Thursday, October 23, 2008

Back to the Future (or Who Will Reform the Reformers?)

"It's like rain on your wedding day..."

Isn't it ironic that in the week leading up to Reformation Day, I get an offer from CPH that serves as a reminder of why we had a Reformation in the first place? It's an ad for an "integrated resource kit" for Lent and Easter.

For $26.99 (not $27, mind you), I can purchase a "preparation kit" that includes "sermons, Bible Studies, [and] Children's Messages." So, a Missouri Synod pastor can buy what is essentially a turn-key kit that includes "nine sermon studies and sermons." Why agonize over biblical texts (especially in their original languages), prayerfully applying them to your specific flock, trusting in the Holy Spirit's guidance as you wrestle with the Scriptures - when instead, for $26.99 (not even $27...) you can just buy a one-size-fits-all kit and "plug and chug" - badda bing, badda boom! No fuss, no muss, leave the preaching to us.

Come on, guys! We're talking sermons. CPH is selling cookie-cutter sermons. I can buy a whole series of sermons for all of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. I find this so disturbing as to border on obscenity. Obviously, we could all just plagiarize off the internet anyway, but CPH is actually blessing such dishonesty and making money on the deal.

We Lutherans hold preaching in the highest regard. Sermons are actually a "means of grace," that is, they are efficacious unto the forgiveness of sins*. Sermons are essentially sacraments without a physical element (other than the vibrations of air that transmit the Word of God from the preacher to the hearer). So, CPH, along with the bobbleheads and NFL Bible covers, is selling the forgiveness of sins. "When the coin in the coffer rings, the balance sheet of CPH ka-chings!"

Any pastor who buys his sermons needs to be defrocked. This isn't a collection of sermons for study and reflection. These are not intended for personal meditation, or even homiletical analysis for preachers. This is a "kit" designed to take away the added labor we pastors have at certain times of the year. This is really bad.

I had a pastor long ago who actually bought his sermons from Creative Communications for the Parish - and preached them word-for-word. A parishioner found out about it, and actually had the pastor's text in his hands as the pastor preached it. The man bought canned sermons! This is utterly dishonest and shameful. If you can't preach, you have no business in the office of the ministry (German: Predigtamt: "preaching office").

This is yet another effect of our reckless move toward untrained ministers, the devaluation of ordination, and the lowering of the intellectual and academic bar for our pastors and those training for pastoral ministry. Preaching is increasingly taking a back seat to marketing and entertainment. And with the new Specific Ministry Program, we will literally have LCMS "instant vicars" in the pulpit never having taken a single course in homiletics.

Of course, we already have laymen who haven't taken a single seminary class in pulpits (and altars) - with the full blessing of pastors and district presidents. Hopefully, we won't start preparing airline pilots and brain surgeons the same way.

CPH is like the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities - reflecting the best of our synod and the worst of our synod. CPH hit home runs with Lutheran Service Book and its related materials for providing pastoral care. CPH has also recently published translations of outstanding devotional material by Bo Giertz. CPH is working to add many volumes to the American Edition of Luther's Works. And then there is the soon-to-be-released Treasury of Daily Prayer. All of these are top-notch works of Christian scholarship and piety.

But the bad news is that we, like the Church of Luther's day, are also a seller of trinkets and baubles, and now, merchants of the means of grace - spoon-feeding unqualified "pastors" with ready-to-go sermons and "bible studies" so they don't have to roll up their sleeves and do the heavy lifting.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

* "The proclamation of the Gospel produces faith in those who accept it" (Ap 24:32), "God the Holy Spirit, however, does not effect conversion without means; he employs to this end the preaching and the hearing of God's Word" (FC Ep 2:4), "the power and the operation of the Holy Spirit, who through the Word preached and heard illuminates and converts hearts so that men believe" (FC SD 2:55),


solarblogger said...

That kind of kit received a good thrashing in a little book called The Good News from North Haven by Michael Lindvall, about a Presbyterian minister from Minnesota. He buys such a kit and delivers a series of sermons to make his church more dynamic. The best reaction he gets is something like, "Millie and I have always loved that sermon about how we are God's only hands. We hadn't heard it since Pastor Peterson delivered it twenty-five years ago." (Gak!) The description from the CPH catalog is so close to Lindvall's that I wonder if CPH borrowed it from somewhere else.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

At least if you pull a sermon from off line, you in theory are seeking to find a good sermon that fits where you are at, rather than just saying, "Ah, here's one from CPH, it must be good!"

