by someone else’s thoughts, we had better quite reading the Bible itself! But in my simple mind, there is a world of difference between being inspired by something Spurgeon, Broadus, Wesley, Luther, Fosdick (!), or some other preacher said, then crafting into my own message, verses appropriating their entire message without change.

    Feeding the sheep–yes, that is the goal, not tickling the ears Sunday after Sunday. Amen.

    John Fariss

  • Tony Pursley

    The quality of any sermon should be based on faithfulness to the WORD OF GOD. The country preacher with little education and a rather simple approach who is faithful to the word is just as successful as any megachurch pastor who just “hit it out of the park.” Perhaps even more successful. Why? That simple country preacher may spend more time getting his hands dirty in the text and consulting commentaries. He may have calloused knees because he spends hours on his face before the Lord on behalf of his flock and poring over his preaching passage. His hermeneutic may not be perfect and his delivery may not be polished, but he is faithful in prayer, faithful in preparation and faithful to persevere day in and day out. He probably won’t get any recognition for his efforts, and he probably doesn’t want any, but he sounds like an all-star, if you ask me.

  • Jamie Wootten

    Timmy,

    I couldn’t agree more with the post. I’ve always appreciated James Merritt and been challenged through his preaching but with his shameless plug, I lost all respect for him.

  • Lucas Defalco

    Brother Timmy,

    I recall Mac Brunson talking extensively about this at the FBC Jax pastor’s conference in Feb. He told the 6,000+ pastors present to “stop getting their sermons of the internet” and to “get their Bible, about a half-dozen good commentaries and park their backsides in a chair for 20-30 hours per week to prepare God’s message for His people.”

    Junior Hill, Johnny Hunt and Ergun Caner have spoken out against this practice too at the same conference.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Guys, thanks for the feedback, except for the hitting out of the park part. ;)

    I’ve been thinking more about this today, in particular the point I was trying to make about the preacher being disconnected from God’s Word and God’s people. One of the dangers behind the idea of a performance-driven message is that it seems to separate the message apart from the rest of biblical ecclesiology. By that I mean that the Tuesday night pastoral care visits are crucial to your Sunday morning message. How are you going to rightly apply God’s Word to God’s people if you don’t know the people? A minister simply cannot divorce the message from the rest of his ministerial responsibilities of “fulfilling his ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).

    But more than that, how can the minister challenge his people to study God’s Word when he abdicates his leadership responsibility in setting the example? This is where the CEO model of pastor is such folly. There is nothing professional about a shepherd who “feeds his sheep.” But churches need men who are with the sheep, know the sheep, love the sheep, listen to the sheep, pray for the sheep, and care for the sheep. Churches need men who love God’s Word, weep over it, meditate on it, stay up late wrestling over it, and are personally applying it to their own lives. The integrity of the pulpit demands that the minister be a man of the Word and committed to the flock under his care, of whom he will give an account before God. Then, it will not be a home run or strike out, but a “well done, good and faithful servant” that matters.

    Using other people’s sermons does injury precisely at the two areas which uphold the integrity of the pulpit. Other preachers may craft good sermons, but they don’t know God’s people at ___________ Baptist Church. And I convinced that God’s people will know, sooner or later, whether their pastor has been feasting on God’s Word or not.

  • http://rvanneste.blogspot.com/ Ray Van Neste

    Right with you Timmy! I continue to be astounded by those who defend this practice. Merritt’s comments are particularly pointed because his state Bapt paper ran a story that basically said this is not all that bad. I don’t have the web address for the story with me though I think I referenced it at my blog at the time.
    Your last point in the most recent comment is one of the key issues. Do we want talking heads or true pastors speaking to the needs of their sheep whom they know- but then again assuming that pastors know their people calls into question much else in current American church.
    Keep it up!

  • Mike Hatfield

    I believe that pastors who feel they must KnockaHoma every Sunday are putting too much emphasis in their own abilities instead of the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Not that there should not be fervent preparation, but when you have done your homilywork, bathed it in prayer, and presented it to the best of you abilities with power, conviction and passion. Whether it is a homer or a squibber, God’s Word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish the purpose for which He intended.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Very true Mike. By any human standards, I don’t think the message, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” would a “home run”! Yet that is what God sent Jonah to preach.

    And might I add, their response was not, “Man, what a dynamic preacher he is!” but rather a turning from evil ways and crying out to God in repentance.

    And I don’t think if Jonah had that message for sale or to copy that many folks would be plagiarizing it either. When was the last time you heard a plagiarized sermon warning the overthrow of a city?!

  • http://www.blog.oldredhat.com Steve

    Well said, and well needed.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Dr. Van Neste,

    While perusing some church planting resources, I came across this article in The Christian Index dated November 9, 2006. Here it is:

    http://www.christianindex.org/2733.article

    A quote from the article:

    “Why do some become tempted to plagiarize? Many feel intense pressure from their congregations to hit a home run twice every Sunday and again on Wednesday night. In today’s entertainment-driven society, many church members expect it as their right to be entertained, inspired, and motivated every time they attend worship. They will not waste their time in a church that does not give them 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”

    It is interesting to note that this article was linked from NAMB’s Church Planting Village under the section entitled “The Sermon Shop.” Here’s the link:

    http://www.churchplantingvillage.net/site/c.iiJTKZPEJpH/b.1360463/k.55C3/The_Sermon_Shop__Main.htm

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    One more quote from “Preaching Basics for Church Planters”

    http://www.churchplantingvillage.net/atf/cf/%7B087EF6B4-D6E5-4BBF-BED1-7983D360F394%7D/How%20to%20Preach%20in%20the%2021st%20Century.doc

    “Church planters are required to have messages of excellence every week. In sales, you are only as good as your last sale. In church planting, you are only as good as your last effective sermon. . . .The person in the congregation will judge your message against a message they have heard on the radio or television. It may not be fair. After all, that speaker has only one primary job, to preach. Most of the time they have an entire staff to help craft the message. Therefore, take advantage of every short-cut you can without resulting to plagiarism.”

    Now, to be fair, the majority of the article is not bad at all. But I found this quote to be particularly telling in light of my post.

  • http://ketteringfellowship.blogspot.com Perry McCall

    Timmy,
    I am a pastor and I agree with your post and the seriousness of this issue.

    I do want to comment on the use of the interns. I don’t know the specifics of this example and I think that the dangers are almost self-evident. However, I can see great potential (if resources allowed) in a seasoned pastor utilizing young pastors/preachers in developing sermons. The danger of course is in using it as a short cut or as a personal speech writing staff. But the opportunity for training the young men and stretching old veteran is worth a prayerful attempt.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Perry,

    I understand your point. I guess there should be a clarification on what your interns should and should not do. Anything that circumvents the process of you (the pastor) getting into God’s Word in my mind should be avoided. I see the benefit of having interns discuss the passage with you, study it alongside you, adding their observations or thoughts on a text. But I find this approach much different from having them function as a substitute for the work of sermon preparation that a preacher himself should be committing himself.

  • http://ketteringfellowship.blogspot.com Perry McCall

    Me too! Ah, to have interns to discuss passages with……dream, dream, dream…..

  • jason allen

    I was wondering if you might elaborate on the implications of the team of interns and the pastor who would craft the sermon together as a team. Is that the same thing as the plagiarism charge? It seemed you considered it a negative practice, but could you elaborate and clarify for me?

    thanks for the post, very helpful.