Some of the best advice I ever received came from my seminary adviser. He warned me not to use a “bag of tricks” when I got into ministry. I understood what he was saying—in theory. Most pastors stay at a church for three to four years and then move on. One reason, he suggested, was that many pastors only have three years’ worth of sermons, ideas, and programs in their “bag of tricks.” When the pastor runs out, he simply moves on to another church and recycles everything again.
Certainly, it’s good to imitate others (1 Cor. 11:1), not only in lifestyle but in teaching as well (2 Tim. 2:2; 3:10). When I was a new believer, there was a man I revered so much that I picked up some of his body language. I wanted to be like him because he knew the Lord deeply. I hope you have personally known someone worth imitating. I hope you have a life worth imitating.
But merely imitating—instead of owning and believing what we’re doing—is to put on the appearance that something is abiding deep inside of us. This certainly applies to the Christian life in general, but I’m specifically thinking of those in pastoral leadership. Having a “bag of tricks” is being a secondhander, and we must guard against it.
Here are three signs we’re at least bordering on being a secondhander.
1. We Preach Like Someone Else
Preaching is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to copy other preachers. I used to get mailings selling sermon series. But there’s no need any more: the web has all our favorite sermons. We listen to a few sermons, make an outline, add a personal story, and we’re done. Sadly, it’s common for pastors to copy sermons. In my preaching lab during seminary, three people delivered the same sermon. We steal and deceive while portraying ourselves as having studied and been molded by the passage.
This approach doesn’t take your congregation into account. The sermon is self-produced mimicry, not Spirit-produced exhortation. We fake cognitive and experiential knowing. We become like Hophni and Phinehas, priests and sons of the high priest, but “worthless men” who “did not know the LORD” (1 Sam. 2:12). May that never be said of us.
Secondhand ministry flows from secondhand knowledge of God.
Preaching must include studying both the text and also the people under your care. Is it okay to borrow an illustration we found helpful? Absolutely. Is it okay to make a general point from a sermon we recently listened to? Please do. But if, week in and week out, we rely so heavily on others that our own voice is silenced, we’re on the road to quenching the Spirit. Instead, let us cultivate a “well-instructed tongue, that we may know the word that sustains the weary” (Isa. 50:4).
A few years ago I found my old journals from college. Many included profound insights. I was shocked at what I knew! Then it hit me: These were copies of Matthew Henry’s commentary. I had copied them in the hopes of showing someone my insights. I was portraying a Puritan’s thoughts as my own. I had deceived myself.
2. We Stop Learning
As a pastor, how much should you read? Are you discouraged by the number of books others consume? The discipline of reading is vital—Paul continued throughout his whole life and ministry (2 Tim. 4:13). But what happens when the learning stops? We rely on what we learned 10 years ago, instead of knowledge gained the past 10 years. Our insights may be from our seminary professors, not from our own ongoing study and conversations. We also fail to grasp cultural trends around us and miss out on conversation partners only available in print.
What does learning mean for pastors who have no books? Thankfully, reading isn’t a magic bullet, nor is formal training. But we stall our discipleship if we don’t pursue learning as much as we’re able.
3. We Undermine How God Has Hardwired Us
One of my great blessings is knowing Christians around the world and seeing God’s diverse creativity on display. Our personalities are unique. We enjoy different things. Our modes of communication vary. By copying others, we undermine our own gifting. Being secure in who we are in Christ is of utmost importance. And being secure in how God has gifted us—and perhaps more importantly, not gifted us—matters as well.
We don’t need to force ourselves into roles we’re not made for. As Paul said, “The hand should not be jealous it is not a foot, nor should it try to be a foot (1 Cor. 12:12). God has given us the body of Christ, equipped for good works, gifted to serve each other for the increase of our mutual joy. Psalm 139 is not just for Mother’s Day. It’s an affirmation that God has knit us together in our mother’s womb in a multitude of ways. Let’s enjoy how he’s made us.
Truth Covering Falsehood
Secondhand ministry uses truth to cover falsehood. So burn the bag of tricks and never return to it. Secondhand ministry flows from secondhand knowledge of God. In taking this road, we become a caricature of what we had hoped to become. We imagine ourselves knowing far more that we do. I think of the end of C. S. Lewis’s Four Loves, as he reflects on his own experience of God:
God knows, not I, whether I have ever tasted this love. Perhaps I have only imagined the tasting. Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there.
As we continue learning from others, may we minister from Christian experience that is altogether firsthand.