Too many think being a Pastor is shaking hands and smiling -- they forget that hard work of being a pastor that no one sees. . . sitting and wrestling with a text for the sake of your congregation.

God's Guitar Girl said...

Having taken a very small course in preaching, it completely blows my mind that pastors have time each week to do anything but research and write sermons. Nothing makes my blood curdle more than hearing fellow congregants get worked up if they didn't receive a "good" sermon on a Sunday.

A significant problem for me right now is the way we as the Church are "marketing" church to the unchurched. Sermons are sometimes sounding like nothing more than pep rallys. I cannot stomach it anymore!

Scott Diekmann said...

Maybe if us laymen buy one of CPH's sermon kits, and read one sermon each week, we'll be able to skip church. Word gets out about that CPH will do a huge business.

Anonymous said...

All this said--and I entirely respect the notion that every sermon should be the product of hard pastoral labor, and that is what I deliver most weeks--there is a fine tradition of the publication of sermons for use in situations other than the ideal parish and at times other than the ideal week. Luther's Sermons, for instance, in the old familiar form from Baker, were published for the less-trained clergy to use. Walther did the same. The practice is depicted, with some consolation from the overseeing pastor, in The Hammer of God. So while it might be less than ideal, my feeling is that it is hardly the end of the LCMS-- that will come under another guise. This is something that could be used wisely by a pastor seeking to be faithful to his calling as his wife gives birth to quads, or seeking to add variety to his own limited ideas for midweek services after decades in the parish, or desiring to give his people the benefit of a more unified set of sermons than he himself would be likely to produce. God chooses the foolish things to confound the wise. Is it not possible that he occasionally chooses the tired to preach to the tired?

I am not saying that these sermons are absolutely, as they come off the press, to be used in whatever situation the pastor finds himself in. What I am saying is that there is a right place for them to be used, and they could be used in most places if adapted to the context. It's not to be every day, and it's certainly not ideal, but it's better than the slipshod, lousy preaching many of our parishes are subject to week to week, with never a reprieve.

Can you tell I agree with you in substance? At the same time, I see the down side of both sides of the debate. The one side has no room for the exceptional circumstance, in spite of the fact that the weakness of the pastor may result in no midweek services at all. The other side uses whatever comes out of the latest book of sermons from CPH, and thus deprives the congregation of the Scriptural, confessional, sacramental, and contextual proclamation of Law and Gospel.

I hope I have been nice. It is a difficult subject, when the merchandisers of the word of God seem to be more intent on the merchandising than anything else. That said? I have seen the sermons. They aren't too bad.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Hebrews:

That's a good argument - and I agree that it is a good idea for pastors to read and study one another's sermons.

A lot of pastors today blog their sermons, and there are numerous published sermons from the days of John Chrysostom through CFW Walther. I particularly enjoy reading Martin Franzmann's collection of sermons called "Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets".

And certainly no-one would begrudge a pastor for preaching someone else's sermon if his wife were delivering quadruplets.

But this is not what this is about.

This is an entire *season* of sermons. This is a "turn-key" kit of preaching and teaching. It is one step from "pastor in a box." That's a huge difference than the rare situation in which an elder has to stand in the pulpit and read a sermon because the pastor could not make church some Sunday due to an emergency (which happened one time in the living memory of my parishioners). It's also a different story than Pastor Fridfeldt reading a published sermon of Schartau to his congregation in an extreme situation where he was unable to write a sermon (which in fairness, was a literary device so that Bo Giertz could contrast pietistic and confessional Lutheran preaching).

In fact, CPH would only publish this *if there were a market for it.* There are not so many guys siring quadruplets out there to make a "kit" for an entire season of the church year profitable. Rather, we are moving toward a post-educated ministry, in which pastors will not so much be preachers and Seelsorgers as cheerleaders and coaches.

The not-so-important work of preaching can be handled by CPH - thus freeing the pastor up for more important missional work.

This is not a good development, and I will go out on a limb and say that more purchasers of this product will use it to get out of the extra work that comes with Lent rather than use it like a spare tire just to have in case of an emergency.