Thursday, January 04, 2007

Caught in the Act

I’ve heard a couple more stories recently of preachers “caught in the act.”

No — not THAT act. Not adultery, but plagiarism.

Just recently I heard the sad story of a beloved minister who, perhaps in his exhaustion, began lifting sermons in whole from a great Christian Church preacher. Word-for-word. He even told the man’s personal stories as if they were his own personal stories. Even more sadly, once he was confronted about it, he continued to do it.

There is no excuse for that. It’s wrong.

We all borrow from others. I’ve been impacted by the books of Wright, Brueggemann, Crabb, Willard, and Peterson — books that have seeped into my bones. I’m sure there are times that their words come out — not verbatim, but in essence — without my even knowing it. We’ve heard good stories and illustrations that we’ve retold. We’ve retold humorous quips. We’ve gotten sermon thoughts that proved fruitful later in our own planning.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Who, after all, has a truly original thought?

But that must not be an excuse for the stealing involved in lifting sermons. When you cut-and-paste someone else’s message while pretending it’s yours, that’s wrong. When you tell another’s story as if it happened to you, that’s wrong.

I remember as a young man hearing about an older minister in the South who was confronted because he was just buying Swindoll books and preaching his sermons — without even bothering to disguise it. His sermon series carried the title of the book and the individual sermons had the titles of the chapters. When challenged about it, he simply replied: “I bought the book. It’s my material.”

That is grounds for dismissal.

Here’s the thing: a story doesn’t lose any power by giving the source. It doesn’t have to be YOUR story. It never diminishes the impact to say that you were deeply impacted by a book you read or a sermon you heard.

When we were first married, I went through my Jim McGuiggan stage. (I’m still sort of in that stage — I just don’t get to hear him often enough.) I listened to his tapes . . . until KIM cut me off. She said I was developing an Irish accent.

Some need to be cut off from sermons. They need to quit listening to the tapes, quit downloading the MP3s, and unsubscribe to the podcasts. They’re not wrong in themselves; but if they become your shortcut that takes the place of arduous, prayerful preparation, then drop them!

Perhaps part of the blame lies with the pressure that some churches put on their ministers. They expect them to be pastoral, to be witty, to be insightful, to be humorous, and to be deep. Part David Letterman, part N. T. Wright.

If you’re a church leader, affirm the leadership and teaching of your ministers that is solid, biblical, and congregationally pastoral. Make sure the ones preaching and teaching are given time to prepare. Consider giving them an allowance so they have resources to buy good books and journals. Think about offering them sabbatical time each year just for study and prayer–time that is added to their regular vacation time. These resources and this time are not only for the benefit of the minister; they’re also for the good of the church! (By the way, these are things I’m generously offered at LAKE CITIES. I’d just like to see others follow that practice.)

But, having said that, the blame can’t be placed primarily at the feet of the church. What I’m talking about is unethical. It is a red flag — just as an affair is — that something is deeply wrong.

If I hear you preach, I don’t want to hear a Bob Russell sermon. I’m sure it would be solid and biblical. But if I want to hear a BR sermon, I’ll listen to BR. If I hear you preach, I want to hear YOU. Maybe it’ll include a point or an illustration you first heard from Bob Russell. But the sermon — the heart of what you’re saying — is what you’ve agonized over. It’s what the good news of Christ has said to you on behalf of the church that week. It is passionate, prayerful, and gospel-formed. That’s what I want — and need! — to hear. For me it doesn’t have to be funny; it doesn’t have to be a home run.

In reality, it may include a LOT of things you’ve heard and read from others. But it is YOUR message. It bears your sweat; it is birthed from your confrontation with text and gospel; it is geared toward your community of faith. It is God pouring through you the gift of preaching.


Alan said...

I suspect there are a LOT preachers “borrowing” their sermons from the web without their congregation being aware of it. When people visit my blog, I can see the the referrer that sent them to me. About half the time the referrer is a search engine. The search terms used give me an idea of what these people are looking for. Often the search terms make it obvious that they are searching for a sermon to preach.

Will said...

Har har har. Good thing I read my other preacher's weblogs before I read yours :)

Mike said...

Very funny, thief. :)

Jennifer said...

That was awesome. I literally laughed out loud when I realized what you'd done. You're a witty one. :)

reJoyce said...

I tried to leave a comment the other day but it got lost in cyberspace. Just wanted to say I got a good laugh out of this post. Thanks!