Microsoft Sermons

Over the past month or so, there has been a recurrent Microsoft ad that has been dominating commercial life on about all the channels. We’ve all seen it, here it is right below here, and it has found high visibility on almost all major viewing occasions.

The other day, I sent out a tweet that basically summarized my thoughts on this commercial:

This is a bad commercial if for no other reason that it is a stunning representation of the tremendous distance between Microsoft and Apple in terms of product placement, market capitalization, marketing strategy, and the market approach of Microsoft. Ironically in the ad, Apple comes out on top for the primary market segment that Microsoft is appealing to in the ad.

This is exactly the kind of ad that Apple would never make.

Of course this ad has been critiqued by far more engaged minds than mine. Suffice to say, the commercial fails to develop a case for the product against the thin criticisms (and outright misleading information) against its most potent competitor. Microsoft capitulates its own standing with a trite comparative ad that is easily dismissed because we all know the truth that is missing in their ad. Apple has a better product and the mocking claims are benign swipes by a displaced competitor.

The Microsoft ad parallels the attempts of many ministries in their quest to relate to culture by creating comparative illustrations or biting critiques in the form of media, clips, or other content that appropriate components of culture. In doing so they inadequately recreate culture, often capitulating entirely to the cultural form, that discredits their larger point. As this happens, particularly with younger generations, the audiences might be entertained by the correlation to a cultural form or style, but the opportunity to point out the exclusivity of the Gospel message within the biblical text can be missed.

As a result sermons, and worship services, are left confined to a particular cultural form that limits the ability of the communicator or the worship team to fully develop a biblical text. The cultural form dictates the limits of application for a biblical text and isolates the ability of exposit its full points.

This is not to say that using these kinds of mediums and media are never appropriate. There are most certainly times where they can be used and used to support a larger point. The challenge is when a cultural medium or aspect of media becomes the ultimate lens through which the biblical text is filtered. At that point the box is placed upon the biblical text and confined. This is a form, that while popular these days, is not sound homiletic practice.

Notice how Paul handles using a cultural form in Acts 17:

Acts 17:22   Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.  23 For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: 


Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. 26 From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. 27 He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. 28 For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.

30   “Therefore, having overlookeda the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”

As Paul is speaking to Gentile pagans (the truly unchurched) he places his challenge in a cultural form that they would immediately recognize. He also appropriates two forms, one present before them, and one that was, perhaps, a popular literary quotation. Yet Paul places these both within the bounds of his sermon and not his sermon within the bounds of his examples, or illustrations.

In the end the sermon draws on these forms for connection and then leverages for a redemptive point.

For Paul, understanding his context was a critical point of his sermons in Acts. The sermon to the Jews in  Acts 13 shows how Paul leverages Jewish cultural forms to make points of connection as opposed to the Gentile forms here in Acts 17. Yet in both places Paul is clear to ensure that his redemptive point is not clouded by the cultural form that connects with his audience.

Instead of crafting a sermon at that capitulates the redemptive Gospel narrative to the cultural form, Paul confines his use of cultural forms to allow the crucial redemptive point to stand on its own.

For too many of us who have attempted to use cultural forms, we have allowed them to cloud that larger point. By appropriately seeing the New Testament example of using illustrative material to bolster a point or make a connection instead of being the narrative upon which the biblical text is confined, we see the redemptive point of the Gospel is able to be expanded and not confined.

Just like with the Microsoft ad, our task as expositors is to move beyond the trite commonality of poorly framed points and allow the grand Gospel message to stand on its own.

Instead of lowering the biblical text to the cultural level, our job as faithful expositors is to allow it to remain elevated above the cultural milieu. Allow the cultural forms to support the biblical text, not the other way around.


Pastors and Sermon Research Help

While strolling through my Twitter timeline I noticed a discussion between Dr Anthony Bradley and Jared Wilson about pastoral sermon preparation and research firms that provide assistance. Dr Bradley’s take was that this is a bad idea and is a kind of corruption of the pastoral office. Here is Dr Bradley’s tweet. (As a note, I do respect Dr Bradley and his work on a great number of topics.)

In case you’re not familiar (which most people aren’t) with the situation, there are several sermon research firms out there that, for a fee, partner with a pastor (usually of a church that can afford such a fee) to provide research of illustrations, statistics, stories, and other background information for sermons. One of the primary groups that provides this service is Docent which has been around since the early part of this century. There are a couple of other firms also.

Over the past several years this kind of sermon development has come under fire from some theologians (though usually not practioneers) and other folks who observe a lot of what goes on in churches. In an earlier post, Carl Trueman made note of this trend when he pronounced: “One instinctively knows it is strange and feels it is wrong; but as with many such well-intentioned things, it can be hard to articulate precisely why.” Jared Wilson provided an excellent reply in his post over at The Gospel Coalition titled: “What Does Docent Research Do?” So, what should we think about these services?

Personally, I know of at least two dozen pastors who utilize this service. While in seminary, I was asked to lead a team for Docent. Though I turned them down, it was not for philosophical or theological reasons…I simply had too much going on, I still respect the service that Docent provides. Several of my friends in seminary did work for Docent and had a good experience with them. For the pastors I know who use Docent, or another sermon research group, they are usually rather happy with the process.

Essentially, and Jared summarizes this well from his own personal experience, this is a person or group of people who are given sermon topics, titles and Scriptural passages already developed by a preaching pastor. The task is to then provide some illustrations, stories, statistics, and other relevant sermon components to recommend to a pastor in their preparation for that sermon. As Jared, and others, point out, these research firms do not write the sermons for a pastor.

I’m not certain why some who are or aren’t actively involved in vocational church ministry would have a bone of contention with these groups. We all know plenty of theologians (I can start naming some them if we wish) who use the services of TAs and GAs to do research for them in preparing articles, books, and other scholarly materials. This seems to be the same kind of service.

The research firm doesn’t write the final sermon/paper but it does help with some of the research. Just like a theologian in their office.

From my own experience I’ve known pastors who had their sermons written by a staff member. In fact, I know of one very significant pastor who, in the past, would have his sermons written out, exegesis and all, by a faculty member of the seminary near their church. The pastor would rise up to the pulpit on Sundays and read off the sermon, its illustrations, and entire content…in a television ministry church.

That seems to be more of a problem than the work of a group like Docent.

So when I see other tweets like this one, it seems we’ve missed the point:

Bradley Tweet 3

For my take, so long as the pastor is developing the sermon wholly on their own, using their own exegesis, their own ideas, while also checking a document of possible illustrations, stories, statistics, and other relevant data, this is makes the sermon no less biblical nor any less honest.

What is a problem is when a pastor has their sermons written out by someone else completely, and they simply stand and deliver. This is not what sermon research firms do and it isn’t accurate to characterize them as agents of plagiarization. In fact, the kind of service they provide for a church is no different than the service provided by so many TAs and GAs for theologians and scholars in almost every discipline and academic field. For those who prepare these briefs for pastors, usually seminarians or junior associate ministers, this is a helpful discipline to inform them and educate them on their own sermon preparation. As these sermons are delivered under the grace of God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and always pointing to the Cross of Jesus Christ, much Kingdom work is done in the hearts of those who need a closer connection with God.

More than a few churches employ in house research personnel, and one of the fastest growing trends is using a collaborative team (or creative team) to help with the overall presentation and planning of a sermon and sermon series.

Now if a pastor is downloading and preaching complete sermons without attribution, if they are opening to Spurgeon and reading, and if they are stealing first person illustrations from another pastor and applying them to own lives, these are problems worth confronting. However, I see no difference in these two acts.

So what do you think? What did I miss? Is this a proper comparison?