Sermons and Plagiarism

Sermons and Plagiarism August 5, 2006

The NY Times ran an article about pastors swiping sermons from sermon sources, and then Out of Ur ran a piece which got some comments. (HT: Garry Poole) I’m wondering what you think. Here are my thoughts:
I once was in a situation when a pastor admitted to using sermons from sermon sources, and he also said he hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with it. What most confused me about the situation was that he was using illustrations from other preachers in the first person — and you really did think these experiences were his. So far as I know, he stopped.

What are the issues? Here’s what I see:
First, it is not honest. Part of the pastoral task is to preach (if that is part of your “job description”), and that means preparing their own sermons. I don’t know any search committees that prefer their pastoral candidates and preachers to use sermon sources [in order to borrow or swipe sermons preached by others on a routine basis or without acknowledgement — added in light of Steve May’s fine suggestions and clarifications below].
Second, the temptation is evidently strong, and I’d like to know what you think drives pastors to plagiarize sermons, but here’s what I see. Sometimes they don’t have the time to get a sermon ready. Sometimes they have too many sermons or talks to get ready for the week and resort to using somebody else’s for one of the talks. Sometimes the pressure to be a good preacher is so strong the preacher is tempted to use someone else’s already-shown-to-be-good sermon. Sometimes there are so many good preachers in the area swiping sermons is the only way a preacher can “compete.” Sometimes a pastor’s job is on the line for how he or she preaches and they are able to postpone the inevitable with a few good sermons swiped from a source.
Third, pastors should not subscribe to such services if they are at all tempted to swipe sermons. I suppose these services are designed to help pastors see what good preaching looks like — but that’s another series. If the temptation is there, it is far wiser to make it unavailable.
Fourth, sermon services are partly culpable here: I’ve never been part of this so I’d like to hear how they work. Do they warn of plagiarism? Do they educate on the proper use? Someone will know more than I about these services.
Fifth, what is a sermon? Well, it’s a whole life brought to bear on a text each week for a single 30 minute or so sermon before a specific congregation. It shames the preacher not to be who he or she is in the pulpit, and to pretend to be someone else. It de-localizes the sermon from the local context. It distorts who the preacher is before the congregation.
So, the sermon is highly biblical, highly personal, highly local, and highly temporal: it is the individual preacher engaging God and Bible and congregation, in that specific location, for that time.
Sixth, which brings up the philosophical issue: Is there not nothing new under the sun? Well said. To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that were used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting, it is convergence — it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others. It brings together other people’s ideas and says so if it is substantial; but it is a uniquely personal, local, and temporal bringing of those things together. Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.
Now let’s be honest: sermons don’t have footnotes and need not. You need not end each separable idea with a “I got this point from Ortberg and this one from Niebuhr and that one from Bonhoeffer.” We all use things from others in sermons, and when we use a lot from someone about some point, we say so. By and large the congregation doesn’t care about that. But, I think they expect the preacher to be preaching his or her own sermon and not someone else’s.

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  • “Preaching as an art form” is tragic and vacuous.
    A great man once said, “Truth that has not been lived in is stolen.”
    Only after truth has challenges us, boiled us, broken our heart, and damn near killed us, are we qualified to preach it.

  • Scot,
    It is not honest–for all the reasons you mentioned. Somehow, pastors must wrestle with the ethic of this practice.
    I’m not sure about all the reasons why preachers might be tempted but I will suggest a few.
    First, these resources are easily accesible in the privacy of one’s home or office at no cost. (sounds like similar dynamic involved in the use of porn). No accountability.
    Second, as you noted there are great time demands in ministry. Yet, regardless of what happens during the week, Sunday is coming.
    Third, the presentation of these messages has become more complex. Many of us use PowerPoint in the presentation of our messages (I am included here). These PowerPoint presentions can be fairly simple or they can be incredibly time consuming. I have seen some presentations in sermons and left wondering, “How many hours did it take for him to put that together?”
    Fourth, some are just lazy. Most preachers/pastors I have known are very hard working people. They put in a lot of hours working with a church and preparing various messages. Yet, there are also some people in this role who do not have a strong work ethic. The lack of accountability in many churches creates an environment which can support these poor work habits.
    I really do understand many of these presures, yet I can’t help but think the church is being shortchanged. And I wonder if it is not some of the tough exegetical work that is being neglected.
    Some churches need to take a serious look at what they are expecting of the person who preaches on the weekend. What are they expecting of this person during the week and in these presentations? Yet, some of us who preach might also look at the way we are responding to these presures.

  • Jamie Westlake

    Dear Scot,
    A few years ago I visited my home church, and the pastor, word for word, read a sermon straight out of Homiletics magazine. It was awful. The even more painful part than the stealing of material was that he didn’t even try to spice it up or present it well. It was not only stolen bread, but it was stale bread, too. This wasn’t a collegue I had a realtionship with, and I chalked it up to being a rough week. Besides, he preached with such apathy and monotone boredom I doubt his own material wouldn’t have been much better. I confess- I didn’t call him on it.
    I look at other people’s sermons to see how they dealt with the text, but I still have to wrestle with it myself. I would never use someone else’s personal illustration as if it was my own, but someone else’s story might spark a memory that helps in my preparation a lot. You’re right- the message is most fitly prepared and delivered to a particular community of faith out of a particular person’s faith experience.

  • BW

    This subject keeps coming up, so it’s obviously an issue. What I’m most troubled by are pastors’ unwillingness to cite. For some reason, there is more shame in saying, “I heard so-n-so speak this message and it was so powerful I want to share it with you this morning” than ripping it off.
    Why do pastors do it? Just a thought: how about too much blogging. More broadly speaking, our priorities can get so messed up or we fail to see what pastoring really is we feel comfortable blogging while neglecting our true calling (I wouldn’t include blogging as part of our ‘true calling’). I enjoy the dialogue through blogs; for some of us, we don’t get it anywhere else. But I can easily spend hours commenting on blogs when that could be used for sermon prep or visitation (two pastoral responsibilities that are being forgotten). Maybe we pastors need to limit our blogging until our sermon prep is finished.

  • Our church secretary was a member of a different local church. One Sunday, she went to visit her church for the early service (I think there was a baptism of someone she knew) and our church for the late service. And it was the same sermon. Totally changed her opinion of both men. So, it’s also harmful when it is “found out.”
    I think what is most troublesome about the practice is stealing illustrations and presenting them as if they happened to you. That’s not just lazy, it’s dishonest. It’s also something neither of the two pastors above did, so there is at least that going for them.

  • paul

    i agree with your last paragraph scott. pastors shouldn’t need to give footnotes in their sermons regarding where exactly they got the information. but at the same time, i think it is not good for a pastor to be sharing stories in the first person that are not their own.
    It makes me wonder why pastors would do this in the first place. i like what you say in point 5 scott. for the pastor to not speak from their own heart, experiences, and what God is teaching/has taught them isn’t helpful. it undermines the authenticity of the community.
    imagine doing the same thing (using first person stories that are not your own) for a group of friends. if your friends discovered the stories were not true, they would think you lied to them…and in fact you have.

