Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Thou Shalt Steal Sermons--"To Be Effective"

30 "Therefore," declares the LORD, "I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. 31 Yes," declares the LORD, "I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, 'The LORD declares.' 32 Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams," declares the LORD. "They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least," declares the LORD. -- Jeremiah 23:30-32.

Steve Sjogren advocates sermon stealing on the Rick Warren web page. Instead of being original, putting in the hard study time, laboring to forge a godly message through the prism of your own character, Sjogren says it’s better to steal from sermons that work, that are effective. Although it reads like a parody, it is serious--and it is a serious, serious, and pernicious sin.

We are commanded by God not to steal. Lifting other people's sermons word-for-word, as the article recommends. is intellectual theft and is based on the idolatry of imitating "effective" preachers (read: megachurch pulpiteers). It is nothing less than the worship of "effectiveness," which translates as: get big numbers with minimal effort and integrity optional. In fact, according to the larcenous Sjogren, sermonic integrity just gets in the way and wastes time.

Yes, all preachers learn from and quote other preachers. A few undocumented phrases here and there are no sin. In my Sunday sermon, I quoted Daniel Boorstin's line that celebrities are "well know for being well know." When people responded more than I anticipated, I said I got that from a social critic. Otherwise, I may not have mentioned the source. Further, some basic ideas came from a book by R.C. Sproul (The Holiness of God), which was cited in the "recommended reading" section of my sermon outline given to the congregation. When I quoted Matthew Henry, his name was mentioned. However, if one takes credit for large sections of others people's work, not putting in their own time before the sacred text, one can only pity them and their followers.

No, we can do more than pity them. We can call them to "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand," as Jesus said. As John the Baptist thundered, "Bear fruit worthy of repentance." That means, confess your theft; renounce the ungodly counsel, and start working as unto the Lord, who searches hearts and minds. That includes those who sell their sermons: first and foremost Rick Warren. You should not sell what others should not buy.

Do we wonder why there is so little spiritual power and wisdom in America's pulpits? Many "worship services" worship market share, attendance numbers, and giving units, as opposed to a "holy, holy, holy" God (Isaiah 6:1-3). The First Church of the Golden Calf was more "effective" (for a season) than The First Church of Moses and God. Until we start to preach, and teach, and worship before "the audit of Eternity" (Kierkegaard), all our efforts are but wood, hay, and stubble. May God have mercy on us and revive us again.

[I was alerted to this egregious article through this article on "pastoral plagiarism."]


Michelle said...

As a parishioner, I have been very disappointed by a former pastor, who presented sermons from the internet word-for-word. Not only did he present them as his own (often talking about the 20 hours or so he spent each week preparing them), but he would insert his family member's names into anecdotes taken from the internet. No matter how you look at it, this is dishonest.

Whatever a pastor decides about how much material he/she gets from online sources, I think it is incredibly important that the congregation know that the material is not original. If a pastor wants to use those resources, why not be up front with your congregation about it?

I think it is inexcusable, under any circumstances, to use your own name and family names inserted into fake stories that never happened to you.

I hope pastors will give very serious consideration to this topic.

Tom said...

Wow...Doug you are so right that this seems almost like a parody. Are you sure it isn't? So much for pastoral integrity!

:mic said...

I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I have been down this road on another blog - the link is worth pursuing to see the discussion on the nature of pastoral plagarism. What is perhaps worse than the plagarism itself is the amount of people defending the practice!!!

PS - I had made some strong comments against the practice, but they were 'censored' by the 'blogmaster'

Jo Jo said...

It seems now like in the contemporary church, as in society, the thought is that the end justifies the means. This is grossly wrong. I have seen this at work, also, in my personal experience and it saddens me deeply.

Behold, the Lord is doing a new thing, his mercies are new every morning. I always hope that we all have the bravery to share those things personally with others, and know that they are good. We plant the seed and he grows them up. We can trust him for the effectiveness of the outcome, we don't have to work it up for him, or make HIM look better for others - I'm sure the truth will suffice. How can the best, be better than it already is?

For Pastors that can no longer come up with their own material for legitimate reasons, a vacation or new vocation may be a good move.

gimmepascal said...

Apparently, sermons are not the only things Christians are plagiarizing. Recently, the organization I work for, Food For the Hungry International, accidentally placed in their internationally circulated magazine a donation form which asked donors to send money to Worldvision, another Christian NGO. And what was the reason for the blunder? Whoever made the brochure was copying and pasting from a Worldvision template.

What happened to our creativity and integrity as Christians? Of course, this is just a donation brochure, but it is a sign of a bigger problem.

By the way, who is buying all of Rick Warren's sermons? The fact that people are imitating this man is almost as scary as the plagiarism.

I think a good idea would be convincing congregations to require the pastor to provide lists of books or websites where he borrows some of his information. If he doesn't consult any, then he should note that as well. This way, the congregation could read deeper on some of the points made by the pastor, and pastors could be held accountable.

Why do congregations accept the pitiful, borrowed jargon heard from most pulpits today?

For a lesson on sermon preparation, read about Jonathan Edwards.

:mic said...

What was it C. S. Lewis said in 'The Weight of Glory'. . .

(a paraphrase because my copy's not accessible right now): the problem is not that we expect too much but that we settle for too little

MJ said... the Wall Street Journal reports today that TV's outnumber persons in the average American household: 2.73 to 2.55.

Tom said...

Two points that my Presbyterian-minister wife made after she read the article (although the precise words are mine):

1. If there is nothing wrong with preaching the sermons of others, why doesn't Sjogren encourage the "borrowing" pastors to be honest about it with his or her congregation? Yet for some reason this isn't part of the advice given. (For the record, my wife, who for the past year has been the solo pastor of a small Presbyterian church, said she can understand how congregational emergencies can occasionally make it very hard to find enough time in the week to write a good sermon; she wouldn't hold it against a pastor, who at the end of such a week, was frank with her congregation about her situation and then presented a published sermon, acknowledging the source. (She has never done this, by the way.)

2. Sjogren also clearly implies that, when it comes to congregations, size matters. In his examples, successful churches and large congregations are equated. As if putting butts in the, padded arena seats, is the primary mark of success in the ministry. Unbelievable.

Douglas Groothuis said...


That is a good perspective from your wife. Parish realities often make studied sermons difficult. Time just runs out. But better a less than stellar genuine sermon by the preacher herself than a stolen sermon by another preacher.

One might say, "It's been a tough week, brothers and sisters. So, I am substantially relying on the ideas of Preacher X in this message." That is not plagiarism, but honesty about the fact that this sermon is not very original.

The megachurch mentality is crassly pragmatic: do what brings in people. If your church is small, it is unsuccessful. Numerical growth is always good. Of course, one cannot find these sensibilities in the Bible. Jesus referred to his early followers as his "little flock." The way is narrow.

Of course, we want everyone to repent, accept Jesus for who he is, and strive to live biblically through the Holy Spirit. But the means must be in accord with the ends: the increased manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst. The kingdom of marketing, hype, style, and methods, is something else entirely, the "worldly wisdom" that James excoriates in chapter one.

Ray Van Neste said...

Amen, Dr. Groothuis! I agree that it is pragmatic approaches that drive this approach. From emails snet to me it is occurring with increasing frequency with significant damage to churches especially since pastors are able to quote articles like the one mentioned as support for their practice. I hope these conversations will help expose this error for the good of the church.