Pastoral Plagiarism

September 29, 2006

Steve Sjogren has written a forthright defense of what might be called pastoral plagiarism. He says that the best communicators in our generation get 70% of their sermon material from other preachers. He also says that it is crazy to suggest that pastors should spend 25-30 hours on their Sunday sermon. The best communicators spend an average of 15 hours on their messages. And they feel absolutely free to borrow from other writers.
Needless to say, this is a very controversial position. I’ve read more articles arguing the opposite position, that pastors must be very careful not to plagiarize from other preachers. I suppose it all depends on how you define plagiarism, and that isn’t as totally clear as you might think. Certainly it depends in part on the expectations of the congregation. if you tell the people (or lead them to think) that you are composing absolutely unique, brand-new messages each week based totally on your own research, and if you talk about the hours you spend in the Greek and Hebrew, well, then, they’d better not catch you paraphrasing Piper or Spurgeon or Hybels or Luther or Warren or Whitefield or anyone else. You’d better walk the straight and narrow in this area.
As a side note, I can recall how this debate played itself out in my Greek classes at Dallas Seminary. I took several courses from one professor, a brilliant man with a penchant for somewhat unique views, who emphasized the need to do your own original study of the text. And I had another professor, older and more traditional, who told us we needed to continually seek out the wisdom of many commentators when we study the Bible. By the way, these two professors came from different generations and came to divergent viewpoints about certain important issues. Both were gifted teachers whose classes were generally full.
So who was right? Both of them. At some point you’ve got to do the most terrifying thing in the world for a preacher–sit down at your desk in your study, open the Bible and start looking at the text with nothing but a notebook and a pen to jot down what you see. I say this is terrifying because I know how utterly impossible it can seem on Tuesday morning that you will ever find a sermon in time for Sunday. And while that search is underway, a man is just a plain fool if he doesn’t cover his desk with commentaries–or in today’s world, I would say surf the Internet to find the help he needs on the text at hand. Why should we ignore 2000 years of church history in our sermon preparation? Why shouldn’t we sit at the feet of Calvin, Luther, Whitefield, Spurgeon and learn from them? I can’t imagine preaching John’s gospel without reading Leon Morris. Or Acts without F. F. Bruce. Or Daniel without John Walvoord. Or Genesis without Alan Ross.
This debate about plagiarism has been going on for decades, but in recent years the Internet has totally changed the playing field. Today thousands of preachers post their sermons on the Internet. No one really knows how many sermons you can find for free on the Internet, but the number must be in the millions. You can watch them on streaming video or you can download the MP3 files or you can download the printed versions. Here on the Keep Believing website, we have archived over 800 full-text sermons. Every week that is the most visited part of the website. I assume that most of the visitors are pastors, preachers and Bible teachers looking for some help as they prepare their own sermons. I know a pastor in Ghana who uses my sermons, and a Christian leader in Uganda and another one in Kenya who regularly use my material in their preaching, and I have a friend in Singapore who forwards my messages to Christian leaders in the Philippines. The Internet allows me to lend a helping hand to pastors around the world.
Starting about eight years ago, I began aggressively looking for sermons on the Internet. In 2002 I preached through Genesis 1-11. As part of my preparation, I used Google and within an hour or so found 350 sermons by preachers from around the world. I downloaded the sermons and arranged them in textual order. Every week I got great ideas from those sermons. Some weeks I found more, some less, and as I recall, I downloaded so many sermons that I never had time to read all the sermons on a given passage. Were some of them repetitive? Yes. Were they all electrifying? No. But I found great benefit in looking at the text through another set of eyes. W. A. Criswell said that the best tool an expositor can have is a set of sermons on whatever book he happens to be preaching through. In his day that either meant building a huge personal library or going to a college or seminary library for research. Today we have far more preaching resources available on the Internet than Dr. Criswell had in his day, and he was one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century.
To get back to the article, I find myself in agreement with the general thesis. When people come on Sunday morning, they deserve to hear the best that you can give them. Don’t think that you can spin out a masterpiece by yourself every week. Do your own work, but don’t disdain the work of others. Use it. Adapt it. Make it your own. And tell your congregation what you are doing. Milk many cows but serve your own butter.
Everywhere I go I tell people they are totally free to use anything I say or anything I write in any way that will be helpful in their ministry. As far as I’m concerned, no one will ever plagiarize me because I give blanket permission for anyone to use my material in any way they like. That’s why we have over 800 sermons on the website and we’re adding more all the time. We’re all in this together for the kingdom of God. If we can help each other, let’s do it. If you need to borrow from me, go right ahead because I may borrow from you some day. Do your own work, but don’t forget E. Stanley Jones who said, “All work and no plagiarism makes Jack a dull preacher.”

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