  • “what is a sermon? Well, it’s a whole life brought to bear on a text each week for a single 30 minute or so sermon before a specific congregation.” Amen.
    I wouldn’t even want one of my own past sermons. For me it needs to be fresh. Restudied, rethought, reprayed over. It needs to be something that is a natural expression coming from me. Something that is hopefully from God’s heart, then hopefully to my heart, and then hopefully to all of our hearts.
    We certainly do say and speak much/most of what we’ve read or heard from others. I think the key is that this needs to become your own. So I end up sifting it through and taking out of it what makes sense to me, to my life, and above all is faithful to the revelation of God from Scripture, as best I can tell. It becomes my own, so to speak, from God. But it is good, especially when this is prominent, to say, I really am indebted here to so and so. They helped me see this. Though now, I’m not quoting them, but what I receive and understand from it. Of course, by now, after living these years, I say and think things of sources that I’ve long since forgotten. Shows how we’re all in this together, as the Church, for the glory of God. I think.

  • I occasionally find that sermon sources can be helpful in stimulating ideas and showing different ways of approaching the scripture passage being preached. But those ideas and illustrations must go through a process of personalization, of allowing it to work through my own life, before I share it with others, and never never using other people’s experiences and falsely presenting it as though I experienced it. I think “footnotes” clutter sermons and most congregations would know that their pastors are not that “original” but simply widely read!

  • If it is wrong to repeat someone elses sermon (and I think it is) is it wrong to reuse your own sermon in different venues?

  • Michael,
    I’ve faced this one when I began doing Jesus Creed. If someone asks me to speak about Jesus Creed, there are only a limited number of ways to do that. Nearly every itinerant will tell you they repeat.
    What I always try to do is adapt the common content to the local audience as I learn more about it and them.
    And, of course, the point of the post was doing what is your own.

  • Scot,
    you touch on this in point 5, but one of my main concerns is that this approach to ‘stealing’ sermons leads to a severe lack of biblical literacy, both in the pulpit and subsequently in the pew. if the pastor/preacher/teacher is not struggling with the text week in and week out, there is surely no way the congregation will. moreover, there is a serious lack of contextualization when someone’s sermon from california is transplanted to the midwest (or asia!). the incarnational aspect of the Word in an interpretive community is all but lost.

  • Michael,
    One further point: I don’t like to drive in and out to speak at churches. It is far better for me to be at a place a day or two, meet with some people, chat with the pastor, etc., in order to get to know the place.

  • Sot – Being a church planter, I recently read a book called ‘Community of Kindness’ by Steve Sjogren. For the most part, I really enjoyed the book… a great practical book for church planters. However, I was pretty shocked when I ran up on the chapter called ‘In your teaching and communication, don’t seek to be profound or original. Plagiarize like Crazy!’ His arguement, as he hits this throughout the book, is that planters are so pressed for time that they should not give the amount of time necessary to create original sermons.
    For a church planter, one of (emphasis on ‘one of’) the best ways to set the direction of his baby church is by the preaching ministry of that church. It would seem to me that a planter preaching someone else’s sermon is planting someone else’s church rather than staying true to the vision that God has implanted within his heart.
    Great discussion!

  • Scott,
    Regarding your fifth point, do you think it might be in some way linked to what a person thinks preaching is? I’m thinking here of some of the criticisms of expository preaching made by people like Dave Fitch, and how it lends itself to commodifying the word. If one thinks of preaching as simply the dispensing of propositional information lifted from the pages of scripture by means of scientifically reliable methods, then the local context seems to matter a lot less as long as the correct information is delivered and people “get something out of it.” I don’t know, it could be nothing, but it was a thought I had when I read the piece.
    Also, I wonder about what we expect of pastors and our ideas of leadership. Is it possible that some pastors feel driven to use other people’s materials, because some churches expect pastors to do so many things that they do not have time to prepare a sermon well.

  • To Michael Kruse,
    I’d say it could be, but doesn’t have to be dishonest to use your own sermon again. I’m not a preacher, but know I sometimes go back and re-read things I’ve written and think they’re still pretty good and relevant, and maybe I could re-use them sometime in something else I write. I’d say that if a sermon is delivered again in a rote, verbatim way out of a lazy desire not to do the work necessary to prepare for it, it it is probably wrong, but if it is used again because you think it was a good sermon the first time and you have gone through the material again and think it’s still relevant and useful, then maybe not.

  • Von

    As for it’s being ‘dishonest’, it is only dishonest if you don’t tell the audience, no? I wouldn’t have a problem if a pastor said, ‘hey, here is a fantastic sermon by Spurgeon (or whoever) that I think is just perfect for us today.’ Isn’t one of the problems with todays generation that they think they always have to reinvent the wheel? It’s like they think no-one ever wrestled with the same problems.
    As Solomon said, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

  • Let’s be honest here. Who in the world could actually say that their material is original? We preach from a text written by another, read commentaries produced by others still, live in a context we neither created nor maintain on our own … to read word-for-word someone else’s sermon is plagerism but reading other’s sermons, commentaries, and studies is submitting to the wisdom of the church.
    So I think what you are saying is valid in that I can imagine only a very few circumstances where it would ever be appropriate to read another’s sermon from the pulpit, but to greatly rely on other’s in our preaching is an action of faith and submission. Just my 2 cents.

  • MikeS

    Wow! Great post Scot! I think you hit a nail on the preacher’s head.
    Some some random thoughts (my only kind):
    One of the things I’m most happy for in living overseas is the lack of “preacher porn” as someone else has called it. It doesn’t land in my mailbox and I don’t visit the sites that promote it. One large Chicagoland Christian publishing company in particular.
    I would agree the pressure to be a preacher like the ones they here on the radio is immense. As is the pressure to produce great messages every week that are truly life-transformational. (In my case that’s 4 individual messages a week, ouch!) Adding Powerpoint to all of those pressures can easily double or triple the workload depending on how creative you are with reducing your message to bullet points. (I’m not and its a nightmare every week)
    This has obviously affected pastors who held this pulpit before I came, because the office had two shelves full of books of other people’s sermons and outlines when I moved into it. I actually looked at a couple of them and couldn’t figure out what the preacher was talking about, even to the point of wondering if he was reading the same Bible.
    Having said that, I realize that what I read every week does influence the message. It can’t be helped, so my efforts go toward recognizing that influence in my messages and drawing people’s attention to the original source whenever possible. This is easily done by flashing the book or author on the Powerpoint screen along with the quote.
    I wonder how much of this problem is a result of the mass distribution of messages via TV, radio and internet and raising the grass is always greener over the fence syndrome in churches and pastors. I also wonder if this will soon lead to more churches having campus pastors and subscribing to video feed messages every week.
    In one way that would eliminate the plagiarism, but in another it might reduce preaching to a commodity that is purchased with an oligarchy of pastor/preachers controlling the message to a large number of congregations. I’m not sure this would be healthy.

  • Brad,
    As long as it is your own bricolage. That term, which means to gather together already existing bits into a new whole, admits that there is nothing new under the sun. What is “new” is the unique convergence of all these things into the locally-shaped, temporally-refined sermon.

