Some of the best advice I have ever received came from my advisor Scott Manetch in seminary. He warned me not to use a "bag of tricks" when I got into ministry. He explained how most pastors stay at a church for 3-4 years and then move on. One reason, he suggested, was because many pastors only had three years worth of sermons, ideas and programs in their bag of tricks. When the pastor ran out he would move on to another church and recycle everything again.
The root of this (I think) is being a second-hander. We may push children to make their faith their own, but pastors seemingly must do the same. Here are seven signs that you are setting yourself up to be or already are a second-hander.
1. In school, when you are assigned an exegesis paper, you run to the commentaries and your conclusion first. You short-circuit your own work and effort by not staring at the text over and over again. Time is of the essence so you hurry through the process. The result - you have just written a paper on Romans 8 that is almost identical to Doug Moo's commentary. You get a good grade, you learned something about the text, but you skipped the process of learning.
2. Speaking of languages, you rely on your computer software to parse everything for you. Even when called upon in class, you look hard into your computer screen and then say what the program tells you. Teachers would be smart to not allow computers in exegesis classes!
3. You get assigned a text to preach and you immediately go to The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God websites for help. You listen to a few sermons, make an outline, add a personal story and boom, you are done! Funny thing - it sounds just like John Piper's sermon last week. I remember being in preaching lab while in seminary and three people had the same sermon. To say pastors continue to use other people's sermons in an unhelpful way is an understatement. Just read here. By the time you preach on Sundays, your sermons really are just insights from your three favorite preachers.
4. You would rather read book reviews than books, books about the Bible instead of the Bible,and books on prayer instead of praying. Books reviews are helpful. So are commentaries and books on prayer. But these are secondary sources, not primary.
5. You rely on what you learned 10 years ago instead of what you learned over the last 10 years. The Bible is not fresh. All of your insights are from mentors and teachers before they unleashed you on the Church. You may have bought books at a conference or from a great online deal, but you only read a few, if you are lucky!
6. When you awake in the morning, you run to the blogs and news to hear what people say about Scripture instead of reading it for yourself.
7. All of your ideas are someone elses. This includes ideas for what your church is involved in. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is bad if you find that you are reduplicating the same plan in different contexts with different people.
I believe what happens in the process of using secondary sources first, is that you become a caricature of what you had hoped to become. You imagine yourself to know far more than you do. But honestly, the roots of Scripture are only an inch deep. You can not be a firmly planted tree by streams of water without delight and meditation. One thinks 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.
Darren Carlson is the Founder and President of Training Leaders International. As President, Darren oversees the general direction of the ministry and serves as an advocate for pastors with little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.