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?