  • Seeing as Spurgeon has been brought up, there is a lovely story about him visiting a church whilst on vacation during ‘a particularly heavy bout of Depression’. Whilst there, the preacher delivered a sermon of Spurgeon’s word-for-word. When CHS approached him and introduced himself at the end, the man was terribly embarrassed and apologetic, but Spurgeon simply delighted that the Lord had seen fit to feed him with food that he had prepared for others.
    I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I don’t see a problem with it happening occasionally. Those that I know who do it do so because of time and priorities, not dishonesty. As far as I know, they don’t tell first-person illustrations. (I’ve heard one preacher telling illustrations that I knew happened to someone else!)
    I guess if it’s okay to quote without foot-noting, I don’t see the problem with someone taking a sermon of someone else’s, adding the local flavour and sharing with others. (Though it might be hypocritical of me to say that as I don’t do it. )

  • The time constraints on pastors have been brought up frequently, and I can see how preparing one (or multiple!) messages every week could lead to the desire to “cheat.” So I’m wondering if this would less of an issue if pastors did not hold on to the preaching ministry so tightly. I think in many churches we underutilized laity who have some good things to say, about things they have experienced in “real life,” only b/c they are not “preachers.”

  • Hey, Scot – I know you’re not a big fiction reader, but I’d like to recommend Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. It is the letters of an elderly pastor in Iowa to his young son. Among other topics, he writes about his weekly sermon preparation, considering each person in his small congregation — their family heartaches, money problems, etc. — and allows that to inform and even determine the direction of his preaching. It’s very pertinent to this conversation.
    (On top of that, the book is an incredibly beautiful meditation on a life of faith in community. I think every pastor should read it!)

  • Thanks Scott.
    I preach a few times a year. Almost everytime I preach it is an original sermon. However, I have occassionally taken significant sections of other sermons almost verbatiam as part of a new sermon. I was particularly thinking of three circumstances.
    First, when I was moderator for my presbytery (110 churches) in 2001, I think I preached at nearly twenty different churches. I think I used the same sermon in about 2/3s of the cases but often with minor modifications.
    Second, I took two classes from Tony Campolo in graduate school which were 3 hours once a week. I have heard him speak enough over the years and read most of his books that on one occasion (about ten years ago) I think I could have pointed you to a book or class as a source where I had heard the point and illustrations before. Mind you, I am not being critical at all! I don’t know how else you could have do what he does.
    Third, my grandfather was a pastor for twenty years and a traveling evangelist over twenty years. One of the most interesting family artifacts I have is his (fat) indexed notebook of sermon outlines. He had a listing for each and every meeting he spoke at and the index number of the sermon he preached at each date and location. He even had a list of sermon illustrations indexed the same way. Over twenty years he was invited back to some places more than once. He was adding new sermons and illustrations over the years but he was also clearly trying to avoid preaching the same sermon twice in the same place. I still do not what I think of all this, but I find it fascinating.

  • Scot,
    What do you think about Willow Creek’s own practice of selling sermon transcripts as a way for other pastors to build their church service?

  • Aly,
    I got tricked into reading it; I thought it was non-fiction. I stuck it out and liked it alot.
    As I’ve said, using someone else’s sermon is not right. Willow is doing what others do: give lay folks and preachers something that can help them.

  • Scot,
    Just trying to understand…What is the difference between Willow selling sermons for other pastors to preach in their own churches, and pastors finding sermons on their own for free (online, ones they’ve heard from others, etc)?

  • Jennifer,
    The point is not that sermons are available that others are preached; it has to do with how those sermons are being used.
    If someone preaches someone else’s sermon, without saying that very thing, then it is plagiarism. If they gain help in their own bricolaging that occurs to construct a sermon, that is fine.

  • Scot,
    Hmm…I having a hard time *only* placing guilt on pastors who use the resources.
    It seems that those who market sermons for the explicit purpose of being used by other pastors (“All-in-one resources for building your church service” as Willow markets it…) have some responsibility too. That is different than churches who simply have their sermons available online for pastors (and others) to listen to and they can incorporate those ideas into their own teaching. When it’s marketed as a “service in a box” (as Willow does) for you to present in your own church, it seems different – and it seems the people offering the “resource” have some culpability.

  • Jennifer,
    My “fourth” point of this post was this very point.
    I don’t know whereof you are speaking from Willow, but I kind of suspect that they are advertising that you can pull this out of a box and it is a whole DVD service — in which case we are not dealing with anything like what the post is about (plagiarism) but satelliting/DVDing services.
    Does anyone know what is said in the Willow marketing on this?

  • Scot,
    Willow does sell DVD’s of sermons, but also transcripts of the actual sermon so the pastor can preach it himself…that can come along with the exact songs to use, the exact drama to present – even a “cue sheet” to tell you exactly what order to do it in, and how long you should spend on each element.
    Here’s the site where they sell it all
    For what it’s worth, Saddleback and other big churches do this too. I just don’t see any difference between established and respectable churches marketing sermon transcripts and sites like doing it.
    Now, technically, I suppose that’s not plagiarism, since the pastor has to buy the transcript, etc. But it still doesn’t seem very honest to the congregation.

  • Jennifer,
    It is plagiarism if the congregation does not know it. If they do, it is not. (I still don’t agree with that in the main. Nor am I a fan of satellite services.)

  • Perhaps the increasing time pressures that pastors face should be leading them into considering sharing the pulpit (having a preaching “team” even) more than it does using other’s sermons. I know this isn’t always feasible with smaller congregations, but it’s a healthy alternative to consider. And in many of those congregations that expects just the pastor to preach (“Because that’s what he’s paid for”), beginning to educate them about what the pastor is so busy with might be an excellent beginning point.

  • Scot,
    I agree with you about plagiarism depending on if the congregation knows or doesn’t know.
    I just want to go one step further and say that anyone who is marketing sermons to use in this manner – which goes beyond merely allowing people to listen online, or read a transcript, but actually marketing it for other pastors to use as their own – are just as guilty as those who pass off sermons as their own that they didn’t write.
    I’ve picked on Willow here, but lots of successful churches market their sermons in the same way – and I just think it’s wrong.

