Confessions of a Sermon Thief
I wrote this article in 2002, and it appeared in the September-October 2004 issue of Preaching, but I’ve never published it online. It’s received new life recently because I was quoted in an article on sermon plagiarism that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – an article that’s good, but that overstated my own history on the topic.
In any case, here’s my original column.
We were recently notified that one of X’s messages was reproduced on your website. While we are delighted that you use our material, I need to remind you that our sermons are copyright protected content and may not be distributed or reproduced (in whole or in part) beyond your immediate congregation without our permission and without proper attribution to the author. As such, we would ask that you remove this message, along with any other sermons you may have reproduced there which are based on X’s outlines. Thank you in advance for your immediate attention to this request.
I had to admit it when I received this e-mail. Like it or not, I had become what I had always condemned – a sermon thief. I was the Winona Ryder of preachers.
I’m now a sermon thief in recovery. Here is some of what I learned along the way.
The Evolution Of A Sermon Thief
Like most pastors, I entered the ministry with a strong work ethic – sort of. I remember coasting through my first few years of ministry with a lot less sermon preparation than I do now. I had a lot to say, and I could get away with little preparation.
I still remember the Sunday it caught up with me. I had hardly prepared, and I stank. I knew I stank. Everyone knew I stank. I went home that day and repented for my shoddy sermon preparation. I knew that I wasn’t living up to my calling, that I was a workman who needed to be ashamed. You could say a lot about my sermons since then, but you couldn’t say that I hadn’t prepared.
In January 2000, I attended a preaching seminar that changed my approach to preaching. The speaker encouraged us to be ourselves, but his method was so compelling, and his sermons so available, that I adopted his method. My sermons started to sound a little like his. They weren’t his, but they sounded like his. I then began to go even further.
I never knowingly stole a whole sermon. I did, however, begin to get series ideas from others. I began to borrow sermon titles, even though I would develop the sermon differently. It was easy to begin the preparation process by looking at what others had done on the topic. I might or might not use an outline or a point. My sermons were becoming more of a collaborative effort.
I never stopped putting lots of time into my sermons, usually at least ten hours. I never significantly borrowed material without giving credit. I was open with my leaders that I consulted other people’s sermons as I prepared my own. But – and here is the problem – I was sounding less and less like myself, and more and more like some other preacher. I was losing my own identity. In short, I was selling out.
On a few occasions, without realizing it, I crossed that line. I don’t even know where that line is, exactly. But I have no doubt that I crossed it. On about four occasions, even after all my preparation, the sermon that I delivered substantially resembled one that I had read during preparation. No, I hadn’t just downloaded and preached a sermon. Yes, I had done my own work. But the results were close enough that I had essentially stolen somebody else’s work. The sermons were close enough to somebody else’s that I received an e-mail asking me to remove them from my website.
What I’ve Learned
Reflecting on my experience, I think I’ve come to four conclusions. These aren’t words from God. They’re just my ideas of what’s okay and what isn’t in sermon stealing.
Conclusion One: Everyone borrows. I don’t know one preacher, one author, who doesn’t get ideas from others. They don’t steal, but it’s impossible to be completely original. It’s like the saying about someone who wanted to be original or nothing, and ended up being both. Some are more brazen than others, but even the most rigorous among us occasionally borrows from others.
I recently heard Andy Stanley preach on Romans 5-8. I loved the series, so I decided to preach my own. I think I used some of his ideas, but the sermons I preached were essentially my own. Everyone, at least occasionally, borrows ideas from others.
Conclusion Two: Sermon stealing isn’t always wrong. There are times that it’s okay to essentially steal a sermon. Church isn’t school, and using someone else’s material isn’t plagiarism. Many preachers allow others to use their material within a church, as long as it’s not republished. I think there are drawbacks to using somebody else’s material, but it’s not morally wrong, at least under some circumstances.
I can think of a couple of situations in which it makes sense to use somebody else’s sermons. Sometimes bi-vocational pastors are left with little choice. Some pastors aren’t strong preachers, and there is nobody else on staff to help out. One of my mentors told me, “Perhaps a lot of churches would be better off if struggling preachers used other people’s material.” I distribute my own sermons on the Internet, knowing that some other pastors probably preach them. I’m okay with that.
I’ve heard that Spurgeon sometimes preached other people’s messages. I heard John Maxwell say that we should buy his sermons, because if we do, we not only get his sermons but Swindoll’s sermons too. I don’t know may pastors who haven’t preached somebody else’s message, at least once. It’s not wrong, at least in itself.
Conclusion Three: We can’t afford to hide it when we preach somebody else’s stuff. I once attended a church in Florida with family. We heard the same sermon that my brother-in-law had heard in Holland. He left disillusioned with the church and with the pastor.
Somebody I know suspected that his pastor was preaching somebody else’s material. He broke into his pastor’s office and began to search the computer for evidence when the pastor walked in. That’s a little extreme, but the point stands. We lose credibility with our people when they suspect us of passing off somebody else’s material as our own. Some pastors have even been fired for this offense.
If I were to steal a sermon again, I think I’d say, “This sermon isn’t mine. You’ll get my stuff next week, but this is so good that I want you to hear it.” If my leaders aren’t comfortable this, then at least we can have a discussion about whether or not this is appropriate.
Sometimes I wonder if the real issue in churches isn’t about whose material is being used, but if we’re being honest about the source. I think it’s better to be honest. In fact, one day I want to do a series called “Sermons I Wish I’d Preached”. I’ll lift some of the best sermons I’ve heard from other preachers, and let everyone know up front. It may be the greatest series that I ever preach.
Conclusion Four: We lose something when we use somebody else’s material. One of my friends said to me, “Darryl, I’d rather hear you preach your own sermon – even if it’s not as good – than to hear you preach somebody else’s polished sermon.” When I habitually use somebody else’s material, I don’t allow the Spirit the opportunity to speak into my church, through my personality, out of my walk with God. I lose what a growing number of people are looking for in a preacher: authenticity. They want to know that I’m for real.
I sometimes think that I’m too enamored with technique and skills – that if I find the right methodology, everything will be alright. Preaching is an art as well as a science. I can use all the skills and methods in the world, but that’s not what makes a message effective. It’s ultimately about the Spirit speaking from his Word through a particular personality. That can’t be copied from somebody else.
So, I’ve entered recovery as a sermon thief. I’ve decided that if I ever steal another sermon, I’ll at least be honest about it with my congregation. I won’t condemn other honest sermon thieves either. Most of all, I’ll enjoy the work of creating my own sermons, not because they’re better, but because I believe that God can speak through his Word into my church through me – weaknesses and all – by the power of his Spirit.
Postscript: I think I would go further today in discouraging the preaching of other people’s material. The best preaching is local. It’s the “communication of a biblical concept…which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers” (Haddon Robinson). I’d rather hear someone with minimal gifts do the hard work and speak out of honestly wrestling with a text than to hear that preacher give someone else’s material.