Jared Wilson over at the Gospel Coalition blogsite recently brought up Carl Trueman’s 2012 commentary on megachurch pastors and their use of Docent Research Group as a way to renew the conversation about external research services in sermon preparation. Wilson’s post coincided with the news release for Bethlehem Baptist Church’s young pastor Jason Meyer’s forthcoming book Preaching: A Biblical Theology. Evangelical irony, no?
The core of the discussion boils down to this theological question: Should pastors use external research services, such as Docent, to aid in the planning and preparation for weekly sermons?
Trueman answers in the negative. He wonders if preparation agencies and assistants (1) hinder the preacher’s own sanctification, (2) perpetuate outright plagiarism, (3) wastes Kingdom resources, (4) complicate the preaching process by adding another layer of evaluating analysis, and (5) serve to perpetuate the Celebrity Pastor phenomenon in American evangelical culture.
Wilson answers in the sorta-affirmative by way of simply calming down some of Trueman’s concerns. He basically admits that, historically speaking, preachers and pastors have always used outside help in sermon prep, whether via the form of personal assistants, or in the form of “outsourcing” analysis. So, in Wilson’s mind, this is a non-issue.
But to the point: Why does this question raise such a stir among pastors, parishioners, and church people at large? Consider this parallel from the sports world: Are Docent and other research assistance aids the preaching equivalent of PEDs in Major League Baseball?
After all, isn’t the discussion here hinging on a naked assumption that Docent provides a performance enhancing competitive advantage to the pastors who choose to use the resource? Couldn’t Trueman’s comments be seen as the concerns of a the baseball purist theologian who wants fairness in the pulpits across America? And couldn’t Wilson’s retorts be viewed as the equivalent of Alex Rodriguez and others saying, “Well, but everyone has been doing it for years and it is an established part of playing proclamation [baseball] at this level?”
Now, I am going to make a bold statement and I want readers to stay with me through this: In many ways, Docent and other research services are the theological equivalent of PEDs in professional sports. Here are my reasons for taking this position:
- Funds are required to access the benefit of this product. And, not all preachers have equal access to funds. This creates a haves/have-nots scenario.
- The research, analysis, and summaries do provide a preparation advantage to those who choose use the services.
- Some preachers use the services in more honorable ways — supplementing and complimenting the work they are already doing in preparation. Other preachers use the services in less honorable ways — seeing it as a way to shortcut weekly preparation (I had a friend who worked for Docent. He often complained that his celebrity pastor essentially plagiarized the analysis handed to him).
- The result of the research services is disparate content delivery. This disparate content delivery is reflected in a number of secondary streams of influence and, in some cases, revenue: Podcast clicks, conference invites, book sales, church growth numbers.
That being said, here are some ways that baseball can teach preachers about PEDs and soften the barbs in this discussion:
1. PEDs don’t turn below-average hitters into amazing hitters. Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa were all spectacular hitters before PEDs. PEDs helped them to sustain their already developed prowess for extended periods of time. PEDs made them more of what they already were. Likewise, the pastors who use this service (Mark Driscoll, Matt Carter, Craig Groeschel, JD Greer, and others) were already gifted and anointed communicators well before Docent entered the picture. Docent and other research services don’t turn sub-par communicators into John Piper. And, those preachers were going to have big churches, podcast clicks, and conference invites on their own merits.
2. PEDs taint All-Star Team selections. The theological equivalent of All-Star Teams? Conference speakers. Anthony Bradley tweeted about this issue this week and had an interesting exchange (Pictured below).
And it is these very celebrity pastors who get invited to the speaking circuit, often times under the invitation to disclose the “secret” to your church’s health and growth. These pastors tout leadership development, volunteerism, and Biblical preaching among the three main staples of success. But what if these pastors also use Docent? Why not admit this factor at the conference? Might it be due to the fact that Docent would feel like an unfair competitive advantage? That the hard working, paying attendees of this conference don’t want to find out that a key factor in church health requires more money than their budgets can afford to spend? That this key factor reveals the clear line between the haves and the have-nots?
Again, Bradley tweets about the transparency that academics must practice and the rampant plagiarism that many pastors are permitted to practice.
3. The admission of using PEDs demystifies our heroes and turns them back into normal mortal men. This is perhaps the best reason for transparency in research use. There is an unintended and yet crippling effect on other pastors from celebrity pastors and conference speakers – normal pastors are made to feel like less of men when their preaching doesn’t match up to the podcasts that their parishioners listen to during their commutes to work. It seems nowadays that it is simply not enough for a pastor to love his people, lead them well, practice the Bible, love his family, and preach within his calling and gifting if he also doesn’t draw a crowd like Mark Driscoll. Because Mark Driscoll is a demi-god. Now in part, Mark Driscoll should not be held responsible for fanhood or for the facebook generation who turns him into a veritable cultural demi-god preacher. He didn’t ask for all this attention. But, he is considered as such and is likely aware of it. So my question for pastors like Driscoll and others is, why not admit that you use help in sermon prep? Why not admit it before every sermon so that it makes it on the podcast? Why not mention this during conferences? Why not write it in books? Why not give front cover credit to your ghost writers? Why not stop doing the things that perpetuate fanhood? By admitting that you need help, more than on a cover video of Docent’s website, you will serve to tell your fellow pastors that we are all in the same boat of humanity. It may, however, hinder your book sales (#toofar?).
So, do I believe that pastors should use research services such as Docent? In 99.9% of the cases I think not. I will hold out for the remainder because I ultimately believe this to be a Christian Life issue and as such would not want to create a new legalism. I have friends who have benefited from being the researcher for Docent and other groups like this. Docent helped them pay their ways through grad school and provided an income for their families. Docent gave them an opportunity for networking and practical application of their theoretical seminary knowledge. Docent provided a backend channel for ministry placement after seminary and PhD work. Their research benefited the congregations of several churches and likely resulted in organized discipleship and sanctification. So, don’t get me wrong — I can see plenty of benefits to this arrangement.
At the end of the day, I view Docent and other research services through Augustine’s Ex opere operato position. In his time, priests were administering the sacraments while having just denounced Christ to escape persecution. Parishioners were worried that their sacraments were tainted because of the priest’s ungodliness. Augustine argued that the sacraments were gracious by virtue of the act itself and not tied to the particular priest’s holiness.
To bring this concept to bear on PEDs in the pulpit — When pastors deliver excellently researched content in the form of a series of sermons there are several people who experience sanctification through the worship act of proclamation. The people in the pews are blessed by the preaching and the researcher is blessed by the preparation. I think it is the pastor who experiences a mudpuddle of sanctification when he could have had a holiday at the beach, to which I echo Trueman’s quote of J. I. Packer: “dig deep, dwell deep.”