  • When I was preaching every week, the pressure was enormous to hit a home run each time. What other job requires you to weekly create a 30-minute speach that is supposed to transform the lives of your listeners every time? Talk about pressure!
    I agree that preaching is bricolage (I had to look up that word, though…definition: “Something made or put together using whatever materials happen to be available”). My personality is to collect information and store it so that it is readily available. That is why I have shelves of books on a wide range of topics, and several bookshelves are filled with biblical commentaries.
    My mode of operation in created a message looks like this: (1) I first start out with the text (in the orginal languages and in several English translations): What is it actually saying? What do I need to emphasize for my local community? (2) Then after that work is done, I’d go to critical commentaries in order to check my exegetical work. After that is done, I’d go to the more preacher-friendly commentaries (like the commentaries written by favorite preachers or the popular NIV Appliation Commentary, especially the ones on Galatians and 1 Peter–they are particularly good 🙂 ). The illustrations given by these kinds of commentaries would trigger thoughts of similar experiences in my life or what I’ve seen in the news, etc that I can bring into the message. At one time, I had a couple of software programs with “illustrations,” but I found that using these felt too canned and impersonal, so I got rid of them.
    I have never felt guilty in my preaching if I am preaching an “expository” sermon from the text. It’s hard to be particularly novel with such a thing. The text basically meant something and still means something, and my job is to simply re-state what that something is for my congregation for this time and place. My job is not to force it to say something new, and it is not to over-do the creative thing so that I obscure what the text is saying.
    Where I think pastors feel a huge anxiety to steal from other preachers is when they have to create a heart-moving message on a different topic week after week. If that is the style of preaching you prefer, the pressure to be ultra-creative and to write and speak beautiful prose each week is tremendous. I was always most tempted to steal when I preached a topical sermon. The preachers that people look up to (that they hear on the radio) can mass-produce these kinds of messages, and good for them.
    But I have always said that I couldn’t do in on a weekly basis. I’m just not that creative.

  • I agree with this post. My main concern is the fifth point, that by preaching someone else’s sermon removes the context of that sermon. The preacher is supposed to be something of a voice of God’s direction for that congregation in their setting. No two contexts are the same. There may be similarities and we can learn from one another, but we can’t just plug someone else’s message for their specific time and place into ours.
    I think part of the temptation is that pastors view themselves and congregations view the pastors as experts, the bearers of some knowledge that the parishoners cannot know themselves. I knew a pastor who was proud that he never studied biblical languages, but that didn’t stop him from using them as if he were an authority on the matter in his sermons — as someone who has studied the languages, I feel safe in saying he was often mistaken. He would also use whole ideas from authors without referring to them and it came across as his own. I agree we don’t have to footnote everything in a sermon, especially since most author’s names may not mean anything to our congregations, but at least say, “A theologian says–” or “A commentator writes–“. (My current pastor gives these sorts of references and I don’t think they break up the flow of the sermon at all.) I think it’s this expertise assumption that drives pastors to want to always wow their congregations with something they’ve never thought of before. For pastors who preach 40+ times a year for several years, that expectation seems quixotic and ultimately disillusioning.
    And I’ll give my thumbs-up to Gilead, too. I’m quoting it in my sermon this week, with reference to Robinson.

  • Bob,
    I agree with you about illustrations. In college I bought a couple of them, never found them helpful, and got rid of them when I was in seminary.
    I wish I had a better grasp of the biographies of the major figures in the history of the Church, because that would allow me to teach church history while doing Bible. I do read biographies, and right now want to read one on Origen and Chrysostom, but I wish I knew more about this.
    Personal ones are good; historical ones are good. One or the other is not enough.

  • For more than ten years I’ve made my living writing sermon resources. Today this is what funds my mission work in Rio, so I obviously approach this topic with a certain bias. I’ve taken my share of criticism over the years for writing “ready-made” sermons for “those who can’t preach” — but I’ve never found those criticisms to be fair or accurate, and I’ll explain why below.
    Scot, you use words like culpable and swipe and plagiarize, the presupposition seeming to be that sermon publications have a guilty existence. If that’s true, then every major Christian publisher, every mainline Christian denomination, and most popluar pastors share the guilt, because they all publish such resources, either via print or internet.
    However, in item four you indicate that you don’t know much about such resources, and would like to know more — so I’ll give you my 2 cents on it. Here’s what I’ve always told my subscribers.
    1. Never use a story that happened to someone else like it happened to you.
    (Oddly, I’ve heard Campolo and Warren do this very thing with the exact same story.) There’s no need to do this. For example, I recently wrote about coming out of a meeting and discovering a piece of potato chip (left there from lunch) on my shirt. The story was a little funny and illustrated the point I was making. I don’t expect that my readers will tell this story like it happened to them — but I do expect that it will ignite their memory of a similar embarrassing moment that would pretty much make the same point. (Who among us hasn’t had such an experience?)
    2. Use more than one source in sermon preparation.
    A couple of years ago I did a series on 1 Peter. I used a handful of resources to help me develop this series: some tapes by Steve Brown, Barclay’s DSB, a commentary by Howard Marshall, and your book were among them. My sermons were a result of what I learned from these outside sources, as well as my own insights into each passage. (BTW, in 8 sermons I referenced you twice.)
    Our research into this showed that more than 50% of our subscribers subscribed to more than 1 resource. In other words, my sermon resource publication was just one of a handful of tools a pastor used in developing his or her own sermons. In the end, he might use part of my outline, or an illustration, or an exegetical insight — but I would say that most pastors–the overwhelming majority of pastors–would never stoop to ripping and reading another preacher’s sermon. And having spent the last ten years learning how pastors prepare messages, I’m basing this conclusion on more than a hunch.
    3. Give Credit when you should.
    Back when I was a pastor I remember saying a couple of times something like, “Part of today’s offering should go to Chuck Swindoll because he put in a lot of work on my sermon today.” Obviously this wouldn’t work every week, but most churches understand that a pastor uses outside resources when preparing a message. In spite of what you said in item 1, I don’t think most churches look unfavorably on a pastor who takes the preaching task seriously enough to do research, to develop creative messages, and who doesn’t hesitate to talk openly about where he gets his ideas. Again, I think you assume in item 1 that sermon resource publications are used differently than they actually are.
    By the way, another benefit of sermon resources is that they help teach pastors how to develop sermons. Most seminary graduates take the field having had only 1 course in homiletics.– and yet their sermon is the only contact they will have with about 80% of their congregation in any given week. And (again referencing your first item) I know that search most often really want to find someone who knows how to communicate.
    I learned to preach from listening to great preachers. (Great in my opinion, at least.) I still listen to a couple of tapes every week, and I urge my readers to do the same: Buy as many tapes as you can afford, listen to as many preachers as you can. Learning to articulate the gospel message in the vernacular is the lifelong quest of every pastor/teacher, and it behooves us to use every resource we can get our hands on.
    No preacher worth his/her salt carbon copies someone else’s sermon, but every preacher worth his/her salt gets input from a variety of places while developing sermon ideas. (A good example of this is that Dan Kimball recently preached a series called Reinventing Jesus, inspired by the book of the same name. He didn’t plagiarize the book, but he did get ideas and inspiration from it. He was also upfront about it; he had one of the authors come in and speak one week. Another example is that most mega church pastors have research assistants or research teams that help them assemble their sermons and sermon series.)
    My main beef with your post, Scot, is that you seemed to imply that sermon resource publications have a guilty existence — before admitting that you’re completely unfamiliar with any of them. Like a guy who says that all reggae sounds the same, or that soccer is just a bunch of guys running around kicking a ball — when in fact one has never seen a match or has never heard of Peter Tosh.
    I could go on and on (in fact, it may appear that I already have) — but I will stop here, hoping that you’ll take the time to consider this further. I think something of a straw man has been constructed: the idea that sermon resources market sermons for preachers to pass off as their own, and that’s simply not the case. I would encourage people to learn a little more about it before passing final judgment.

