How to Minister "in the Spirit" with New Technologies?
An 18th century pastor's wisdom for today.

Way back in 1768, a little-known Baptist pastor named Isaac Backus denounced a growing trend in preaching. By his day it had become quite fashionable to read sermons from a manuscript, instead of preaching extemporaneously. This, Backus argued, was an "upstart notion," a newfangled approach to an old task. And it had two strikes against it. To begin with, "the reading of sermons is a dull way of preaching." (He didn't feel the need to elaborate that point; it just is.) Second, and more troubling, reading sermons from the pulpit made it easy for pastors to plagiarize. Though "people may know that their minister reads other men's works [in the study] yet how can they ever know when he reads his own [in the pulpit]?"

If we stop there, Backus's warning seems like a sampling from the fat folder titled, "The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same." Plagiarizing sermons has only become cheaper and easier with the availability of illustrations, outlines, and full sermon manuscripts online. And the secret's out. Suzanne Sataline published a piece in The Wall Street Journal on the plague of pastoral plagiarism in 2006, which brought the issue into the light. Since then Out of Ur, Tim Challies, Ed Stetzer, the Gospel Coalition folks (and many others) have addressed the issue from a number of angles.

The deeper, more fundamental issue Backus was concerned about was that reading from a manuscript—even if you wrote it—indicated a lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit.

"The method of true ministers," he countered, "always was to preach by faith." By this he meant that a preacher ought to meditate on the word of God, give himself wholly to it (1 Timothy 4:15) and then trust that "it will be given you in that hour what you are to say" (Matthew 10:19).

In fact, Backus suspected that a lot of what ministers did was intended to "supply the want of the Spirit of God." If the Holy Spirit didn't speak to you through the scriptures, you could always ramble on about what some key word meant in the original Greek, cite a few religious authorities, and dismiss before anyone noticed that you didn't have anything relevant to say.

Church was simpler then. Folks sang a few hymns and heard a word from the Lord (hopefully). I have to wonder if much of what we've added to the churchgoing experience since then might serve to "supply the want of the Spirit of God." Maybe I should put that another way, because I don't mean the rock bands and fog machines (although those do immediately come to mind). I'm privileged to travel a bit and meet pastors of all denominations, and I find that on the whole, ministers are looking for the right strategy or curriculum or institutional philosophy to propel their ministry to the next level. Or at the very least keep the doors open. What I don't hear is pastors asking how to rely on the Holy Spirit to take charge of their ministry.

October 22, 2012

Displaying 1–10 of 12 comments


November 06, 2012  3:21pm

I totally agree with the fact that in as much as we would like to enhance our ministry with technology, we have to fully depend on the Holy Spirit to minister through us. I personally believe that relying thus studying the bible and praying a lot will help a minister of God to deliver an authentic message.

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November 06, 2012  11:02am

Steve, comments like the one of Jerry's that you highlighted show that there is more than one way us modern Christians like to put God in a box. Thankfully for us, He will always find a way to blast His way out of those for anyone faithfully seeking Him (in whatever setting). I find your comment to be true in my own experience, too. Thanks.

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November 01, 2012  11:28am

Jerry said, "It's impossible to be "in the Spirit" in a pastor or worship leader centered meeting." I remember Peter preaching to Cornelius' house, and the Spirit showing up. In fact, Peter, Paul and other apostles regularly dominated gatherings, whether in synagogues or homes. Paul preached so long in one house meeting that Eutychus fell out the window to his death. The Spirit works through all of God's people, including pastors, so we can be "in the Spirit" in any setting where God's people turn their focus on Jesus, whether during a traditional service where the word is being boldly and faithfully proclaimed, or in a house meeting where everyone is operating in the flow of the Spirit. I regularly participate in both and find the Spirit to be powerfully at work in both.

