Why pastors should plagiarize in their sermons

Why pastors should plagiarize in their sermons November 8, 2011

I’ve been thinking about the differences between classroom teaching and pulpit preaching.

When I teach, I use the work of many scholars to help students understand the material, with proper citation of course.  Yes, I give my own ideas and analyses (and probably more than I need), but the the core of my material is the work of others.  If I had to present *only* my own ideas, the class would be about an hour or two long, and then I’d have to call it for the semester.

In contrast, there seems to be a norm among pastors that all sermons have to be original in idea and expression. The problem is that this is very hard to do; I know I couldn’t produce an original, useful 20-30 talk every week.  So, a lot of sermons aren’t really that good.

This leads me to wonder why pastors do not more frequently base their sermons on the work of others. Presumably pastors know the best books about Christian faith & practice, and, with their theological training, pastors are in a better place to understand & explain the ideas of others. Why not take a book, for example, that has had a broad impact and walk their congregation though it over several sermons.  Or, why not adapt a sermon on someone else’s sermon?  Why not show video series?

To be clear, the pastor would need to clearly indicate the source of the material; otherwise it is plagiarism. (Okay, the title of this post isn’t quite accurate, but it’s catchy, no?).  I’m advocating using others’ ideas with full acknowledgement.

Pastors almost seem to feel guilty about using the ideas of others–as if somehow they are avoiding their pastoral responsibility.  To the contrary, I think that they would both give better sermons and have more time and energy for the many other responsibilities of pastoring if they more frequently summarized and illustrated the ideas of others for their sermons.


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  • When I was in college back in the 1980’s, our pastor preached through the book of Nehemiah using Chuck Swindoll’s book on Nehemiah as a guide (Hand Me Another Brick). Our pastor told us up front what he was doing, and each week the printed sermon outline in the bulletin credited Swindoll’s book for the outline. The pastor used Swindoll’s book for a guide and outline, but then obviously interspersed a lot of his own ideas, research and illustrations as well. I thought it was a great series.

    • Hello Ray,

      It’s telling that you still remember it! I certainly don’t remember most the sermons that I heard back in the day.

      Good to hear from you,


  • I disagree completely. Since the Bible says that an elder/pastor should be “able to teach/affirm right doctrine” (Titus 1:9, 1 Timothy 3:2), they need to actually do that. Preaching is hard work, which is why many pastors should be spending more time preparing, not less. Very few pastors are going to be “good enough” to warrant those outside of their congregation listening to their podcasts, but every pastor is uniquely gifted to preach God’s word to their particular congregation. Basing your sermon series significantly on someone else’s work frees you from the personal soul work that comes with sermon prep, which is a bad thing.

    Additionally, if you’re always preaching the gospel, you can never preach a bad sermon. Someone once said “he may preach a better sermon, but not a better gospel.” If pastors really believed that the gospel was the power of God unto salvation, they would rest in that and be OK with not being the best preacher in the world.

    Maybe one of the reasons that people think many sermons are bad is because pastors don’t stay very long at their congregations. Tim Keller has said that it takes 200 sermons to really get your bearings as a preaching in a local congregation. Since the tenure of most pastors is less than 5 years, maybe many pastors are leaving before they’re actually “ready”

    • But doesn’t drawing upon other peoples’ sources fit the bill with being “able to teach/affirm right doctrine”? I guess I don’t see the distinction. Yes, preaching is about the gospel, but why not then just preach the same sermon over and over? Clearly there’s a need for variation, and in that comes quality of presentation, which gets me back to my initial thought: What makes for the clearest presentation of the Gospel, regardless of who first said it.

  • Susie

    Good preachers always allow themselves to be inspired by the good work of others. I frequently lean heavily on good sources — always acknowledging the sources (though not giving a full academic citation during the sermon as that ruins the flow). There is nothing new under the sun. The key is to have the intellectual honesty to be clear when an idea or phrase is not original.

    • That’s what I think… nothing new under the sun. In fact, if I do have a new theological idea, it’s probably heresy.

      I’ve seen pastors put citations and references in the sermon outlines/ bulletins, so as not to interrupt the flow.


  • Tony Lin

    I think most preachers are already doing what you do in class. I’m a long time pastor and have preached many sermons. I don’t think I have ever preached a sermon when I didn’t consult and use another pastor/theologian’s work. They are called “Bible Commentaries.” I use them all the time. I even read whole collection of sermons to see how other pastors have preached on the text. They actually teach us to do that in seminary.

    I can tell you from experience that citing every single commentary I used for a sermon is impractical and impossible. There’s no way you can cite every single source in a sermon, the sermon would be too long and too boring. If I quote someone I say the name but beyond that it’s just impractical.

    I think the problem with the preacher who just read Max Lucado’s chapter (as you linked) is that he did not prepare. Even the preacher Ray talked about who preached Swindoll’s book, he preapred (and I’m sure/hope prayed for) that sermon for that specific congregation. Just like when I use commentaries and sermon books, I use all of those to discern what God wants me to tell my congregation. When you pick a chapter and just get up there and read it… that’s not taking the office of a preacher very seriouslly.

    It’s equivalent of showing up at lecture and reading a chapter of the textbook. I think tenure would be seriouslly compromised if the department found out that a faculty member was just reading textbooks in lecture.

  • j smith

    I like this post. It’s not that pastors shouldn’t prepare their content and delivery (and also by praying for their own motives and ego), but that evangelical pastors probably get themselves in trouble by trying too hard to be too original, “fresh,” funny, and edgy (see for example the various blunders of Mark Driscoll such as: http://rachelheldevans.com/mark-driscoll-bully). Let’s just call it trying to put too much “originality” into sermons. It’s this push for originality and that seems to be the problem. It often produces dumb theology (eg, here’s how Christians can transform culture in three alliterated words), inaccuracies (eg, pastors trying to get creative with statistics or Islamic history), or can be recklessly edgy (eg, Mark Driscoll).

    • I like your phrasing… “the push for originality”, and I agree with the three negative consequences it can have. Thanks for commenting.

  • JenG

    I couldn’t agree more. I would rather hear someone monologue a great sermon by someone else than ramble for 30 minutes on their own “fresh” idea.

    This thought occurs to me on a weekly basis – thanks for articulating it.

  • Actually motivating