  • Steve,
    Thanks for writing in. It helps to have someone like you writing in. And I think it is clear that my complaint is “swiping” sermons by preachers and doing so without making it clear that they are doing so — that is plagiarism and deceit. Do we agree on that?
    (I really haven’t thought much about whether or not it is ever appropriate to use another sermon as long as it is acknowledged; I once heard a preacher do an old southern sermon and it felt like Oral Interpretation and drama class rather than a sermon, but it was still very moving.)
    You say: “Scot, you use words like culpable and swipe and plagiarize, the presupposition seeming to be that sermon publications have a guilty existence.” I use the first for sermon services, and back off to see what they are reallly like — and you’ve helped me here, and I used “swipe and plagiarize” for preachers who do that sort of thing without letting it be known. (Steve, we are not dealing here with preachers who say, “this is from Ortberg, it moved me so much, I’m preaching it myself.” We are dealing with pastors whose practices are shady.)
    I think my first point is not as clear as I’d like it to be. It is not so much “using as help” but “using in the sense of copying” that I had in mind.
    I’ve laid blame in this post on preachers who swipe sermons not preachers who use sources to get ideas to compose their own sermons.
    Your comments are very helpful for me, and they help clarify my fourth point. Thanks. Add more thoughts if you’d like.
    Here’s what I said in #4: Fourth, sermon services are partly culpable here: I’ve never been part of this so I’d like to hear how they work. Do they warn of plagiarism? Do they educate on the proper use? Someone will know more than I about these services.
    I say partly culpable because it should be emphasized that these are not “sermons to swipe” but “sermons for your edification, education, and for use in composing your own sermon.” Since I don’t know what is said in such sources, I say “culpable” meaning that needs to be emphasized. Is it?

  • Hey folks, this is a good discussion, and I’d like to move it to a slightly different focus:
    What do you preachers/pastors do with Sermon Resources like the one Steve May mentions in comment 37?\
    C’mon Ken White and John Frye and others, what do you think of these matters?

  • Here’s what Rick Warren says about the sermons he sells…
    “When I was planting Saddleback Church, other pastors’ sermons fed my soul – and eased my preparation! I hope the sermons here will do the same for you. Whether you use the outlines and transcripts for sermon ideas or listen to the preaching to fine-tune your delivery, I’ll be thrilled if your ministry becomes more effective. And if you have a sermon idea that might be helpful to me, feel free to share it! As pastors, we’re all on the same team. Let’s help each other out – and when we get to Heaven, we can rejoice together over the people who were saved as a result! ”
    I think his attitude is good (sharing for the kingdom of God) and he says they are offered to 1)sermon ideas and 2) fine tuning delivery.
    But the way they are marketed effects the way they are perceived. This isnt being offered as a resource for a pastors own spiritual development that she can later work into a sermon – its being offered as something to purchase – a commodity. It’s a short cut allowing people to teach things that havent been worked into their own souls yet (if it were in their soul, they wouldnt need to purchase it from someone else). It’s wanting to teach before you have learned.
    I worry about what “fine tuning delivery” means too. Sure, most pastors could stand to improve their delivery, and listening to good speakers is a way to do that. But it seems to me that when that is applied to a particular/specific message it means “deliver it just like I did”.

  • I think “canned” sermons will come across like alot of food out of cans. Not good. But when one has put alot of work into sermon preparation such as Bob describes (#34), then one can certainly go back to something prepared long ago, and reuse it, but for that time and people. And I would think good preparations and examples can be helpful as well for us to do the same, as Steve says in #37. And of course, give credit where credit is due. But as we’re sifting through things and studying, and it becomes our own (though certainly influenced by others’ input), then in a true sense it is our own. As the message from God through us (we pray).

  • Fascinating conversation. I am pastor and also a PhD New Testament student. I have never plagiarized a sermon. I have often wish I could use another person’s sermon (I loved to read them), but I never feel comfortable going into the pulpit unless I feel that the Lord revealed it me.
    I have a friend, though, who is the opposite. He feels so uncomfortable in his exegesis of the text and his theology that he also steals sermons from other people. It is somehow connected to self-esteem and confidence in one’s own relationship with God and understanding of God.
    David Ritsema
    PhD New Testament (Student)
    B. H. Carroll Theological Institute

  • If I would talk about “the Jesus creed”, and give explanation of that, though I believe that has become something of my own, in my conviction and theological thought, I would give credit to Scot, and recommend his book. So I certainly believe we can thank God from whom all truth really comes, as well as express thanks to others through whom we’ve received some of that truth.

  • Ted,
    Your first comment is what I meant by “bricolage”: comb the sources, and put them all together in our own way. It is ours, and yet derivative of the wisdom of others.

  • I honestly believe we (the church) have placed FAR to high a level of importance or value on “THE SERMON.” The sermon, though some may not like hearing this, is NOT “The Word of God.” It is merely the Word of God taught and delivered to those in the pews… however, it has no MORE value than the singing of a song. It is NOT something that is so ordained by God that we can never question it, nor dismiss it. However, all over America (and perhaps the world) we have people in churches – and pastors in those churches – who actually believe that what they do is the highest point of importance in that worship gathering – and it’s not. Again, I realize how this sounds – but one of the reasons churches are dying is that – now – THOSE WHO ATTEND CHURCH have ALSO figured out that the most important reason to gather is NOT to “HEAR THE SERMON” but, rather, to LIVE THE SERMON that is preached.
    As far as “borrowing” goes – I believe that one reason pastors feel the need to swipe is because they feel the pressure of delivering some amazing oratory for fear they will be let go by the Pharisees who sit in their pews. This is just one of the many reasons why I CHOOSE NOT to subscribe to so many of the “man-made laws” regarding what is proper and appropriate “for a church worship service.” I refuse to wear a coat and tie, for example – and I am the music director in my church. If I want to stand and raise my hands in the air, I will. No human will tell me otherwise even if it DOES “make someone else feel uncomfortable.” I elect to follow what GOD says – not what some nervous church leader might say…
    And our pastors must maintain this same sort of boldness. They are not hired to SHOW AND GROW – but to SERVE!
    If you are a pastor swiping material – grow up. It’s not about “you.” And if you have a board of elders or church leaders who are pressuring you to “preach like Stanley” or some other TV preacher, tell that board to grow up. They have no right to MAKE you “preach up a storm.” In fact, if they have been listening to ANY of your sermons over the years, then perhaps they should begin ACTING on what you have preached to them!
    I have more to say, but I’m busy photocopying Barna’s newest book… (lol)

  • Dan, there’s a lot in that rant I agree with.

