COMMENTARY

6 undeniable reasons it’s nearly impossible to plagiarize a sermon

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Recently there have been pastors dismissed based on the ignorance of a few influential, judgmental, overzealous, Internet-exploring individuals. The accusation — their pastor is plagiarizing sermons.


When someone is accused of plagiarizing, they are accused of an egregious act. Meriam Webster Dictionary online defines plagiarism in this way, “to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.”


When any accuser states a pastor of plagiarizing a sermon, the accuser is questioning the pastor’s integrity. The pastor’s reputation is tainted, his leadership equity is diminished, his job is on the line and his future in ministry is at stake. The accuser is questioning if the pastor is suitable to pastor Jesus’ bride, the church.


The internet provides access to thousands of online sermons. In the time it takes to make a few keystrokes, one can be viewing sermons by the greatest preachers in the world.


Wise pastors are doing just that. They’re viewing the best preachers in the world on a weekly basis. As they do, they become better preachers. They’re also finding great content that will bring transformation to the lives of the congregants God has placed under their teaching ministry.


Sometimes the wise pastor utilizes the outline that was seen or heard. Sometimes the preacher is grabbing a mind-boggling turn of a phrase that will stick in the minds of his congregation. Some weeks the pastor is plucking from the online sermon an undeniably effective illustration. The wise pastor longs to be the best preacher he can be for the betterment of and spiritual growth of his congregation. He realizes that bringing the best sermon he can to his people for the sake of their spiritual transformation is more important than originality. He’s humble enough to realize that learning from and embracing the ideas of others is the way he can bring his best sacrifice to the altar each and every Sunday.


Is this plagiarism? Hang with me to the end and I’ll answer that question.


Here are six reasons it’s nearly impossible for a pastor to plagiarize a sermon.



  • No One’s Thoughts Are Original – Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” If we were to find all of the sermons ever preached, we would find someone has most likely stated in a past era what is being stated in the present. In God’s economy, “there is nothing new under the sun.”



  • Repeating What Someone Has Taught Us Is a Preacher’s Responsibility — When Paul was equipping young pastor Timothy for ministry, he admonished Timothy, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2) Three generations are to repeat what they have heard — Paul to Timothy, Timothy to faithful men, faithful men to others.



  • Preachers are Called to Be Effective, Not Original – When God calls pastors, He doesn’t give each of them the gift of preaching/teaching. Many great pastors have a primary gift of leadership or mercy or administration or healing. Even pastors that are given the gift of preaching/teaching don’t receive the same quantity of the gift. Some are more gifted preachers than others. 1 Cor. 12:11 tells us, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” The Holy Spirit determines what gifts a pastor is given. The wise pastor realizes that utilizing every tool at his disposal is the only way to be the most effective preacher he can be, but if his goal is to be original in every word he speaks, he cannot bring his best sermon to his congregation. I assure you, no preacher can bring his most effective sermon on his own. When originality trumps effectiveness, the sermon may be original, but will seldom be as effective as it might have been.



  • Preaching Sermons Is Not the Same as Writing a Book or Article – Accusers of plagiarizing tend to utilize the same guidelines as writers are guided by when writing books or articles. Having authored and co-authored multiple books and articles, I am fully aware of the guidelines related to written words and plagiarism. When writing a book or article there are specific legal guidelines concerning how many words from another source can be used, how many words from one other person can be quoted. When a publishing company is being paid for what it publishes and can be sued if the words in the book contain too much of someone else’s already-published thoughts or words, plagiarizing becomes a major issue. There’s money at stake. This is not so when verbalizing a sermon. A preacher would be plagiarizing if he were to take a sermon verbatim and preach it. But to utilize thoughts from another’s sermon, use someone’s outline or capture a few powerful and well-written statements probably would not be considered plagiarizing.



