I read an article a number of years ago by Jamie Buckingham and I do not know where it came from, but right off the top, I’m giving him credit for the inspiration and much of the content of this article.
There is a disturbing trend among preachers today. With the growth of the internet, and web sites for preachers, including this one, we are seeing an increase in sameness in sermons today. Why? We’re stealing sermons from one another.
I remember introducing Warren Wiersbe at one of the Bridge Builders Conferences we host and I said, “According to his resume, Dr. Wiersbe has pastored three churches. In reality, he’s pastored thousands and taught ten thousand Sunday School classes. His ‘Be Series’ has been used by thousands upon thousands of preachers and teachers over the last thirty years.”
There’s nothing wrong with that, but give the author credit. It will not impress people if you sound profound and they later discover you had placed invisible quote marks from your opening sentence until your last breath.
I remember a man asking me a number of years ago about a particular preacher. When I inquired why he said, “His sermons sound like they were downloaded off the internet.” I know a pastor in another state who says, up front, I’m preaching Rick Warren’s series. At least he’s honest, but to be honest, I wouldn’t pay a man to be my pastor who couldn’t come up with his own sermons.
Yes, we all borrow and glean material from other sources. I have hundreds of commentaries and sermon books in my study. I will use 20-30 commentaries, a dozen quote books and four or five sets of Word Study and background books in the process of preaching through a book of the Bible. But, I must make the message my own.
I am eternally grateful for what Rick Warren has done for the body of Christ, but Rick Warren has never pastored in Southwest Georgia where I pastor. California is a totally different culture than the deep south. What works for him will not automatically work for me. I’m talking to peanut farmers, he’s talking to computer Geeks. There’s a difference.
When I was preaching through ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ I found it hard to find material on the topics. I didn’t want to preach Rick’s sermons although I used material from his sermons. Obviously, his sermons follow the book but I wanted something that followed the theme and would give a different slant on the topic. I was amazed at the dozens of sites and churches I searched where preacher after preacher did nothing but preach Rick’s sermons verbatim. Apparently, they didn’t even try to have an original thought or illustration.
We’ve all watched what’s happening in the secular press regarding journalists who have plagiarized or even made up stories. Many have been fired. The editors of USA Today and Executives at the New York Times had to resign. If plagiarism is a problem of ethics and integrity in the secular world, shouldn’t it be a problem with the saints? Aren’t we held to a higher standard?
I served with a pastor (no longer in ministry) who preached straight John MacArthur. When he preached through Ephesians he went straight through MacArthur’s book. I had more commentaries on Ephesians as a youth minister than he did as a pastor. He said, “I like to stick to one source when I’m preaching through a book.” In Greek, that means, “I’m lazy. I’d rather be playing golf. I don’t want to study. I just like getting paid big bucks to be the pastor. Most of my people aren’t smart enough to figure it out.” When he preached through the book, I could anticipate his outline and points before he opened his mouth. It was hard to believe he had a word from God for his flock.
All of us have heard preachers who tell stories and use illustrations and make it sound like they are the ones it happened to. Then, down the road, you read that story in an illustration book or hear someone else use it in its proper setting and you realize you’ve basically been lied to.
I served with another pastor who read thousands of pages of material in preparation for a series. He had a brilliant mind and was an outstanding expositor. He teaches now at Boice College in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s one of the finest preachers I’ve ever heard and his sermons were fresh, insightful and anointed. I still have page after page of sermon notes that I took in those two years. He taught me that studying pays off.
I don’t remember who said this, so I can’t credit them, but, I can say it’s not original with me. “In my early days of preaching, I relied heavily on books of sermons and sermon illustrations. I discovered I had been preaching left-overs, while the Lord set before me a banquet table from which I could feed the people. This, by the way is the strongest argument against preaching someone else’s material. If you have not experienced the truth you are preaching, how can it minister life to those who hear it?”
WHAT ABOUT QUOTES?
I put a number of quotes in my sermons. I realize most preachers take a quote and put it in their own words but I happen to believe that quoting an authority on a subject or a well known person actually adds strength and value to the sermon. It lets people know you are a reader and student yourself. It adds authenticity and legitimacy to your thoughts. It’s a good check and balance to see if you are on the right page in your thinking and preaching.
PLAGIARISM, INTERNET SERMONS AND THE LACK OF PREPARATION
I read these words by Jamie Buckingham, “The question is whether we should give credit or not….(giving credit) lets the person who is hearing know what God is saying to the rest of Christendom. Give credit. They wait eagerly to hear what you have gleaned from others.” Anyone who has heard me preach, has heard me quote Vance Havner and Ron Dunn a thousand times.
I also think giving credit allows you to introduce your congregation to others. If you quote Spurgeon, Maclaren, G. Campbell Morgan, A. W. Tozer, Rick Warren, Warren Wiersbe, Billy Graham, Joseph Parker, or another great preacher, you are actually encouraging your congregation to find out more about those men. It is our responsibility to let the younger generation know that others came before them and they still have something to say.
WHAT ABOUT OUTLINES?
I’ve borrowed a few outlines in my time and failed to give credit. My best outlines are the ones that are birthed in the study. When I borrow outlines, I tend to be bound to the outline and that persons study, thus I limit myself in what I can say. I’ve also found that borrowing alliterated outlines can be too predictable. As I’ve grown in my preaching, I’ve moved further and further away from alliteration.
I have hundreds of sermon books and sermon outline books in my library. Sometimes, I go to them to see if they trigger a thought or spark my mind on a particular portion of the passage. If I find an outline that works for me, I will still work with it and try my best to use the thought but not the actual outline. If you use someone’s outline, be honest enough to say something like, ‘I was listening to ______________ this past week and I was so impressed with his exegesis of this passage. In particular, I found his outline better than anyone I could come up with.’ You can get away with that occasionally, but don’t make it a habit.
WHAT ABOUT THE INTERNET?
I subscribe to several sermon sites and we offer sermons on this site. Usually, I am searching the site and looking up sermons on the text for illustrations. I’m terrible at illustrations and I’ve found a few sites that help me flavor my sermons. There are helpful sites and obviously preachers put sermons on the Internet and in books to be used. Just don’t overuse or fail to give credit where credit is due.
We’ve recommended sites on 2 Prophet U where you can get help. I realize that there are bi-vocational pastors who use this site and serve churches who have a difficult time, finding time to study. Between work and family obligations and the church, they feel swamped. God has given us so many incredible resources in this age of print and Internet. Find material that will help you but make it your own.
I have my favorite preachers that I read and study. It’s far too easy for me to fall back on them and just go with their material. If I’m not careful, I grow stale. I often go to their sites to see what they are saying, but I work diligently to make sure I’m studying, working, digging and thinking. Cut and paste doesn’t require that.
A CLOSING THOUGHT
Don’t be a sermon thief. Earn the trust of your people and learn the power of having a word from the Word for your people. It takes time, sweat, hard work and discipline. In the end, God will bless and use you if you learn to trust Him to be your teacher as you study His book.
I would encourage you to use all the resources at your disposal, but by all means, don’t let someone else steal from you the joy and blessing of digging in the text, listening to God and knowing that when you stand in the pulpit, you have a word from God for your people.
©Michael Catt, 2004.
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.