  • Tony

    People need to hear a word from God–that doesn’t come from anywhere but God (through His Word, prayer/listening to God…etc.). Like it or not–God still saves through preaching. Preaching is important–perhaps that’s the problem: we don’t fully understand how important it is! The Bible is such a big Book–there’s no need for copying; repeating and rehearsing yes (Deut. is repeat).
    If we’re truly called of God to the place where we pastor–then we’re a perfect fit. There’s no need to be anyone else but who we are because that’s who God called and that’s who His people needed.
    Scot … this is totally off topic, but I was wondering if in the future you could discuss: How-to deal with false doctrine, and especially those who teach it (within the church). Some blogs (Slice of Laodicea…etc.) are very hateful; I’m passionate for Truth but doesn’t it (my passion) need to be balced by love? Your blog is probably the fairest (and the BEST discussions) blog I know of–I have no doubts you and the “commentors” will do a great job! THANKS!

  • Graham Old

    Dan, I was about to write something almost identical, minus the slating of pastors who “swipe” sermons. (Most of the pastors I know who’ve done this either work a full-time job outside the church or have weeks where they could have 2 funerals, 2 School assemblies, 1 house group and 2 services to prepare for (as well as spend time with the family and so on!) It’s about time we *honour* such people.)
    I personally feel that the “sermon” – and even the teaching slot – is given far too much precedence in most Protestant churches. Pastors aren’t trying to look as good as “Stanley” or mend their fragile egos. They’re struggling to feed their flock in what they (and their churches) have been taught is the most effective and/or biblical way. That’s an idea that I for one would challenge – and since I’ve done so I’ve found that I even have time to be a pastor (and a husband, father, friend, prayer-partner, aikido student, active resident…) and not just a preacher.

  • I was always pretty sure that the preparation for sharing from God’s Word was a thing between me and God , something like me understanding what He was saying so I could tell my people. I can’t even use my old sermons, much less someone elses. The business of 21 century Christianity and clergy-ship is a dry dull season in the history of God’s working on the blue planet.

  • Several references have been made here to preaching someone else’s “sermon” — i.e. the whole and complete finished product. I can’t imagine that this would ever be good–not for the preacher, not for the congregation. In addition to getting ideas and input from outside sources, the preacher needs to have some of himself/herself invested in the final result.
    Your comment #38 references pastors who are deceitfully using others’ messages, and we are in full agreement that this is wrong, and I would say it’s always wrong. I would also say (and have said to my subscribers) that it’s always wrong to tell someone else’s story like it happened to you, or even to personalize a generic joke so that it appears to have happened to you.
    I would never recommend that anyone preach someone else’s sermon (the finished product), but I do think it’s OK to adapt basic ideas for one’s own message.
    For example, if I write a good sermon from James 1, a pastor might decide he likes the outline, and he’ll use that as his starting point. But he’ll add a couple of his own stories, he’ll modify my theme and summary statement slightly because his perspective is different than mine, he’ll add some exegetical notes from another commentary, he’ll develop some of his own insights and ideas, he’ll add or subtract a major point, and if he’s a Baptist he’ll probably alliterate them.
    The end result is that his finished message won’t look like mine, and he’ll have put enough of himself into that it belongs to him. If there’s any doubt, he can make a comment while he’s preaching that he got this idea from one place or that idea from another.
    The idea is not that a good sermon resource makes it possible to spend 1 hour of prep time instead of 8 — the idea is that a good sermon resource helps you maximize the 8 hours you spend in sermon preparation.

  • Matt

    Who here has done 40 Days of Purpose? The product tells you to do the exact sermon or you won’t have the same effect.
    Also, what constitutes stealing a sermon? What if I use the exact same points and contextualize it to my audience?
    Doesn’t Willow plant churches with a DVD?
    It seems like there are a lot of philosophical assumptions going on here, like what a sermon even is. On one hand, if you say that sermons are God’s truth, who cares who wrote it? On the other hand, sermons must be the pastor’s burden for the people. But what if someone wrote a pretty good sermon that was the pastor’s same burden for his people, he paid for the use and cited it? Is that bad? Is he a wreckless pastor?
    Most conferences I’ve been too, Willow and PD included, say “Learn to copy right (read steal, not copyright) or die.”

  • Scot,
    I think Hybels and Warren’s motives are geniune in their sermong sharing. I have looked at a Warren sermon myself a few times…but always contextualized it to my setting. I was usually looking for good points and points of view on scripture.
    I think the whole idea of sermon preparation is interesting. I know when I was working through the book of Acts I used about 8-10 commentaries that I read through and utelized greatly, as well as the language helps. How much of these commentaries ideas came through? Much. I think it’s the same way with sermons online.
    I think I read somewhere where Warren (I think it was him…don’t quote me on this) said that sermons online are the commentaries of the 21st century. I think there may be some truth in that. If a person is reading verbatim a sermon he gets, then I think that is wrong. Surely using an illustration that never happened to you is just plain weird. But utelizing an idea, a point, or maybe even a series of points based on a text is no different then utelizing exegetical information from a commentary reworded in one’s own words.
    Just me 2 cents

  • Jon

    Hearing all these comments I’ve been wondering how much of this is based on current expectations and assumptions. I’m no historian, but the assumption behind things like Article 35 of the Articles of Religion( seems to be that priests and preachers won’t normally preach their own material. If that was the assumption a couple hundred years ago, why should we believe the current practice to be obviously better than the practice of past generations? Granted the preacher should be clear about what he or she is doing if they preach someone else’s sermon, but if they are clear why should the older assumptions be illegitimate?

  • steve carter

    growing up, i wish my pastor would have stolen ideas from Hybels.
    Today, I hope as many people as possible are hearing a fresh word in church…whether they steal those ideas from bell or mcmanus, it really doesn’t bother me.
    I’m sure everyone who has weighed in on this conversation has had voices whether through denomination, books, profs, or pastors that have greatly influenced and blessed the words they teach. Without knowing it, we’ve all in some way stolen or retaught someones work.
    the problem for me becomes when we put those ideas into books, videos or curriculem and resell them. if you’re making money off of someone elses ideas about God…that’s the line for me where it becomes deeply toxic.

  • Scot,
    You concluded, “But, I think they [people in the pews/chairs/couches] expect the preacher to be preaching his or her own sermon and not someone else’s.”
    I’m with those who believe locality, specificity and contextuality are crucial. Parroting another person’s sermon is like eating the food they chewed up. Ick!
    But adopting the classic orator model of communication and adding to it the educational model (lecture) of the Enlightenment, we’ve made “the sermon” way too much the pastor’s core offering to his/her church.
    My opinion is that if a pastor is “too busy” to seek God, study the Scripture, know his/her people and thus craft his/her own messages, then he’s/she’s far more busy than God intends them to be.

  • As a former prof of preaching all I can say is that the practice is abhorent and con not be too strenuously condemned. Teachers need to traffic in the truth they preach. That doesn’t mean we are perfect–none of us would ever open our mouths–but it does mean that we are traveling the path of the message that is in our mouths. It needs to be in our souls as well as our mouths.
    Scot, it strikes me that many of the fine reasons you gave for abandoning the practice all fall under the category of pastors who fear man more than God. Do your work as unto the Lord and you won’t be stealing unattributed messages from others of God’s servants.

  • It can certainly be appropriate to draw inspiration from another pastor’s teachings. However, “copying and pasting” another’s words into your pulpit strips your congregation of one priceless component of preaching: its role in responding to and directioning the evolution of your local faith community.
    There is an expectation, in most circles, that pastors are continually searching out how might God be using the timeless lessons of Scripture to influence and shape their specific community at each specific moment.

