Some sincerely wonder where the lines are drawn on the issue of plagiarism and preaching — what is “stealing” and what is honest research? Others bristle at the very concept of plagiarism, insisting that everything should be “fair game” and that there is nothing wrong with using someone else’s sermon (even preaching the whole thing verbatim) if the original author doesn’t care. Recognizing there are varying views on this issue, here’s a brief summary of my position on pulpit plagiarism — so if you write to take me to task, you’ll at least know what I actually think!
We all share ideas. I get ideas from others, and I hope they get some from me. There is no problem in using ideas and stories from one another. But if I’m drawing a significant amount of material from a book or sermon by another person, it’s appropriate to briefly mention the source. How tough is it to say that a particular story was told by Chuck Swindoll or Max Lucado? (Some of our folks have read their books; they know our sources.)
I edit a magazine about preaching, and we work hard to provide useful illustrations and ideas for preachers to use in their sermons. There’s nothing wrong with that, and we don’t expect you to “footnote” us in your sermons. (If you are then publishing the material, it is appropriate to credit any published sources you use.) Of course, if you are quoting a specific person, it’s good to mention the one you are quoting.
The problem that is increasingly developing today is when a pastor copies or downloads the sermon of another person and preaches it as his own. Why is this a problem?
1. It is dishonest. It is presenting someone else’s work as my own. If I did that in the business world or in higher education I’d be fired. Do we think preaching has less ethical demands than the secular world? Deception is deception, whatever the context.
2. It cheats the congregation of the anointed passion that comes from a God-called messenger working through the biblical text to uncover the truth God has for that congregation that day. Our congregations deserve better than generic, off-the-shelf sermons. If you are presenting someone else’s sermon, it is more performance than preaching.
3. It cheats the preacher. When we simply take a shortcut and use someone else’s sermons instead of doing the prayerful study to prepare our own messages, we shortchange our own process of growing as spiritual leaders. If we fail to let God grow us in this way, then down the road we will find ourselves wondering why we are so spiritually empty.
If God called you to be an actor or performer, then people expect you to perform scripts written by others. But when a congregation hears a preacher stand before them to present a message from God, they expect that person to have prayed and studied and struggled through to find the message God has for them. And I believe that is what God calls us to do. Why would we settle for less?
Michael Duduit is founding Dean of the College of Christian Studies and the Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University. He also serves as Professor of Christian Ministry. He is the founder and still serves as Executive Editor of Preaching magazine, one of the nation’s premier publications for pastors. His email newsletter, Preaching Now, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences. He is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Joy in Ministry: Messages from Second Corinthians, Preaching with Power: Dynamic Insights from Twenty Top Communicators and Communicate With Power.