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October 28, 2012  4:21pm

In my experience, God can use longer and carefully prepared sermons and preachers who read or preach from notes. He can and does use extemporaneous sermons (even long ones). And He can and does use words of Scripture, prophecy, wisdom, and knowledge shared in a more informal manner by those within the Church who have through long struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil and with the help of the grace of God come to be able to hear His Voice with a depth and clarity that is rare. I believe there is nothing wrong (and, in fact, much that is right) with more ordinary struggling Christians relying on the insights of others who have given sure evidence with their lives over the ages to be in this last and most rare category. We recognize them within the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition as the "Fathers," "Saints" and "Theologians" of the Church (this last term meaning to the EO in the "experiential-knowledge-of-God-through-prayer" sense–not the modern academic sense). If we use their inspired insights in preaching or teaching others, we should just be sure to give attribution where it is due. We believe such "Fathers" and "Saints" of the Church are still being formed through the grace of the Holy Spirit today. My present Orthodox priests preach extemporaneously in much the way Mr. Backus prescribed. On the other hand, in every Orthodox Church around the world, the Easter Sunday sermon is one given centuries ago by St. John Chrysostem and read or preached from memory by the presiding bishop or priest, the text of which can be found here: So far I haven't gotten tired of hearing it! :-) As for most extemporaneous preachers pretty much repeating the same things over and over–perhaps that is the "monotony" of the Truth (which–actually Who–"is the same yesterday, today and forever") applied to the needs of sinful human beings, which I'll warrant have not changed much since the Garden of Eden. I'm not convinced the audience that needs constant novelty in worship or preaching is not just giving evidence of not having yet fully fastened on the Truth.

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October 27, 2012  5:44pm

"...ministers are looking for the right strategy or curriculum or institutional philosophy to propel their ministry to the next level. Or at the very least keep the doors open. What I don't hear is pastors asking how to rely on the Holy Spirit to take charge of their ministry." I appreciated the article, and the gentle reminder that whatever study/tools/prep we use, when we stand before God's people we should be relying fully on God's presence to speak and guide us. This is, after all, His Church, and His mission to love the world through the Gospel of Himself. Thanks for reminding us about our sin-filled tendency toward exchanging "the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man."

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October 24, 2012  9:38pm

A message from God starts in the heart. The mind is used to convey it. Leaning some on the minds of others whom God has used, is there for the preacher and the church. After all Christ refered to the Old Testament to bring light to His listeners.

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October 24, 2012  6:55am

It's impossible to be "in the Spirit" in a pastor or worship leader centered meeting. The body is not allowed to function in a setting like that - just 20 minutes of songs and endless sermons. Most preachers I know can ramble on with or without notes. And most of them say the same thing week after week - it gets old real quick. Once you open up a meeting to allow the body to function (as in 1 Cor 14:26 - When you come together .... EACH ONE has a ....) - then the Spirit can energize what's going on - and you can get in the flow of what's happening in the group. Really you have to experience it to know what I'm talking about (or accept the 1 Cor 14 scripture at face value – which most people cannot do)- and once you do - you'll never be satisfied again with 20 minutes of songs and a sermon. If you read 1 Cor 14 as if it's really for today – then you realize that to carry on your traditional service – means you're sacrificing God's healing power, God's knowledge of the future, God's encouragement, God's plan, God's power, etc– all for the sake of carrying on your tradition. This is mainly to stroke the ego of the worship leader and the pastor. Jesus said it like this – you nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition (20 minutes of songs and a sermon). With or without notes is totally irrelevant. The relevance is this- Does what you're doing having any scriptural basis at all? Where exactly in scripture is a professional song leader and a professional pastor dominating a weekly service attended by passive non-participants?

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Charles e Whisnant

October 22, 2012  3:30pm

I have yet to be convicted that using the minds of John MacArthur, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon is wrong. To use Vines, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones is in my mind not wrong. I don't call it stealing from the minds of those who put out their material for others to read. Spurgeon could read and put it to memory as fast as he read it and could recall it when he preached. So those of us who have no memory, then notes are great. To get up and preach four sermons a week without using notes would be a task. Many preachers only preach once a week so they can spend more time on one sermon. What I believe if my people have not heard the thoughts of Charles Spurgeon as an example why shouldn't they? So much of preaching is just hot air coming form the minds of men who have not taking time to study the Word of God for fear they may say something someone else has.

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Steve Martin

October 22, 2012  2:27pm

Whether it is read, or spoken off the cuff, or assisted by notes, the Word of God (His law and His gospel) will make it's own way and accomplish that for which it sets out to do in the hearing of those in it's path.

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October 22, 2012  12:05pm

I agree with the first comment by David. Having just preached my first sermon yesterday, I can say that I prayerfully read and thought about the passage as I was studying. I also took a lot of notes. I do not think that this is unbiblical. My apologies to Mr. Backus, but I HATE it when Matthew 10:19 is used out of context. This passage is about persecution, not about the regular administration of the word. I think the best example of this would be to look at a contemporary of Backus, Jonathan Edwards. He has years and years of sermon notes, which are quite extensive, but show now lack of leading by the Spirit. Currently, though, I agree. I think so much of ministry is looking at trends, fads, and numbers. I am blessed with a local church which is committed to spiritual growth and maturity, and discipleship; this comes from pastors and elders who are deeply in thought and deeply led by the Spirit.

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