  • Bob Beckman

    I remember being a very young (read: idealistic)preacher fresh out of bible college, serving at Christian service camp with many other preachers. I remember the sensation the first time one of our evening feeding sessions (you know, after the campers are in bed, the adults raid the fridge) when all the guys took out their sermon books. . . and began swapping sermons like they were playing cards. I had nothing to contribute because I thought that I had been called to write sermons. I was shocked, and found it a little hilarious. These guys all preached within a fairly small geographical area in and many of them served congregations in which people knew one another. They had adopted a wholly ends-driven philosophy: if it works. . .preach it. Laziness or plagerism did not even enter the equation.
    The desire to use the material of others had many sources. Sometimes the desire springs from a pure motive. It just kind of comes out as hair-brained.
    Refering also to those who have noted powerpoint and other technological trends; they tend to exacerbate tendencies not create them. The same guys who use sermon resources as crutches or substitutes likely would have simply re-typed sermon books in a previous era.
    The question is simple. Can a guy preach. Is he in tune with the text. If he has no technological tools, no books, and no time can; he exegete and prepare the text so that he can present its essence to a mixed group of believers/unbelievers. If not, then maybe the great powerpoint sermons he preaches need to be reexamined as well.
    Thanks for this thread/topic. It is one which has puzzled me, almost haunted me for years.

  • Personally I cannot preach material that I have not worked on, it comes out flat and weird. Our church has done two of the 40 Day exporiences from the Purpose Driven, in both of those you are given sermons to us and we make sure our people know this but there were 40 minutes long. My attentions span is too short for so I have to excise and rewrite. It still was a long 6 weeks each time. Over all the whole experience was great for our church.
    Most of the illustration services I see have items I would never use. Other services do not have my bend or personality. I can sound flat on my own, I don’t need anyone else’s help.
    I do not know how many who write on this site have the responsibility of preaching week in week out, but it seems easy to decry the practice that so many use. It is easy to toss stones, but I see too often friends leave their churches because of the pressures and unrealistic expectations. Is plaguiarizing right, of course not, is it understandable? Yes. But until epxectations of the churches change and until pastors are rewarded by their denomination for other things than numeric growth, it is not going to change.

  • Mike

    I wonder how many preachers “only” view/hear/feel that preaching is presenting ethical teaching based upon the Bible-that’s it-and nothing more. Consequently, the need to have a fresh angle, a clever hook, and catchy story becomes insatiable: for the preacher and the congregation. A couple of matters also come to mind.
    One, a brief survey of church history regarding “kerygma” finds it was always connected to proclamation; giving honor where honor is due, an NT Theology prof made this observation in his class, and then raised the question with us: what are we to make of what is done on Sunday mornings, i.e., preaching?
    Two, (and Scot would be great to evaluate this assertion!) there appears to be an overlap of meanings in the NT when the English words (Greek also?) for “teaching,” “prophecy,” & “preaching”. If this overlap is more than appearance, then the possibilities for preaching become much wider. As one previous post observed, the need for obedience is transparent enough: but I wonder if that is enough? What if preaching could be understood as important for forming the people of God for mission? “Mission” should not be mistaken here for “missions,” but a calling that a community senses as God’s particular setting for faithfulness to God’s reign that they find themselves living in. If that perspective lends freedom for letting the Biblical text speak to the preacher, great.

  • Mike,
    I’m not clear on some of your points: Are you basically saying that “preaching” (keryusso) refers to “evangelism” and the like and that we need to avoid equating the Sunday morning sermon with what the NT means by “preaching”?

  • What about churches where the cell leaders are expected to preach the pastor’s sermon to their group?
    Every week the senior pastor hands out this week’s sermon, and the cell leaders are instructed to preach the message to their group – and not deviate too much from it, in order to foster a church of one vision and one mind.
    Of course this practice has nothing to do with plagiarism, but it does involve the problem of delivering messages that are not the result of personal experience and study. It also touches on the local context issue.
    Perhaps the practice of some megachurches, to put their sermons (and service) outlines online, is just an extension of this method.

  • My $.02

    Scot says: “I once was in a situation when a pastor admitted to using sermons from sermon sources, and he also said he hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with it. What most confused me about the situation was that he was using illustrations from other preachers in the first person — and you really did think these experiences were his.”
    This was brought up with me in discussion this past week. I was having lunch with someone who wanted to poo-poo the enormity of using someone else’s life as your own within the context of a sermon illustration. Today, I am thinking she was baiting me to see what I thought about it–but really wanted me to say, “oh I don’t think that matters.” When in reality I feel this is just as important as your other points, Scot. And this is what I told her:
    From my pew, I feel that those pastors who do this are not only kidding themselves and their congregations (who usually find out there was something insincere about this, at the very least), but more importantly they pull this phoney-baloney stuff at the expense of their children and spouse. Then, the spouse and children are bound to this silence and secret. I can tell you THIS is what I know to be highly suspect. No one should turn their children into their secret keepers. Least of all, the pastor. If anything, our children keep us MORE honest before others. They are the ones who smile and can be the “witness” as we see it taught in scripture–if it is true and known to be true in their family.
    I believe deeply that there is a sacred trust going on with a pastor and his children. This is one of those places where he/she could lose his own children and the next generation. Therefore I do think it is VERY important and very serious.

  • Mike

    Scot: Thanks for the question! I’m looking at my comment and your question…and realize there’s lots of latitude in my previous comments: more than I expected!
    Re: the first part of your question about preaching refering to evangelism. I was aiming to remind myself and others that preaching in the early church had as its content the good news of God’s reign, and not exclusively a depiction or sound of what one should do, which in our context of North America, we frequently hear in the pulpit: “We should do [this or that].” Granted, I am generalizing, but the contrast is not far off: how often do No. Amer. preachers explicitly make the Kingdom of God the content of their preaching? 🙂 Seems like the call to “love God and love others” can follow authentically, even in brokenness and weakness.
    Re: the second part of your question, am I commending we avoid equating a Sunday morning sermon with preaching? I may have overstated my point, but I hope this will clarify it some. I doubt that many sermons are aiming to present God’s reign in the life and mission of congregations: so in that regard, no, let’s not equate those sermons with preaching. But among those “many sermons”, plenty have great Biblical insight, wisdom, correction, exhortation, sympathy, strength, compassion, and much more: all of which would certainly promote entering the kingdom of God. Such “preaching” though makes me think of the labels of “teaching” and “prophecy” in the NT, and I am curious if, regarding the “many sermons”, more them are better described with such labels.
    I had a recent conversation with a colleague in ministry, who participates infrequently in the pulpit of a church with a long history of good, solid evangelical preaching. He was of the mind that all preaching needed to be contextualized and that some kind of ethic should be prescribed, if not emphatically stated. I replied that I wondered, based upon his pastor’s recent series, whether the congregation understood who the Lord Jesus was any better than before, and consequently, why the applications of the sermons-including life stories of the pastor-should create expectations for any kind of response-even the prescribed ones? The increase in intimacy with the Lord certainly was absent; so why do anything in response to the message?
    I am sorry to run on, but my colleague ended up agreeing with me! The understanding of who the Lord is and his reign is woefully understated among his people. Perhaps plagiarism in the pulpit is a symptom of this deficit. I hope this doesn’t read as incendiary or spiteful, because I am far from it; I am loathe to use the word “sorry”-an overworked word, for sure- but reading about the plagiarizing preachers does make me feel sorry. I remain optimistic that the Good News is easier to preach than perhaps we’ve been told, and that the Lord himself longs for his voice to be heard by his people. Hope I haven’t generated more questions! 🙂 Thanks.

