November 25, 2005

Anyone looking for a recycled Godcast?

Many churches are now making their Sunday morning services available over the internet as video or audio downloads. Christian podcasting even has a catchy name—Godcasting. It seems that this has already become a popular resource for the curious, bored, zealous, or otherwise interested listeners. But I began thinking that this would also be a great resource for preachers, pastors, and priests. Think of all the preachers across the world who struggle each week to come up with a thirty-minute message. After giving their message, good or bad, it usually remains only in the speaker's notebook. It may get limited circulation on a CD or cassette, but it is essentially expired. If those sermons are now archived on the internet, this could open new possibilities. With the extreme convenience of getting sermons on the web, why don't pastors' simply replicate another pastor's message that they find particularly inspiring or insightful?

Although it would benefit everyone, pastors won't be adopting an open-source sermon-sharing model anytime soon. I have probably only once or twice heard a speaker say that his message was taken from another speaker. Why is that? If a certain sermon is good enough for listeners to learn from, why isn't it good enough for another person to teach from? I thought of every possibility. There are sinister possibilities, such as: any speaker outside of a given church is too suspect of heresy; or each speaker believes that he has the most direct communication with God and does not need the diluted teaching of another. I thought of practical possibilities, such as: a message needs to be changed to suit different listeners; or a message needs to be changed to suit one's speaking style. The practical considerations are closer to the truth, but in reality, they are overstated. I think that the answer has nothing to do with religion, and is just the result of expectations we have as teachers and pupils.

The reason why pastors rarely copy another person's message is because both speakers and listeners expect the speaker to speak original material. Speaking original material displays the authority of the speaker, which is important for the speaker's self-image and for the audience's confidence in the speaker. The learned have to display their understanding by going beyond the original text, which means that a reproduction is an inferior product. Original material also suggests timeliness and relevance. In many fields, these assumptions just don't hold, but we hold fast to them. How much "new" understanding about a subject does the average sermon hold? (How much new "understanding" do we gain of third grade math each year, which requires textbooks to be updated every few years?) Although the listeners expect to be educated and inspired by a message, they don't expect that a teacher can be educated and inspired so easily. A teacher's learning should be the result of a personal struggle. And if one speaker does use another's speech, we can't help regarding it as a form of stealing, even though sharing one's understanding is obviously not a zero-sum game.

In short, there are so many negative associations with copying another person's teaching, that teachings will never be shared as freely as their jokes. It is there for the taking, but second-hand learning has to be repackaged, otherwise it is just second-hand goods.

But there is room for exceptions. I once heard a pastor repeating a sermon that he had given just two months before. My first thought was, "How embarrassing. He must have forgotten." But after he made a reference to the previous sermon, I began to realize that he was repeating it because it deserves to be repeated.

The message was about the need to forgive others. If you feel bitter or are quick to anger, then those are signs that you probably need to forgive someone. You may say, "But I've already forgiven him." That may be true, but that just means that you need to forgive again. And in the future you may need to forgive again and again for something that happened long ago.

It is a simple but important message, and I appreciated hearing it a second time as much as I heard it the first time. Although repeating one's own sermon does not transgress against our expectations as much as repeating another's sermon, it is a step in that direction. On that day, the pastor made a decision to give his best, not his freshest.


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