Glad to hear that the preaching class is moving from frightening to exciting. Preaching should probably always be both.
And you are surely right when you suggest that preaching for a preaching class is very different from preaching every single Sunday in a church.
Commentaries in preaching
That’s true in quite a lot of ways, but for today I’ll stick to the question you asked:
Just how much do pastors depend other people’s commentaries in their sermon development? How much is reading or quoting others and how much is new effort or synthesis?
My answer: Use commentaries just enough to help you past the hard bits. Then preach from your own encounter with God in the text for the sake of the congregation.
Commentary as help
Commentaries are a very useful kind of theological writing. The pastor must jump head first into a challenging text, and be ready to present on it in public. The turnaround time from first examination to sermon is often less than a week.
Standing up in the pulpit and saying
Well that text is a real stumper. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
does not impress. Or help.
Whether the text is confusing or from an unfamiliar part of Scripture (and nobody is equally comfortable with every text) a commentary gives you a jump start. It also helps you see problems you might glide right by in your favorite passages.
A commentary points out the hard words, confusing contexts, seeming contradictions. It tries to make sense of it all, usually basing its clarity on years of scholarly inquiry.
So when you need a tour guide to the strange new worlds of Scripture, commentaries can be crucial.
Commentary as problem
On the other hand, commentaries can be used as a substitute for your own direct exploration of the passage.
My wife likes to tease me about a hike we took long ago. We had a map with GPS coordinates and I was excited to have a new GPS. We inched across the countryside.
Finally I said,
According to the GPS coordinates there should be a bridge somewhere along here.
We were standing in front of the bridge.
You are taking people on a journey (we hope) through the text to the rich and life-giving word of God. Keep your eyes on the commentaries and you miss all the actual scenery.
Plus you risk sounding like you are trying to impress people with all the books you have read. If someone you read says something perfectly for your purposes, by all means quote it. (And name the source.)
But if your sermon is full of quotations it will be a burden and an irritation to your listeners.
Remember your calling
The calling of a preacher is to stand in the middle:
- On the one side is God, calling out to the people.
- On the other side is the congregation, needing to hear a word from God.
- In the middle is you, the preacher, and the Bible where God has always chosen to speak.
If you are too timid to dive into the text, or too unskilled at listening to God there, then you might end up standing in front of your congregation and reading commentaries.
In effect the commentary-laden sermon is like me, looking at the GPS instead of the terrain:
I don’t know what God is saying to us through this text, but here are a bunch of things smart people wrote about it.
The congregation called you, and showed up to listen to you. They can read commentaries for themselves.
They know you can’t perfectly discern God’s personal message every week. But they are counting on you to wrestle with the text and listen hard to God. They need you to speak to them out of your own wrestling.
The textbook assigned for your class probably recommends a process for you to study the passage you are preaching on. It may include commentaries in that process, but commentaries probably won’t be the whole process.
Here’s what I would recommend:
- Wrestle until you have questions you can’t answer.
- Then look at commentaries.
- Then go back to wrestling.
Your sermon will only be interesting or useful if it flows from your own encounter with God in the text.
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