A Pastor Talks about the Pressures to Plagiarize

By John Frye

Recently Scot McKnight had an excellent post about pastors plagiarizing. I read the post and followed the comment thread. Many good (and bad) things were pointed out about pastors preaching sermons of other pastors. Almost all thought it was deceptive to preach another pastor’s anecdote or experience or sermon as if it were their own. That is outright lying.

What in the USAmerican evangelical culture would tempt pastors to plagiarize?

The unwise set-up of many pastors’ conferences. I have been a pastor for 40 years now. I’ve attended countless pastors conferences. When well-known, celebrity-status pastors are trotted out to be the main speakers, the message to the home-town pastor in middle Iowa gets the message: I am nothing compared to this guy (or lady). The down home pastor thinks that just maybe he should be adapting (a euphemism for plagiarizing) this “big gun’s” sermons for the benefit of his/her congregation.

The book market for super pastors. Many Christian books by well-known pastors are marketed with built-in sermons that the pastor can preach to get his/her congregation interested in the book. Small group discussions can be spawned around the topics of the books. Yes, this is a way to market books through the local church. Trust me, I know what I am talking about here. The pastor thinks, “If I preach this canned sermon preached to a whole different group of people in another city across America, they will come.”

The ubiquitous presence of Christian radio (and TV and podcasts). So many church attenders are able to hear very capable and charismatic preachers on their favorite Christian radio stations. By contrast, their pastor seems so bland compared to the dynamic, nationally known preachers. Yet, who buried Grandma Smith? Who prayed over the cancer survivor? Who was there at the birth of little Susie? Who did the wedding of Bill and Marta? The pastor thinks I have to compete with Swindoll, (Charles or Andy) Stanley, MacArthur and that cool guy with the British accent. He or she thinks, “I know. I will preach their sermons as my own.”

Isolating the sermon as a thing unto itself. This really bugs me. I do not call communicators of the Bible in megachurches “pastors.” They are not. “My sheep hear my voice. I call them by name. They follow Me.” The sermon in USAmerican mega-churchism has been horribly divorced from relationships. This is not a good thing. Some mega-church pastors are even protected from the riff-raff of the church. They let the lower rungs of church staff deal with the real pastoral issues. There is a spiritual elitism at work here. Sad. Sermons are made not just from Bible texts but from lived and known local stories. We have dis-incarnated the sermon.

Plagiarism is a collapse of faith. This collapse of faith knocks down three dominoes. First, a belief in the Creator God’s ability to grant creative, original thought to the local church pastor (stuck in the cornfields of Iowa). “That big shot pastor is on radio, sometimes on TV, he or she’s got books galore. I’ve got 23 families of farmers. What do I know?” The sin of comparison has sent too many pastors into depression. It has to stop. Stop now. Let the small town pastor meditate through the Book of Ruth. No kings. No priests. No mighty warriors. No prophets. What? An alien, a bitter widow, and a farmer. Second, a collapse in the dignity of the local, local, local church! A collapse in the dignity of the very local church is a collapse of a biblically-informed vision of the church. Life and death, kingdom of God/kingdom of darkness, eternal realities versus temporal “wind-blown chaff.” These issues are just as real in the church of 36 as in the church of 36,000. Who gives a rip about what anyone else thinks or does or preaches? In the judgment the last and the least will be first. That applies to churches, my friends. Third, a collapse of wisdom and discernment. Media-driven comparisons, ability to be known through marketed books or TV exposure, ability to coin a catchy phrase or two are drivel in comparison to that one old widow pouring her life into young mothers in the “hollers” of West Virginia. That faithful, down-home pastor who wouldn’t know N. T. Wright from the Wright brothers, yet who faithfully points people to Jesus and the hope of the Gospel will sip good, cool wine next to Jesus at the marriage supper of the Lamb while big shot, well-known megachurch pastor serves the table. How do I know? Because things are very different in the kingdom of God than they are in the kingdom of USAmerican evangelicalism.

I liked the comment of someone on Scot’s post about plagiarism. He or she stated, “I don’t think I would know how to plagiarize.” Good on you, brother or sister. Preaching other people’s stuff doesn’t change one iota of who you are. This concludes this somewhat testy post.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.