I’m really not sure how common sermon plagiarism is. If it is becoming more common, I think there are a few reasons:
- a diminished view of preaching (not new – you read about this a century ago)
- availability of sermons on the Internet and other media – the sermon industry
- competition from other pastors (people rate you against the best preachers on iTunes and radio)
- pragmatism (why waste time preparing when you can get a ready-made sermon online?)
Add to that the reality that good preaching is hard work. It involves rigorous thought and soul work as well. Many preachers take the easy route and decide to preach other people’s sermons instead.
I remember reading a book last year that essentially said, “Why waste your time preparing messages when you have a church to build?” I remember reading another book in which a pastor admitted how much time it took to prepare a sermon. His friend across the table raised an eyebrow, as if he was squandering his time.
What amazes me about this is that it is sometimes the same people who devalue time spent in preparation who praise the artisan bread baker, composer, and writer. If all of these can be sacred vocations, why not preaching? Should preaching not require the same care?
In any case, Kevin Vanhoozer gives one of the most convincing reasons why preaching other people’s sermons just doesn’t work. In his book The Drama of Doctrine, he uses the picture of doctrine as a script, the pastor as a director, and the local church as a company of performers who improvise to perform that script. In this sense, preaching is local. It has to do with a particular group of people performing within a particular context. Someone else’s sermon just won’t do, because the best preaching is local. Vanhoozer writes:
The sermon, not some leadership philosophy or management scheme, remains the prime means of pastoral direction and hence the pastor’s paramount responsibility. The good sermon contains both script analysis and situation analysis. It is in the sermon that the pastor weaves together theo-dramatic truth and local knowledge. The sermon is the best frontal assault on imaginations held captive by secular stories that promise other ways to the good life. Most important, the sermon envisions ways for the local congregation to become a parable of the kingdom of God. It is the pastor’s/director’s vocation to help congregations hear (understand) and do (perform) God’s word in and for the present.
The time spent doing this well is worth it. Vanhoozer quotes Herman Melville’s image of the pulpit as a ship’s prow that leads the way through uncharted waters: “The pulpit leads the world.” In some ways, it does.