“Discover a fresh new preaching series” read the outside of the envelope. It was an advertisement concerning a sermon series that I could purchase. It is not unusual for me to receive several such advertisements a month. Some promise inspiring messages that will save me – “the busy pastor” – large amounts of time that I don’t have for studying.
In fact, sermon-writing services are everywhere. For a small fee each month, pastors can have access to literally hundreds of sermons on any given topic or passage on the Internet. If you are not willing to pay, simply visit any one of thousands of church websites and download this past week’s sermon from another pastor. Pastors conferences also provide endless resources. It seems that the once forbidden fruit of preaching ministry has now become a fashionable staple in time management for the modern pastor.
At one pastors conference I attended, the issue of preaching someone else’s sermon came to the forefront. One speaker openly stated that “he would preach better sermons, when someone wrote better sermons.” At this same conference, another speaker gave an inspiring message that seemed to stir all in attendance. However, the problem was that I heard the very same message on Christian radio several months before by another well-known speaker.
The availability of these resources (Preaching Plagiarism) poses several questions that must be answered by those who minister in word to God’s people. “Is it right to use someone else’s sermon and pass it off as your own?” “Is it fair to the congregation?”
Giving in to the Temptation
I have found that it is very difficult to define and schedule a typical week. On any given day, there always seems to be something that comes up that seeks to eat up my schedule. With the destruction of my time schedule, the number one area that is affected is sermon preparation. While this may be true, an overall principle looms in the background. The principle is this, “No matter how busy I may be this week, it is not an option to get up in the pulpit and inform the congregation that there was no time for a message this week.” So the pressure to produce is continually there as the weekly deadline approaches.
While I was serving in my first pastorate, I phoned a friend in a nearby church and shared with him the frustration that I was having in developing a Father’s Day message. No matter how I struggled to develop a message, I found the well to be dry and Sunday’s deadline was coming. My friend listened to my frustration with patience and then he offered a suggestion. “George, do you have any tapes of messages that relate to the needs of men? Simply borrow a message from one of the tapes.”
I expressed a reservation to his suggestion. “Isn’t that wrong?” I protested. He told me not to worry about it. He pointed out that all preachers borrow their sermons from each other.
So that Sunday, I stood before the congregation and gave them someone else’s message. I had never felt as uncomfortable as I did that day. I did not sense that the message was connecting with the congregation. I struggled with the delivery of the message. The message was not an extension of me. It was very evident to me that the message was not mine. From that moment on I made a commitment never to borrow another person’s sermon again.
The Perspective of the Church
While one may argue that was my experience and that their experience was more positive, one cannot overlook the expectation of the congregation. After a service one evening, a woman asked me for a tape of the message. Due to technical difficulties, the message was not recorded. So I offered a tape series on a similar topic by another speaker for her use. Her immediate response was “You mean that was not your message?” I assured her that it was indeed my message, but the tape series was an excellent supplement to the subject. She declined, stating that she wanted the tape because of something I said during my message that spoke to her that evening.
That event communicated a dual perspective on the expectations of the church concerning the pastor’s sermon. First, they expect me to bring a sermon that I have personally spent time preparing. Nothing horrifies a church more than to find out that their pastor is using someone else’s material.
The other perspective I gleaned was that my sermon belonged to the church. In a real sense the church feels a sense of ownership for the pastor’s sermon. At a seminar I attended concerning legal issues facing the church, one speaker shared a number of legal issues that the church might have to deal with down the road. He stated that one issue the church would have to face at some point was the ownership of a pastor’s sermon since the church was compensating him. Beyond the fact that they are paying me to bring a message, they expect me to bring God’s message to them. In a sense, my message belongs to them because it is supposed to be God’s word to them.
Guarding Against the Temptation
Because the ability to use other people’s sermons and give into “Preaching Plagiarism” is so readily available, I have had to discipline my life based on two assumptions concerning my sermons.
1. My sermon is a reflection of me. Before taking the pastorate of my current church, I sought the perspective of a wise counselor concerning assuming this pastorate. He stated that he felt the church was a good fit and that my messages would benefit them at this time in the church’s history. I thanked him for his thoughts, but stated I was puzzled since he had never personally heard me speak. He stated that he did not need to. He shared that he knew how I spoke based on our friendship. He stated that sermons are a reflection of the speaker.
It was then that I began to understand that my sermons reflect my style, my experiences, my study and grasp of the passage and ultimately my relationship with God. When I speak the Holy Spirit uses my personality to communicate to His people. When I used someone else’s sermon, that message is a reflection of the one who wrote it rather than the one who is delivering it.
2. My sermon should be God’s message to the congregation I am currently serving. The most important assumption that keeps me from using other people’s material is the fact that my message should be God’s message to the congregation that I am presently serving. Before taking my current pastorate, I had a database with all of the messages that I had preached at my last church, as well as the notes from my study time. Upon leaving the last pastorate, I destroyed that database. In doing so I would be forced to look at Scripture from a fresh perspective of “what message does God have for my current Church?” While there have been times that I wanted to kick myself for destroying those records, it has insured a fresh message, not a recycled message from another church.
Getting Our Priorities Right
The fact is that using sermons written by others does save time for the pastor whose schedule is being continuously challenged. However, it reflects misguided priorities.
As a pastor, one of my principal priorities is to feed God’s flock. I have been given the task of bringing to them the message that God has given for them. I am to bring them God’s word to where they are at that present time.
In succumbing to the temptation of using someone else’s material, we rob not only our churches of what they expect, but we rob ourselves of the experience of seeing God use our faithfulness in the study as well as our delivery to speak to His people. Let us overlook the fashionable statements of why it is appealing and remember that it is a forbidden fruit for a reason.
George R. Cannon is Pastor of Curwensville Christian Church in Curwensville, Pennsylvania.