It has often been quipped that preachers are the biggest plagiarists in the world. I even heard of one church, during a remodeling project, jokingly suggesting changing the nameplate on the minister’s study to one that said ‘Copy Room.’ Recently one of my former Bible college professors posted a poll question on Facebook that asked whether preachers should be held to the same standards of source citation that authors and college students are held to. He followed up on the question by posting a link to the article that sparked his query.
After reading the article and comments on both the article and my professor’s post it became clear that this is an issue that sparks a wide variety of opinions. Some see no problem with a preacher who downloads a transcript and passes it off as his own. Others felt that it was fine for a preacher to do so as long as he gave credit to whom it was due. Still others felt that if a preacher is being paid to preach then he should do the work to prepare and preach his own sermons. This does nothing to touch on using illustrations, quotations, etc. from other sources. After filtering through all the debate and comments I must say that I came away concerned about the state of preaching in America.
First, let me say that I am completely against trying to pass of somebody else’s work as your own. This is a matter of honesty more than anything else. The Bible is rife with references to how God despises a lying tongue, deceitful lips etc. To take credit for work that is not your own discredits you and destroys any trust you may have attempted to build with your congregation.
Second, this is not only a moral issue, it is an ethical issue. In other professions (law, medicine, etc.) there are steep penalties for plagiarism. If God views it as immoral and the world recognizes the impropriety of such an action, shouldn’t those called to be ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ hold themselves to the same exacting standards? Anything less would be unethical and immoral.
But this issue goes much deeper than morals and ethics. A preacher can stand up, cite his source and read an entire manuscript written by someone else and meet all the ethical guidelines required by other professions. He may even satisfy most of his parishioners for taking the trouble to give proper credit for his homily. But is this what God desires? More to the point, is this what God requires of a man who has set his hand to the plow of preaching?
The Holy Who?
Since I was sixteen I knew I wanted to preach. There have been some bumps in the road and some paralyzing moments of self-doubt, but through circumstance, Godly friends and the Holy Spirit, God has confirmed this calling to be His will for my life. In the eighteen years since I have known I wanted to preach I have never preached another preacher’s sermon. Have I used illustrations and quotations from other preachers? Yes, and at times, especially when I was younger, I failed to give credit for where I got those illustrations. As I have gotten older I have tried more and more to use original illustrations and on the rare occasion I use another person’s idea/illustration/quotation I make every effort to credit the source.
Why do I strive to use more original illustrations? Why is it that I don’t use other sermons from other preachers? Is it because I think I am better or more original than they are? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I am all too aware of my own shortcomings and lack of originality. Like most people, I am awed by the ideas of some of my creative co-laborers. Men like Kyle Idleman, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan and Louis Giglio blow my mind when I listen to their sermons. The ideas they have and the truths they unearth are beyond creative. So why not use the material they have created? Because I want to skip out on the middle man and go straight to the source. Too many preachers have neglected the source for far too long and they have settled for cheap imitations in hopes to equally wow and amaze their congregations. Who is this source? He is the ‘forgotten God’ that Francis Chan wrote about in the book by the same name; He is the Holy Spirit.
Can you think of anyone more creative than God? Just look at creation for a sampling of His originality. Jellyfish, platypuses, and giraffes were all invented by God. He dreamed up the gracefulness of a falcon in flight and the power of a herd of stampeding buffalo. The palette of the northern lights was conceived in His mind. The awesome and heart-quickening fear of a lightning strike was His idea. No one can out-create God. Yet He is the most neglected step in the sermon writing process. A preacher who has to copy the bulk of his material from another preacher is failing to trust in the Holy Spirit for a ‘word from the Lord.’
If I were to ‘copy-paste’ sermons I would be cheating myself out of an opportunity to commune with God; to dwell in His Word; to speak with Him about what He desires. Not only would I be cheating myself, I would be cheating my congregation as well. Who knows what they need to hear better than God? Who can meet their spiritual needs better than God? If I want to be effective as a preacher I need to make sure my life is being lived in such a way that I commune with God on a daily basis and I need to surrender everything, including my sermon writing, to His direction.
