Dusty books smelling of decay are the things professors love, not preachers. Preachers love the scent of a coffee house conversation that leads to conversion. Preachers love the smell of new books with fresh ideas. Preachers savor the scent of waning summer and approaching fall when school kicks off, and congregations return in force. Preachers don’t love the smell of old books do they?
I think young preachers do not care for the scent of old books. Experienced preachers do. The experienced preacher knows the value of a perfectly phrased quote. Experienced preachers know that some of the best inspirations for sermons come from sermons that have gone before. Experienced preachers all have a memory of hearing someone else’s sermon and thinking how they would have preached it differently – voilá a sermon is born. It still has to grow up, mature, and walk on it’s own legs. But birthing is the hard part, the scary part, and the most likely spot for a sermon to die. The infant mortality rate of beginning sermons is high they tell me.
A cautionary tale. A friend of mine shared the story of sitting in a car with one of the “princes of the pulpit” of the Wesleyan movement. A well known pulpiteer this high level influencer was widely desired, often booked, and a frequenter of conferences and camps alike. The names will go unmentioned. But in the middle of an honest sharing session he laughed and said something close to this, “Honestly I pull out those great old Scottish preachers and preach one of their sermons straight out of the text. No one reads them anymore. A few personal changes to fit you and you come away sounding brilliant.”
Here are a few thoughts on how to benefit from those old books without diminishing other’s sense of your integrity:
1. Actually own some. Have fun going through old bookstores and showing up at library sale days. Libraries often unload old books of sermons for 50 cents a piece. Used bookstores, themselves a dying breed, often have books there for a buck that will give you loads of sermon helps and material. Of course, then there’s Amazon. What a gift that is. Used books of old sermons are treasure troves. Buy them. After all the proverb tells us to buy wisdom, if it cost all you have, get wisdom. These books have compiled wisdom you can buy for much less than all you have.
2. Read a sermon or two for you.
The old saw says “A sermon is the thing a pastor will travel a thousand miles to deliver, but will not walk across the street to hear.” I think the best inspiration for sermons always emerges from well-aged personal transformation. The best way to benefit from an old sermon book a year from now, is to allow it to change you deeply today.
3. Pull out great quotes.
You cannot be accused of plagiarism when you say even the simplest annotation. “As a favorite preacher of mine once wrote…” or “That great preacher Clovis Gillham Chappel says it this way…” Speaking of Chappell, here’s a gem I just found in the collection of sermons called “The Protestant Pulpit” in 1947:
“No amount of negatives will make us Christians. No one ever becomes a Christian by virtue of what he does not do. No amount of don’ts summed up will equal a saint.”
Or how about this one from Walter Maier,
“The great gift of Christ is not given to God’s friends, but to His enemies.”
Quotes can inspire an entire new train of thought on a passage you were struggling to bring to the ground.
4. Find enduring stories.
One preacher I read wrote about Octavius, we usually call him Augustus in Christian conversations, who ruled the world when Christ was born in Bethlehem. Today, however, only a few crumbling columns from broken down temples remain of his glory. Truly speaking, his great empire is now remembered and revisited only in ruins. There are no temples to Octavius in use. You can see the preaching moment there I am sure. So long as I make the story come alive my own way, this sort of historical insight does not become irrelevant with time. Quite the opposite. I wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. Yet, my integrity is intact so long as I tell the story with my words and apply it in my own way as the Spirit leads.
5. Beware of Borrowing Outlines.
There are a few times you can do this. I suggest to most preachers I coach that they have a sermon series every now and then that is completely made up of others’ sermons and that is explicitly known among the congregation. The original preacher is given credit. The series is always clear that the reason they are repeated is they are worth repeating. Then you preach the outline of their thoughts with the wording reworked and the analogies updated and the application made contextually. In other words, the sermon still becomes yours. You are not simply reading an old sermon. You put the flesh on the sermon, but the skeleton was dug up from an archaeological hole…an old book of sermons. Or a sermon found online.
6. Never Read Another’s Sermon Unless Everyone Knows You Are
I suppose God may view this differently than we do. After all, a sermon that was written on the heart of a preacher by the Spirit of God truly belongs to God, not the preacher. If we are biblically preaching, then the insights come to us now just from us, but primarily by submitting ourselves to the text and it’s voice and wishes. So then again, the sermon is not ours. It is best to think of all sermons as God’s sermons when thinking of your own sermons. However, when you think of someone else’s sermon, consider it theirs. Let them decide if they wish to surrender it again on the altar of another preacher’s use. And if you do preach it, they must absolutely must receive credit, better yet, public thanks for the gift they gave.
For you and I, we should follow Augustine’s advice in the first homiletics text that we know of, On Christian Doctrine. In that book he tells us it is fine to read another’s sermon so long as we stick to that role and the congregation is fully aware that we are doing so the entire time. Reading it and passing it off as our own, or weaving in and out of the sermon written by someone else may not be stealing exactly–but those who find out will likely think it is. Imagine your congregant looking up a phrase they wrote down that you said into Google. Up pops Dwight Moody from a little known message he gave when he was young. They listen to your sermon again to see if you actually gave credit. What will they find? How will they feel about what they find? Let the answers you give, guide you.
Do you have a great book of old sermons to recommend to other preachers?