In a seminary preaching class several decades ago a classmate took his turn in preaching his trial sermon. It was unusually good — well-organized and meticulous in its treatment of the Greek text.
Two weeks later his former Greek professor came to campus. He preached in chapel — the same sermon, with the same refinements. This created a low buzz among his classmates. They were all inwardly disturbed by what they had witnessed.
What that seminarian did is called plagiarism. To plagiarize, according to Webster, is “to steal or purloin and pass off as one’s own” the ideas, writings, etc., of another. Preaching that involves elements of someone else’s sermon or outline is okay if sources are credited. But to present another’s work as though it were our own work has to be seen as deeply dishonest.
Not only churches take plagiarism seriously; universities do too. A doctoral student hands in a final draft of her dissertation. Her advisor discovers portions of it are copied verbatim from another source but not credited. The student may be denied the degree. Healthy institutions of higher learning care deeply about truthfulness in scholarship.
It’s not that we preachers must consider the sermons of others completely off limits. We read them, listen to them on CDs and DVDs, analyze them, discuss them, even imitate their style. We learn from one another.
But if we set forth someone else’s work as if it were our own, that puts our commitment to truthfulness under question.
Consider three other reasons why this sort of deception has no place in the pulpit.
First, leaning wholly on the work of another for sermon content dampens the prophetic spirit. A Spirit-prompted “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 writes, “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 of Scripture, and prayer.
Styles differ from preacher to preacher. One sermon may come forth like “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” or another may be uttered with tears like the messages of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah. Then again, a sermon may be 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 be the product of an individual’s personality so as to have a prophetic ring. And in our hearts, whether preacher or parishioner, we will sense the deficit. To the discerning ear, falseness will reveal itself in the first paragraph.
Second, plagiarizing in the pulpit very quickly dampens the preacher’s passion to study and to keep a growing edge on his or her understanding of the Bible’s message. In the plagiarized sermon, someone else has already done the work and that work becomes a convenient substitute for the preacher’s personal exertion.
There’s a cost for such shortcuts. The talented artist who decides to paint by numbers will dull her creative edge and dull her keen eye for blending colors. Or the accomplished cabinet-maker who decides to make life easier by assembling do-it-yourself cabinets from Ikea will gradually blunt mastery of saw, sander and plane.
Pastors who begin to trust pre-packaged material as their source can’t help but lose the impulse to pray and study as 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 congregation will detect what is going on. Like the seminary class above there may be an undercurrent buzz without any open challenge.
For example, a parishioner thought a sermon one Sunday morning did not ring true. Out of simple curiosity, upon getting home after church he googled the first few words of the sermon and up came the exact presentation he had just heard!
Worse still, there may be a conspiracy of silence between pulpit and pew, a sure sign that the influence of God’s Holy Spirit — the spirit of truth — is dampened in the life of the congregation. In either case the pastor will suffer the serious loss of the trust of the congregation.
In the free church tradition, we are not granted money from the State with which to build towering cathedrals. But in our best hours we have believed in our calling to offer our people fresh, impassioned, Bible-wrought preaching.
Is not the morally soft and continually secularizing era we are now living through an excellent time to renew the preaching commitments of Protestantism’s better days?
But to do so, both pulpit and pew must be in agreement about truthfulness and both gently but firmly intolerant of sermons and Bible teaching that are not genuine.