  • Dave

    I don’t see anything wrong with borrowing material from other sermons. I think it is natural when we read something that GOD speaks through to us, that we can then use that material in teaching others.
    Sure it is wrong to duplicate a sermon word for word without citation, but integrating others’ thoughts, ideas, perspectives, stories, metaphores, etc. into a prepared sermon is perfectly ethical. What is important is that the teachings edify and build up the body.
    Teachings should be orginal in the sense that they originate from the teacher’s direct communion with God, but this communion often occurs through others’ writings and teachings.

  • RJS

    Clearly it is wrong pass off the work of others as one’s own. However, borrowing ideas is common and useful. Repeating one’s own sermons or talks shouldn’t be an issue – especially when warranted.
    Interestingly this is not a new issue, in fact it comes up in Ben Franklin’s autobiography. He relates an incident where he was a zealous supported of a young presbyterian preacher who was brought up on charges of heterodoxy. Many supported the preacher until it was found that his sermons were not original. This caused him to lose most support and eventually the battle in Philadelphia.
    Franklin says:
    “This detection gave many of our party disgust, who accordingly abandoned his cause, and occasioned our more speedy discomfiture in the synod. I stuck by him, however, as I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture, though the latter was the practice of our common teachers.”

  • All very interesting. A while ago, a sermon publisher (Homiletics) reprinted something from my blog (which, ironically, was my reaction to and reflection on a quote I had heard attributed to Bishop Fulton Sheen). I’ve seen it since on some sermon message boards.
    I was surprised by the request to reprint the item and had not before heard of the whole sermon resources concept. My initial reaction was, “What are these?”
    I’m curious: do people turn to these for ideas on a passage of scripture they have already chosen, or for choosing what scriptures to preach on, too? Would there be less of a need for these in a more liturgically oriented church? Why must the homily be 30 minutes long or needing to be a home run? (That’s a serious question — I know why many people would say so, but I’m more suggesting why don’t we challenge more the conventional wisdom on this one).

  • James

    I haven’t had time to read the comments, but I do want to say this before I read them. Pastors who inject themselves into illustrations as though the events happened to them are lying, plain and simle, no excuses. Would anything but ego convince a person to replace “John Doe” with “I”?

  • BSM

    I once worked with a minister who preached a series using the title of a well-known book. While he credited the author as the “source” of the sermon series, what the congregation didn’t know was that he was preaching each chapter word-for-word and passing it off as his own ideas that were “inspired” by the book. I confronted him about it (we worked together) and he said, “Oh this isn’t plaigerism – I cited my source and other preachers do it all the time.” Shameful.

  • Scott Eaton

    Thank you for facilitating this discussion. I really resonate with your fifth point of the original post. A sermon is “a whole life to bear on a text each week for a single 30 minute or so sermon before a specific congregation. It shames the preacher not to be who he or she is in the pulpit, and to pretend to be someone else. It de-localizes the sermon from the local context. It distorts who the preacher is before the congregation.
    So, the sermon is highly biblical, highly personal, highly local, and highly temporal: it is the individual preacher engaging God and Bible and congregation, in that specific location, for that time.”
    For a long time I was very consumed with changing my preaching to be like or to sound like someone else. I thought I had to become funnier or more clever or more prophetic or more polished. Every time I made the attempt it was a “bomb.” My wife finally gave me the best advice I ever received. She said, “Why don’t you just preach like yourself?” I realized then she was right. My sermons are sometimes funny because I tend to be a funny guy. They can be graphically descriptive because this is how I relate truth. They can at times be a bit raw (and even insensitive) because I’m not always very sensitive.
    I think this let’s the congregation “in.” They get to follow me along in my faith journey and transformation. They get to see an imperfect guy relate the truth of Scripture to their lives as I seek to relate it to my own. They see me for who I am – weakness and warts alike. But they also see me wrestle to communicate the Bible not only to them but also to myself – seeking to allow God and His Word transform both preacher and congregation.
    In Comment #39 you said – “Hey folks, this is a good discussion, and I’d like to move it to a slightly different focus: What do you preachers/pastors do with Sermon Resources like the one Steve May mentions in comment 37?”
    No offense to Steve, but I try to avoid them. If I do use them it is only an act of bricolage and it is usually just to spark an illustration of the text.
    I think preachers ought to do the work themselves. Preachers need to work hard to refine their skills and therefore their craft. But this is the catch, isn’t it? Good preaching requires hard – very hard – work. And it seems that many preachers are just too lazy and undisciplined to do the work. Why should they when they can just download a sermon in minutes? Personal integrity – that’s why. A sense of call – that’s why. And a need to personally dig into the Word and let it work them over because you cannot truly relate what you do not truly know.
    In seminary I had a professor who told us that perspiration precedes inspiration. So it is time to get on our knees and strap into our chairs and WORK at this thing called preaching.
    Before he died Barbara Walters asked Sir Lawrence Oliver what he would most like to remembered for as an actor. He replied “a skilled craftsman.” May God’s Spirit and grace help all of us called to this difficult, but magnificent work be remembered as skilled craftsmen.

  • Are Your Sermons Another’s? » THE CAPRANICA

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  • I first got involved with online sermon resources many years ago when I subscribed to Steve May’s “SermonNotes.” Later, I wrote some material for Steve’s site and now several of those messages are actually up on the website.
    I have never simply “lifted” another preacher’s message and preached it as my own. If I borrow an outline, an illustration, etc., from another, I find I need to adapt it, personalize it, and, especially, reconcile it with how I understand God’s Word on the subject.
    Over the years, many times I have told a story that was related by another preacher and I have always sourced it. If the guy isn’t “famous” (not a Rick Warren, Tony Campolo, Bob Russell, etc.), I’ve often said things like, “a preacher in Texas,” or something similar. When I’ve used a “Steve May story,” I’ve said things like, “A preacher I’m acquainted with via the phone & e-mail said of this….”
    In other words, I’m always very careful to never present something I’ve “borrowed” as an original thought to me.
    Sometimes I have even preached whole series of messages where all I took from another source was the title, topic, & text of each (or most) of the messages in that series. That alone has been a great help.
    Being creative in preaching God’s Word each & every Sunday is a difficult task; and I believe that this should be the case. However, I cannot help but think that my congregation would be the worse off if I did not use the resources available to me in doing it. I join you all in condemning plagarism, but the use of resources such as & does not always equal plagarism.