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To Plagiarize or Not To Plagiarize: the Sermonic Question

Last week my wife and I were having dinner with our small group when someone brought up a sermon they heard that had originally been given by a different pastor.

I laughed and said that’s not atypical—especially in the internet era. Years ago I remember a woman telling me she had visited family in New York and heard a message in a church that sounded oddly familiar. When the pastor told a story about his kids, she realized it was a message that I had given months earlier…with the same kids’ story!—only the names (and genders!) had been changed. Years ago when writing my first book, I opened with a particular story about a personal fast food restaurant experience I’d had. I had told the story a year or two before in a seminar on evangelism to make a point. At a national conference for my tribe sometime afterward, I was sitting in the audience listening to a plenary speaker who suddenly told the same story nearly word-for-word. I was shocked—not because it was plagiaristic, but because I was afraid I would be accused of plagiarism when the book was to be released a few months later…and by those in my network who happened to be at the conference! As we discussed how common it was for pastors to use other pastors’ sermons, the puzzled look on my friend sitting next to me was revealing. “Is that really a thing?” he asked. It led to an interesting discussion on plagiarism and why pastors do it. In my work with churches, I can hear a sermon and know from a key phrase that it’s been cribbed. I can Google it and find it in about ten minutes. So here are my two cents… As a young musician in my former life, I learned by copying the riffs and styles of far better musicians, lifting the needle off vinyl records over and over to capture note-for-note what they did. It was how most ear-trained musicians did it, but only until they found their own musical voice. That can take years, but the good ones acknowledge their musical heroes and move on to develop their own style. For that reason, I’ve passed on loads of Word doc files of my own transcripted messages over decades to young pastors and churchplanters and encouraged them to go for it: “no attribution needed and make it your own.” They’ll find their own voice eventually. For instance, in the case of churchplanters who have so many jobs they’re trying to cover each week, taking 12-15 hours to prepare a message isn’t always a luxury they have. And if you’re bivocational, God bless you on that one. But there are caveats: be aware how it will affect your listeners if discovered. A few months ago the New York Times published an article on sermon plagiarism. When a church member in Nashville found his pastor copying other pastors’ whole sermons, including personal anecdotes, he was quoted as saying, “If 95 percent of the stories he told us were not true, then who is he?” The pastor soon left the church. The issue here isn’t just plagiarism, but authenticity. And transparency. But there is a more critical factor for finding your own voice. If you’re a pastor, the events and challenges in your own life give you a prophetic responsibility in your church. And it’s simply because of the distinctive role you’ve been given as a primary dispenser of Biblical truth and its relevancy to your listeners’ everyday life. The things you go through may be God’s way of creating in you a uniquely relevant voice for the church he’s placed you in. The Biblical texts you speak on will be shaped by your theology and dependency on the Holy Spirit, and made accessible to the people you’ve been given by your personal reflective experiences. Yes, the people God has given you deserve your best. But, I think, your best. Originality is not a Christian virtue in itself. Drop the needle and keep listening and learning from others more skilled. And sometimes a time-crunched week may offer some grace. But if after years you’re still copying messages, I might be concerned of either a time management problem or an alone-time-with-God issue. Just a wonderment. Dave Workman | ELEMENTAL CHURCHES


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