When students cross the threshold and enter the hallowed halls of seminary, those who enroll in the Master of Divinity program usually have one big goal in mind—they want to be preachers. This is a perfectly natural and understandable goal, one to which all MDiv students should aspire. Seminaries, therefore, invest a good amount of time in the curriculum training students how to exegete the Scriptures, prepare, and deliver a sermon. Preaching courses, for example, focus upon whether the student was faithful to the Scriptures, whether his sermon had a clear structure, whether his illustrations were appropriate and helpful, and whether his delivery was smooth. All students struggle with different elements of sermon delivery, and this is to be expected. While the ability to preach is a God-given gift, this doesn’t mean that the gift can’t be honed or improved.
One of the ways that students try to short-circuit the learning process is by listening to sermons by well-known preachers. I know of ministers who do this as well. On the one hand, listening to sermons isn’t a crime and can be a spiritually beneficial thing. On the other hand, if you’re listening to a sermon as a substitute for your own necessary exegetical spadework, or because you don’t want to meditate upon the text to develop your own material and illustrations, listening to a sermon can be a bad thing. I was once at a meeting of presbytery (more than a decade ago) where a fellow colleague was delivering the opening devotional. One of my colleagues sitting next to me leaned over and whispered in a concerned tone, “I heard this very same sermon several weeks ago at a Banner of Truth conference.” It seems that my colleague had “borrowed” the sermon in its entirety and didn’t alert anyone to this important detail. In other instances I have taught a preaching course where students copied the style, mannerisms, and delivery of popular preachers. Students in the class would write on their comments sheet: “This sermon was a knock-off of John Piper’s style,” or, “This sermon seemed like an homage to Kevin DeYoung.” In all honesty, I can say that I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I know of one preacher who seemed to make a regular habit of quoting Beatles lyrics in an insightful and witty way. So I tried to do the same one week—my effort feel somewhat flat. I had someone comment, “I’ve never heard of the expression of ‘keeping your face in a jar by the door.’” I thought the lyric worked well but I suppose some in my church never heard of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” I learned a valuable lesson that day. Don’t listen to sermons.
I think all too often young preachers want to make their mark, be successful, and have people walk away enthralled with the theological delicacies that they’ve feasted upon. Young preachers seek homiletical glitz and glam over fidelity to the Scriptures and the gospel. That day when my use of the Beatles failed epically, I was reminded of the importance of being myself and doing my best to preach the text. If you listen to sermons for personal edification, fine. But if you’re listening to sermons because you want to borrow someone else’s preaching mojo, then turn it off. Exegete the text, meditate upon it, read broadly to develop your own illustrations, and most importantly, be yourself. To borrow an analogy from the world of food, I would rather faithfully serve meatloaf and mashed potatoes week-in and week-out and know that people are being spiritually nourished, than try unsuccessfully to pull off steak and lobster each week. You can all too easily get into a mentality of worrying about trying to top your last sermon rather than faithfully preaching the text and relying upon the Spirit to apply it.
By no means am I advocating slothfulness in the pulpit. Work hard to prepare your sermons, but be yourself in the pulpit, and most importantly, preach the text—preach the gospel of Christ.