Thinking out loud about sermons…

The cover story for the latest issue of Christian Century, “Stolen goods: Tempted to plagiarize,” turns out to be an excellent article by Thomas G. Long on plagiarism in the pulpit — stolen sermons. I was planning to write something about this topic anyway, and then this afternoon our church music director told me that the Providence Journal printed a story this week alleging that the minister of First Unitarian in Providence has been engaging in plagiarism in his sermons over the past year. So here are some thoughts on plagiarized sermons.

Thomas Long’s Christian Century article notes that some prominent evangelical Christian preachers, like Rick Warren, market their sermons online. Long quotes Steve Sjogren, pastor as Cincinnati’s Vineyard community Church, as saying, “Don’t be original — be effective!” Long also quotes none other than Augustine as saying,

There are, indeed, some people who have a good delivery, but cannot compose anything to deliver. Now, if such people take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception. [emphasis mine]

That last phrase is crucial: if you’re going to use someone else’s sermon — if you’re even going to reuse one of your own old sermons — you need to tell that to your congregation right up front. Long is careful to point out that “gray areas remain, of course, and judgment calls must be made.” Personally, I often worry about how should a preacher make attributions. Full footnotes just don’t work in a spoken sermon, but I think it’s usually OK for the preacher to refer to “Biblical scholars,” or to say something like “as Theodore Parker once said,” without having to give a full bibliographical citation.

Aside from the ethics of the matter, I feel Long’s most important point is that a good sermon should be written for a specific congregation. Using Christian language, Long writes:

In addition to the standard of truthfulness, the second factor to keep in mind is immediacy. While there is surely room in the pulpit for the “set piece” sermon and the oft-repeated illustration, finally preaching is a word from God for these people in this place at this moment. [emphasis in original]

I like to think about preaching as a conversation that takes place between the preacher and the congregation and the universe. The preacher is not really speaking for him- or herself:– the preacher has to try to give voice to those who have no voice; the preacher has to listen very closely to what people in the congregation say, and feed that back to the congregation; the preacher has to try to discern how the sacred lives and moves within the congregation, and draw the congregation’s attention to it. Those things are difficult enough as it is; using a sermon intended for another congregation will not make them any easier.

One important matter that Long does not cover in his otherwise excellent article is how congregations can become complicit in leading their ministers to plagiarize. If a congregations want their preacher to write high-quality, original sermons every week, are they willing to allow him or her a minimum of ten hours of study and writing time each week? — that’s at least one full day a week of uninterrupted study and writing time; and some preachers need more time than that. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many congregations that allow their preacher no more than an hour or two for study and writing. If a congregation is not insisting that their preacher spend ten hours a week on sermon preparation, and yet insists on an original sermon every week, that congregation is only leading that preacher into the temptation to plagiarize a sermon or two.

In the end, I’m less interested in reflecting on sermon plagiarism per se, and I’m more interested in what it is we expect from our sermons, and from our preachers. Some congregations will agree with Steve Sjogren, that we should worry less about being original or whether a particular sermon fits a particular congregation; and instead we should worry more about how effective a sermon is. Such a congregation may not even need a professional preacher — there are plenty of sermons on the Web, and anyone with a good voice could be drafted into reading sermons on Sunday morning, which would free up the paid minister for other roles in the congregation. On the other hand, there will be congregations who feel that sermons should be written for them, addressing their specific concerns and giving voice to their collective thoughts and yearnings. If that’s the case, those congregations will be sure their preacher carves out a substantial amount of time for sermon preparation — in which case the congregation will take care to hold that preacher accountable to create original sermons, written specifically for them and articulating both what they say and what they need to hear, each and every week.

2 thoughts on “Thinking out loud about sermons…

  1. gyikua

    I find the issue about plaigirism in the church interesting. I am not a minister but i do preach ocassionally in my church. I believe that a preacher preaches based on the Word of God in which there is (thankfully!!) no copyright.
    Before we dare to stand before God’s people with HIS Word, I believe we must in humility ask for God’s widsom as to what to say. We do not (or should not) stand in our own cleverness, infact we ask that all tendencies towards human wisdom that seeks to glorify ourselves rather that God should be stilled. Therefore I assume that whateber clever sounding or impressive sermons that come out of God’s ministers are the workof His Holy Spirit and that since we have freely received, we should also freely give. Thus if someone takes something that God originally used me to speak to his people, and uses it to bless another congregation of God’s church, I should feel honoured not cheated and should consider it a seed that I have been priveleged to sow into His church. I don’t think that issues of plaigirism and copyrights should arise in the House of God at all.

  2. Dan

    gyikua — Thanks for the great comment. Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with anyone using one of my sermons (not that anyone would, I’m not that great a preacher). But I’m still working on the covenantal aspects of preaching a sermon that was meant for another congregation. Every sermon has a vertical component (God), and a horizontal component (the gathered religious community) — if I used someone else’s sermon, am I ignoring my responsibility to preach to my particular religious community? — am I pushing aside the promptings of the Spirit that come to me for this particular community, in favor of taking the easy route and just using what the Spirit prompted someone else to say to another religious community? Once or twice I have in fact preached other people’s sermons myself (of course, I always tell the congregation this beforehand) — but I always wonder if I’ve been shirking my responsibility to be totally open to the Spirit.

    Probably just my own personal issues coming through. You seem to have a saner and more relaxed attitude.

Comments are closed.