I recently came across a post from a well-known conference preacher detailing how, during his research for sermon fodder, he noticed that there was a recurring outline that several of the sermons he was reading had in common. He then went on to decry the use of other preachers’ outlines and detailed the evils of “plagiarism.” Of course, I wondered how he could draw such a sharp distinction between a basic outline and the sermonic thoughts and ideas he was obviously mining for use in his sermon. I’ve since listened to this particular preacher’s sermons and read his books and have been blessed. However, I couldn’t help but notice the limited number of attributed quotes in his sermons and the complete absence of any footnotes in his books.
This kind of thinking is becoming a “big deal” primarily because of the increased availability of resources on the internet, the promotion of professional academics and the movement away from the pastor-preacher who is responsible for feeding his congregation three plus “meals” a week. (Not to mention all of the weddings, funerals, meetings, classes, etc. the pastor has to oversee every week.)
This “problem” is somewhat of a novel issue in Baptist life. Charles Spurgeon published his sermons weekly in the London Newspapers, and not just for the benefit of lay people. He even published expositions with preaching points “for the Village preacher” in his Treasury of David. Warren Wiersbe’s commentaries are little more than his sermons put into print. John Phillips, the same.
Being a student of history and preaching, I’m very familiar with who some of our most influential preachers have read after and what resources were used in their sermonic process. It’s certainly eye-opening to know where the most effective preachers of today and yesterday pulled their sermon material.
I heard an old story about a young seminary student who walked out of preaching classed and vowed to be “original or nothing” – he was both.
I so appreciate the practical wisdom of Dr. Adrian Rogers when he said, “If my bullet fits your gun shoot it, but use your own powder.” We don’t hear enough of that kind of practical, pastoral insight in today’s academically saturated church-world.
So, how should a pastor who has to preach multiple times every week to the same congregation handle the issue of preaching and plagiarism?
He’s my rule: Don’t be lazy and don’t be a liar.
What does that mean? What does that look like?
Pray before you begin.
The power in your preaching doesn’t come for your persuasive personality, but the power of God’s Word bathed in prayer. Before I even open the first book to research the text, I read the passage and pray. I ask the Lord to illumine my mind. I ask God to guide my preparation. I ask God to allow me to prepare the sermon in such a way that it will teach God’s people and confront sinners with their need to repent. So, slow down, pray and ask God to guide you as you prepare your message.
Do your own research.
If you can read and work out of the original languages, start there. If not, read your text from several good translations. Read your commentaries and make sure you understand the context and content of the passage. Only after you have read the passage and studied your commentaries do I recommend reading or listening to sermons on the passage, but I do certainly recommend feeding your soul and priming your preaching pump by reading after other preachers.
Develop your own sermon flow.
As you read the text, you will begin to notice natural divisions or progressions in the text. These natural seams will become the hooks on which to hang the meat of the message. Also, as you study your commentaries and read related sermons, you will likely notice similar seams. That’s to be expected if you’re following the flow and preparing a text-driven message. Remember, it is the text that determines the flow and drives the message.
Pull from anywhere and everywhere.
Read those resources you agree with and those you don’t. Listen to preachers you trust, who feed your soul and stir your heart. Make a note of stories, jokes or illustrations that can be used to apply the truth of the text or connect the message to the hearers. In my sermon preparation, I normally have more sermonic material than I could use in half a dozen sermons. My job is to understand the truth of the text and pull from all of my resources those materials that will help me communicate the Scripture most effectively to my congregation.
Don’t rely too heavily upon one or two resources.
Often those who break my rule regarding lying and laziness do so unintentionally. The problem comes from only consulting a couple of commentaries or preachers’ sermons. Don’t do that. I believe that it is not only permissible but advisable to listen and learn from other sermons. However, if you don’t read widely and listen broadly, you will probably find yourself following one or two familiar resources too closely.
Look for a fresh way to say an old statement.
It’s amusing for those of us who’ve spent most of our lives studying preaching to see where another preacher makes a statement we know was actually, originally, said by a pulpit hero of a previous generation. In your study and research, you will likely come across a pithy statement. Don’t just say it like it’s yours. Take the truth of the statement and communicate it in a fresh way for today’s hearer.
Attribute when it’s unique, important and beneficial.
There are those who teach that you have to cite every thought you didn’t come up with all on your own. I find this utterly ridiculous. Preaching is an oral art and shouldn’t be bogged down with verbal footnotes every time you share a truth you gleaned from your commentary or sermon mining. I do believe, however, that there are times when it is beneficial to attribute a quote or story, especially if it is unique or was spoken by someone whose reputation gives added force or credibility.
Don’t say something happened to you if it didn’t.
We’ve all heard the proverbial “preacher story,” and if you’ve been in the ministry very long, you will likely have similar experiences as other preachers. In your sermon preparation, you may read or hear a story that helps communicates the truth of the text or aids in application. You may recall having had a similar experience. If so, share your story, but don’t tell another’s story like it happened to you. It’s better, and really the only honest course, to say something like, “I heard about a preacher who….” or “Pastor ____________ tells the story.”
Make the message your own.
Dr. W.A. Criswell was a powerful preacher who loved to invest in young preachers. Once, at his “School of the Prophets,” a young preacher asked Dr. Criswell if he’d ever preached another preacher’s sermon. He answered, “No, but let me explain. I could take your sermon, and by the time I get through ‘Criswellizing’ it, it will no longer be your message, it will be mine.” The most important part of moving the prayed-over and compiled research from your study from the paper to the pulpit is making sure that you first get it in your heart.
Be open about your process.
I love sharing how I prepare a sermon and get ready to preach. I often will place those books that I’m using for resources in a given series on the front row of the church for people to peruse. Most honest church members don’t care that you read and study after other writers and preachers. They just want to know that you’re diligent in your study and effective in your delivery.