I cannot honestly stand before my congregation and implore them to rely on God and the leading of His Spirit if I am not willing to do the same. That would be the height of hypocrisy and a disservice to myself and to them. If my sermon is not impacted by the Holy Spirit, how can I expect my listeners to be impacted by Him? If I rely on another imperfect human as my source of inspiration it would be unfair of me to expect more from my listeners. If I want to challenge my hearers I must first challenge myself. If I want my congregation to submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit I must first submit to the Holy Spirit. If I want the people who hear me to walk close with God, I must first walk closer with God. That cannot and will not happen if I am not willing to submit to, listen for and lean on the Holy Spirit in every aspect of my life, and yes, that includes writing a sermon.
A Word to the Nay-Sayers
Before I conclude I feel I must address some of the concerns of those who see nothing wrong with a preacher using a manuscript that is entirely not his own as long as he cites his source. While some of these concerns seem valid on the surface and most of them are well-intentioned, I don’t feel any or all of them justify the neglect of the Holy Spirit’s role in the sermon writing process.
Objection 1: Ministers are pressured to be ‘entertaining’ as well as informative
While I cannot deny the pressure that is felt by every preacher to be engaging to his audience in this time of preachers who are televised, podcast, and you-tubed at an alarming rate, entertainment should not be the end goal of a sermon. Now I firmly believe it is a sin to put people to sleep with the greatest story ever told. I also realize that many preachers may feel the need to be just as engaging as their more well-known counterparts lest they lose sheep or their paycheck. Let me be the first to say if you are preaching to entertain you are preaching for the wrong reasons! And shame on you for selling out to the god of entertainment that our culture worships so readily. As for churches that put this kind of pressure on their preacher, they should likewise be ashamed of themselves for requiring the man of God to fill the role of celebrity rather than that of a minister. There are times when congregations need to hear a message that is not entertaining or amusing but one that is filled with hard Biblical truths to which they need to submit themselves. People will not grow unless they are forced out of their comfort zones. There are times when this requires a gentle touch and a compassionate voice, and there are those rare times when a ‘swift kick in the pants’ is in order. Only a preacher in tune with the Holy Spirit can discern which is needed and when.
Objection 2: Ministers of smaller churches have too much on their plate to adequately prepare a sermon
As a minister of a small, rural church I am well aware of the multiple hats a preacher has to wear. It took me several years to develop some time management skills to help me work ahead of schedule so I don’t get cramped for time, but I also have a good discussion with church leaders at the interview stage in the hiring process. The discussion centers around the purpose of my job. If they are hiring me to preach and teach, then it would make sense that the bulk of my time should be spent on those endeavors. If a congregation doesn’t feel that way then I move on because I was called to preach. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have to be a secretary at times, or a counselor, or a janitor or a visitor to the sick, nor does it mean that there aren’t some weeks where I don’t get to spend as much time as I would like to on a sermon. What it does mean is that overall the majority of my time is spent on sermon planning and preparation. The greatest service I can give to my congregation is to be a man who lives in and by the Word of God and walks in step with the Holy Spirit. That takes time, and a wise leader will give His preacher time to study and meditate with God.
Objection 3: If something inspired my preacher then what’s wrong with him using it to inspire me?
There are some great illustrations out there. One of my favorites is Louis Giglio’s ‘Laminin’ illustration. (This illustration is everywhere, just Google ‘laminin’ and it will come up, I promise) Another great illustration is Matt Chandler’s ‘Jesus wants the rose!’ These are just two powerful examples of great illustrations. And yes, I have used them myself, and yes, I have credited the source when I did. But an entire sermon should not be built around an illustration. We are to preach the Word, not preach the illustration.
As for sermons that inspire, I have to say that there have been numerous sermons that have inspired me to better myself and my walk with God. I have listened to sermons that served as inspirations for entire sermon series. The same can be said of books or articles that I have read. But I don’t preach the exact sermon. I don’t even use the same outline. Why? Because every preacher has a different style, and my style isn’t going to match up with someone else’s notes and outlines. While I may have been inspired to write my own sermon (and yes, I now try to give proper credit, even for inspiration), it is still mine, with my own outline and my own study and many of my own illustrations. In fact, I often use a different text because of the nuance that I feel it needs as I live with that sermon idea for the weeks leading up to the sermon. A sermon delivered from the heart will be better received than one delivered from a sheet of paper every time.
In conclusion, let me encourage those of you who preach. Do a service to yourself and your congregation by communing with the Holy Spirit as you prepare for your next sermon. Rely on Him for creativity. Rest in His ability to prepare the hearts of those who will hear it. Trust Him to tell you what to say and how to say it. Above all else, preach the Word!