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Plagiarism In The Pulpit
November 16, 2006
Two months ago, Suzanne Sataline published an article in the Wall Street Journal. The article was cleverly titled “Veneration Gap: A Popular Strategy For Church Growth Splits Congregants” and dealt with churches that had been split apart through the attempts of their leaders to convert them to the Purpose Driven paradigm. Last month I wrote an article that was, in part, inspired by that one. I wrote about the church’s dirty laundry and expressed concern that Christians should be very careful in what they say to the media.
Sataline has once again published an article in the Wall Street Journal and, once again, it discusses problems in the church. Sataline got in touch with me not too long ago and we spoke on the phone for some time. I could see that she was hunting for stories. She has trolled around the blogosphere looking for tips on interesting and controversial articles. She found what she was looking for with the topic of plagiarism. Her latest article, published yesterday, is called That Sermon You Heard on Sunday May Be From the Web. The subtitle is “Rev. Moon Buys His for $10, Others Get Them Free; ‘Sizzling’ vs. Plagiarism.” It begins like this:
The Rev. Brian Moon says he has come up with ideas for his sermons after water-skiing, while watching “My Name Is Earl” on TV and while working on his 1969 Buick muscle car. He also finds inspiration on the Internet, as he did in August when he preached about “God’s math.”
“People are drowning, drowning in their marriages, drowning in their careers, drowning in hurtful habits,” Mr. Moon told his congregation at Church of the Suncoast, in Land o’ Lakes, Fla. “They need someone to rescue them and bring them on the raft. They need people driven by God’s addition.”
Those words, it turns out, were first uttered three years ago by the Rev. Ed Young, pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. His Web site, creativepastors.com, sells transcripts of this and others sermons for $10 each.
Moon defends his use of another pastors’ sermon, saying that there is no sense reinventing the wheel. When he finds a good sermon he feels there is no reason not to use it. He also feels that there is no need to give credit to author of the sermon or to notify his congregation that the sermon is not his own. “If you got something that’s a good product, why go out and beat your head against the wall and try to come up with it yourself?”
Sataline says “The widespread buying of packaged wisdom has touched off a debate about ethics, especially after incidents in which pastors have resigned over plagiarism allegations. Some members of the clergy say sermon sales diminish religious oratory and undermine both scholarship and the trust between ministers and their flocks.” She then provides quotes from a variety of Christians, some of whom are in favor of using other peoples’ sermons, and others who feel this is nothing short of plagiarism. She writes of a church that was damaged by a pastor who plagiarized his sermons and refused to stop doing so. She quotes Rick Warren and Steve Sjogren, both of whom are advocates of preaching other people’s sermons without providing attribution.
My reaction to this article was two-fold. First, I considered the problem addressed in this article.
I consider what pastors are doing when they preach another person’s sermon to be plagiarism. An article on Desiring God’s site attempts to define plagiarism and does quite a good job of it. “The essence of plagiarism is to give the impression that the ideas or words of another person are actually your own. This can be done intentionally (in which case it is outright theft) or unintentionally-but either way it is wrong.” It is important to note the words “give the impression.” A pastor who preaches a sermon that is not his own is typically attempting to give the impression that he wrote the sermon—that he did the research, studied the Bible, thought of appropriate stories or analogies, and assembled a convicting message. And yet, when the sermon is taken from another person, none of this is true. The pastor may have modified elements on the sermon, but he has not invested the time or effort in serving his congregation by doing the long and hard work of sermon preparation.
A couple of weeks ago we had a touching moment in our church. My pastor, immediately before he began to deliver his sermon, addressed the congregation, thanking them for providing him with the opportunity of being supported in the privilege of spending his weeks studying the Bible. As a pastor, he feels his most important responsibility (and his greatest privilege) is in studying God’s Word, and then delivering that Word to the people. In an interview I conducted recently with Mark Dever, he said much the same: that a pastor’s primarily responsibility is to serve his church by absorbing himself in the study of the Bible. Rarely can a church outgrow the pastor. The pastor must lead the way in studying the Word. This must be his primary occupation and must take precedence over other tasks, and even important tasks, such as pastoral counselling or providing leadership.
A pastor who plagiarizes sermons is clearly not fulfilling his primary responsibility. He is not investing time and effort in studying the Word, in understanding the Word, and in helping others understand what God has taught him. Furthermore, he is being unethical in allowing his congregation to believe that the sermons he delivers are his own work. I don’t think it is always wrong to preach sermons written by another person. I heard of a pastor who preached a series called “Sermons I Wish I’d Written.” He did not try to pass these sermons off as his own, but simply wanted to provide his congregation with what he considered some of history’s greatest sermons. Surely this is far different from a person who preaches those same sermons while pretending that he has written them himself.
Of course we would be remiss to read about this issue and to neglect asking why pastors feel it necessary to preach other peoples’ sermons. I’m sure that in some cases pastors are simply lazy and are looking for a way to avoid what can be a long, tedious task. But in many cases I suspect pastors preach these sermons because they feel their congregations will demand a certain quality and a certain level of entertainment that they cannot provide. The spirit of pragmatism lives in the church today and I know of many pastors who have succumbed to it. They feel that their congregations will be better served by a sermon that is witty and contemporary than by a pastor who absorbs himself in a week-long study of the Bible. Some churches expect far too much of their pastors, demanding that they be leaders and entertainers more than preachers. Some pastors are not allowed sufficient time to adequately prepare their sermons. In many cases, the pressure for plagiarism may well originate in the pews and not in the pulpit.
After considering the problem addressed in the article, I considered the article itself. The fears I felt when speaking to Sataline have been confirmed. Though not a Christian herself (I know because I asked her), she clearly has some interest in church-based controversies and is likely to continue writing about them for she told me that she has many other stories she is working on. Why she has this interest in the church I do not know. But I would urge caution to other Christians in speaking with her or with other unbelievers who are seeking stories about the church. As I said in this article, I think it is wise to exercise care and discernment in speaking to the press. Here is what I wrote last month:
My opinion towards commenting to the mainstream media is that I am exceedingly cautious. There are several reasons for this. First, I see little reason to provide examples of Christian infighting to the world. There have always been and will always be struggles within the church and, in general, I think it is best that these remain within the church lest they damage the church’s testimony. Second, I see little reason to hope that the press will somehow help or resolve the issues that we wrestle with as Christians. Without the Spirit they cannot properly understand the issues and without the Spirit they have no hope of commenting on them in a way that is truly helpful. Third, I have little confidence that the press will be honest and unbiased in their presentation of information. If I did not believe this before MacArthur made his appearance on CNN, I certainly believe it now. In short, while the press may give wide exposure to a particular problem, and while it may somehow seem to validate a particular blog or blogger, I don’t know that it is at all helpful.
I don’t know of many people who would talk to the press about the problems in their families. If I found that a local reporter was attempting to write a negative story about my wife, and if she approached me asking me for stories about Aileen that she could use, I would never help her! I would explain that I love my wife and would never do anything to hurt her. Likewise, I love the church, for we are a family, and I would be very hesitant to air out her dirty laundry in front of the world.