As the Southern Baptist Convention has been rocked with controversy over plagiarism, it’s easy to think that the extent of the problem is merely repeating someone else’s words. There is another aspect to plagiarism that often gets overlooked: Pulpiteering.
Philip Doddridge in his work “On the Delivery of Sermons” provides an extensive warning against theatrical preaching and its destructive consequences in the life of the church. Theatrical preaching occurs when a preacher attempts to “transport into the views, the feelings, and the circumstances of the person represented.” Theatrical preaching is the practice of acting what one is saying. It’s extremely detrimental to the spiritual life of the church.
Many a pastor has fallen into the trap of becoming an artificial reproducer of another man’s ministry. As the pastor surveys the broad spectrum of our American church landscape, he witnesses certain pastors who have received great attention in their ministries. These “successes” function as a sort of landmark that many pastors desire to achieve. If it’s worked over there, why wouldn’t it work over here?
When this sinful desire is left unchecked, the pastor can easily compromise by attempting to reproduce in himself the ministry of the man who has most inspired him—how it feels, sounds, and functions. The pauses are attention getting, the hand gestures are mesmerizing, and the use of vocal expressions are dramatic and overtly expressive. The imitation has been remarkably accomplished by the pastor.
It’s important to say that none of these practices are evil in and of themselves, nor is it wrong for young pastors to learn from godly mentors in their development. But when a pastor adopts the traits of another man for the goal of self-admiration and success, his preaching becomes nothing more than performance-driven. The pastor has been able to achieve an external copy, a replica of the ministry he is imitating.
Doddridge observes that this “genuine effect of nature” happens all the time in the work of art, music, painting, designing and the like. Doddridge writes, “A bad man may be a good actor, for the same reason that he may be a good artist…for the professed object is to please by the art of imitation.” There are many artists who live to reproduce the original to be admired for the work, but it’s only an imitation. As everyone knows, the imitation of a thing, no matter how spot on that imitation may be, never holds the same value as the original.
Does the reader remember Simon Cowell trashing American Idol contestants for sounding just like the original artist, without bringing any of their own person into the music? All the “contestant” achieved was to become the best imitation of the original. They had become American Idol’s best pretenders.
The Bad Fruit of Pulpiteering
This, of course, raises the question as to whether this kind of artificial imitation can bring any lasting change in the life of the hearer. According to Doddridge, when the ministry is driven by this kind of artificial imitation, it will never produce any genuine lasting spiritual or moral effect in the lives of the people. Doddridge uses Whitefield as an example, “A good theatrical representation of Whitefield on a stage would be extremely different from the reality as to moral effect.”
In this case, as Doddridge observes, the worshippers are trained to become “spectators.” The churchgoer’s excitement is blindly tied to the ability and familiarity of what has been imitated. Doddridge appropriately cautions pastors to guard their use of voice expression, pauses, etc., as these things call the sincerity of the ministry into question. Abuse of the pulpit in this way has manipulated a response centered around the abilities of the pastor.
The only way to present Jesus directly and authentically requires that such a message come from the heart of one who has been genuinely born again by the word of truth. Pastors have to be overcome by the truth themselves, so that what follows in their speech naturally flows from their convicted hearts. A man can become a master in theatrical preaching and “wowing” the people with pulpiteering, and yet, in himself, that message has yet to convert his own heart. This will have the same deadening effect on the people.
If our goal is to present Jesus Christ authentically as the savior of our sins, the presentation must be just as authentic in the life of the one who is delivering the message. A sincere preacher, who is genuinely taken in his heart by the gospel, will, from that heart, deliver messages blessed by the Spirit to genuinely convict the hearts of his hearers, not of his own pulpit eloquence, but of a desire for people to know the only genuine savior, Jesus.