I have written previously about the importance of authenticity in the pulpit, and here are some further thoughts.
In a preaching class in seminary several decades ago, a classmate preached a trial sermon that had unusually good order and a fine treatment of the Greek text. Two weeks later his former college Greek professor came to campus and in chapel preached the identical sermon. There was a low buzz among his classmates.
What that seminarian did is called plagiarism. “To plagiarize,” according to Webster, is “to steal or purloin and pass off as one’s own (ideas, writings, etc., of another).” For sure, a pastor may preach another preacher’s sermon or use his illustrations if he gives credit to the source. But if he presents it in silence, as though it were his work, that’s regarded as below standard.
Not only churches take plagiarism seriously; universities do too. Here’s a doctoral student who hands in a final draft of her dissertation. Her faculty advisor discovers several portions of it are copied from another source but not credited. This is serious and the student may be denied the degree. The issue is truthfulness.
If something like this offence is committed in the pulpit during a Sunday morning worship service, should it be taken any less seriously?
It’s not that preachers must consider the sermons of others completely off limits. We read them, listen to them on CDs and DVDs, analyse them, discuss them, even imitate their style. We preachers learn from one another. But if we set forth someone else’s work as if it were our own, that puts our truthfulness under question.
So, in preaching truthfulness is a cardinal issue. But in addition, consider three other reasons why this sort of pretence has no place in the pulpit.
First, leaning so completely on the work of another for sermon content dampens the prophetic spirit. “Thus saith the Lord” should be evident in every sermon in the Protestant tradition. A real sermon is more than a lecture or an essay or even a religious talk. As Donald G. Miller once wrote, “Preaching is not a mere speech; it is an event.” It is an event in which the preacher delivers to the people a word from God received through diligent study and prayer.
This sermon may come forth like “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” or it may be uttered with tears like the messages of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, or it may be given as a passionately reasoned discourse such as the Apostle Paul gave in Jewish synagogues he visited.
Whatever the style, a sermon plagiarized from a book or the Internet or a CD can never have such a prophetic ring, and in our hearts we will know that to be true.
Second, plagiarizing in the pulpit very quickly dampens the passion to study the Scriptures in depth and to keep a growing edge on our understanding of the Bible. In the plagiarized sermon, someone else has already done the work and this becomes a convenient substitute for our exertion.
There’s a cost for such shortcuts in any creative work. The artist who decides to paint by numbers will dull her creative edge and her keen eye for blending colors. Or the cabinet maker who decides to make life easier by assembling do-it-yourself cabinets from Ikea will gradually blunt the fine mastery of lathe and plane.
Pastors who begin to trust pre-packaged material as their source can’t help but lose the impulses to pray and study required in getting a word from the Lord. They will quickly succumb to something equivalent to painting-by-numbers.
But the third reason is that some people in the congregations will detect what we are doing. Like the seminary class above there may be a buzz without any open challenge. Or worse still, there may be a conspiracy of silence between pulpit and pew, a sure sign that something is missing in the life of the congregation. In either case the pastor will lose the trust of the congregation – a serious loss!
In the free church tradition, we have never had towering cathedrals or colorful vestments or awesome liturgies to rely on. But in our best hours we have believed our calling is to offer our people fresh, impassioned, Bible-wrought preaching. Is not the morally soft era we are now living through an excellent time to renew the preaching commitments of Protestantism’s better days?