Tim Keller, one of the great thinkers, Christian authors and preachers of our time wrote, “I don’t think anyone expects oral communication to have the same amount of detailed attribution as we expect in written communication. To cite where you got every allusion or basic idea or general illustration in a sermon would be tedious. A certain amount of leeway must be granted. Also, if you take a basic idea or illustration and “make it your own,” I don’t think you have to give attribution. Often the preacher you fear you are stealing from got that idea from some Puritan author and reworked it into more contemporary form. And the Puritan might have gotten it from someone else. In fact, in the act of preaching, we often say something that we know we heard somewhere, but we can’t even remember where we got it. I think we need to be charitable to preachers and not charge them with plagiarism for every un-new idea.”



  • Those Who Are Being Plagiarized Aren’t Considered to Be Plagiarizers – When an accusation of plagiarism is made, in almost every instance, the accuser speaks of a well-known preacher being plagiarized. If plagiarizing is using someone else’s work rather than just your own, then the well-known preacher would be considered a plagiarizer. Most great preachers have one of three of the following teams working alongside him each week as he prepares his sermon: 1) a team of carefully chosen staff members who aid in the creation the sermon; 2) a study person or team who bring countless amounts of content the pastor can use in his sermon; 3) a collaborating group of pastors (satellite church pastors or other pastor friends) who work together in the creation of the weekly sermon.



  • There is no Concrete Definition of Sermon Plagiarism – If you hunt for a concrete definition of plagiarism and preaching, you will not find one. I did quite a bit of searching for this article. There are many differing opinions on the topic and many contradict one another. Why is this? I believe there are four reasons you will not find a concrete definition.



1) Unlike the written word found in books and articles no money is at stake.


2) Preachers are not concerned when others use their work. In fact, they’re most likely honored that what the Holy Spirit gave them as they prepared their sermon is blessing another congregation.


3) Every preacher is using the information gleaned from others in preparing the next sermon.


4) Preachers aren’t the accusers — laymen and non-preaching staff members are. Those who do not have the intimidating and humbling responsibility of bringing a life-transforming sermon each and every week have no concept of the pressure of preaching. They live in an idealistic world anticipating their pastor preach an outrageously challenging, inspiring, captivating sermon each week.



I asked a friend and colleague with much knowledge of preaching and a great understanding of preaching and academia for thoughts on when someone was plagiarizing a sermon. This dear brother received the preaching award from the seminary he attended and presently teaches at a Bible college. He said that someone is plagiarizing a sermon when from the beginning of the sermon to the end they’re using the words of someone else.



My son, Josh Howerton, pastors a church that averages about 15,000 in weekend worship (Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas). God has given him a special preaching ability. On multiple occasions I’ve called to ask him if I could use some of his sermon stuff in a sermon I was preparing. He finally said something like this, “Dad, you don’t need to ask. If my bullet fits your gun then shoot it.”



I want to say to preachers: if my bullet fits your gun then shoot it. I’m guessing you’d say the same to me and I’m nearly certain that almost every pastor in the world would give the same wise counsel to every other pastor.



Rick Howerton is south central regional consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

Comments

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PastorAl

In the early years of my ministry, I wasn't near as good as some of those tapes I listened to that I had got from the Oklahoma Evangelism Conference. So I sent a letter to those whom I liked their sermon asking permission to use their sermon. Everyone sent me permission to use them.

1) I would then type the message word for word.

2) I would recite it asking God's influence on how I should use it.

3) I would then validate any scripture references, as to its accuracy, and replace it if I felt it needed to be replaced.

4) I would then replace any illustrations that came from my life or I found in my research better.

5) Then I would preach it to my recorder*and wife if she'd listen and make final adjustments.

I actually spent more time than if I had started from scratch, but I think I delivered a better product to the congregation. pastor al

Thursday, July 16
CraigEllis

I'd like to point your readers to the full article from which your quote of Tim Keller is taken: "TGC Asks Tim Keller: When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?" [https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tgc-asks-tim-keller-when-has-a-preacher-crossed-the-line-into-plagiarism-in/]. In addition to calling for greater charity in this area, as you've recounted here, he also warns of the dangers he sees arising from (and leading to) the plagiarism of sermons. So, while Keller would seem to affirm the spirit of your article, it doesn't appear that he comes to the same conclusion—that plagiarism of sermons is nearly impossible and of no concern.

Thursday, July 30

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