Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ghost-Preaching: Sermon-Stealing and Sermon-Buying

Sermon-stealing and sermon-buying are particularly egregious forms of plagiarism that effect and infect the church more than we might like to believe. Like ghost-writing, these forms of deception are quite popular. One nationally known pastor makes his sermon outline available for $4 a pop. I met with a group of pastors about two years ago who complained that they were tired of the retread sermons they heard in their pulpit by various pulpiteers who were filling in after the loss of their beloved pastor. I assured them that if they wanted me as an interim preaching pastor that the sermons would be my own, for better or worse. I would not be relying on a ghost preacher.

Titus 2:7-8 instructs teachers to have integrity and be serious about their teaching. 1 Peter 4:11 exhorts those who speak to speak "as the oracles of God." That probably eliminates sermon-stealing and sermon-buying. Teachers will be judged more strictly, says James 3:1-2--and not on a curve. As Phillip Brooks said in Lectures on Preaching, preaching is "truth through personality." One refracts God's truth in preaching through the diligence of one's own efforts. This requires grappling with the sacred text through one's own study and prayer--complimented by the prayers of others. It cannot be done on the cheap. While some on-line sermon outlines are hawked as "road tested" (because a famous preacher preached them before a big crowd), a biblical sermon is soul tested in the fires of study, reflection, and prayer. Fire in the bones cannot be downloaded (Jeremiah 20:9). One climbs into the pulpit alone--but before God as the audience of One.


Unknown said...

I largely agree, but I think that there's a danger of taking what in academic scholarship are primary virtues to aim at - originality, innovation or new discovery - as virtues for preaching.

I don't think that a sermon needs to be original - it needs to be faithful and true, edifying and challenging. I don't see anything wrong with someone passing on good teaching that they have received from elsewhere, nor with drawing on the rich spiritual resources of the teachings of men and women of the church down through the ages. Originality is not a necessary requirement for good preaching.

The real issue is that of honesty - is a preacher passing off what others have said as their own insights and thought, their own work? Any such dishonesty is certainly a grave and serious wrong. And it is of course wrong for preaching to neglect reflection, prayer and a real sensitivity for the real needs of the flock. Let's just be careful we don't idolise the independent "diligence of one's efforts" as we guard against such things.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I am not arguing for originally in the sense of creating out of whole cloth. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but we should credit them as influencing us. However, we still must bring it all together as individuals, as unique image-bearers of God called at a particular time and place to expound, declare, and defend biblical truth.

David Hyams is right: there are too many other stresses on preachers that they sometimes think they must cut short their preparation. That is a structural problem many times. The church needs to give the preacher time to study. It is telling that the pastor's study is not called "the pastor's office." Quite a change, that--and not for the better.

Come Fail Away said...

Branching off of dhyams' second comment, I don't believe it is the pastor's sole responsibility to visit the sick or any of the other busy jobs that make it difficult to find time for sermon preparation.

The task of preaching is to sanctify the hearers with the word of God. Over time, this commitment will develop the hearers into ministers in the sense that they will want to minister to others. Jesus said that the world would know us by the love we have for each other, and yet we expect the pastor to be our only point man to the sick and needy?

I could go on about the reasons we are stuck into this rut, but the point I'm making here is that congregations see themselves as both employers and customers to the pastor, and that needs to change.

Susan said...

While downloading a pre-prepared sermon and reciting it might be a symptom of laziness, I'm not so sure it is as bad a thing as you are making it out to be unless credit is not given to the person who crafted the sermon. There is nothing sacred about an originally "crafted" sermon, as though that is what makes a sermon powerful. It is the Spirit of God working through the Word of God that empowers any good sermon.

One might read aloud a poem by Wendell Barry, or a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, or a speech by Peggy Noonan. If read with integrity and with disclosure as to the source, what's the big deal?

Come to think of it, reading other people's sermons (with full disclosure) might bring some humility to the act of preaching. Some behave as though their clever oratorial skills were better than the Spirit-inspired words of the biblical text, unable to preach a sermon without fancy urban-legend "illustrations" and clever metaphors.

Certainly when it comes to preaching, personal study of the word of God and intimate time spent with God Himself is essential. But if the president employs a speechwriter surely a pastor might employ a sermon-writer if it made sense to do so for some reason.


Ted M. Gossard said...

I thought I sent a comment yesterday, but evidently I didn't. I know I pressed preview, so evidently i forgot to press it home.

I strongly agree with what you're saying on this post. I want a message to be fresh from God. That involves much reading, study and prayer, though for a long time I've been reticent to know a whole lot ahead of time exactly what I'm going to say.

I now see how a message crafted ahead of time with much prayer and study is the best route to go. Though I still prefer heavy study with just an outline and some thoughts perhaps in front of me. I marvel at those who have the whole script coming across fresh.

I said yesterday, something along the line of what Susan, and perhaps others (I did read the comments yesterday. Good too.) said. I heard Dr. James Grier once say something like this: "Most all of what we say we've heard or read from someone else." Since that's the case (recall Paul's words, pass on the form of sound doctrine in words, along with the faith that is in Christ Jesus), I think we need to acknowledge that we truly stand on the shoulders of others who have gone before us. But certainly we should never quote someone when we know we're doing so, and not acknowledge the source.

I do think what Susan adds (the only new comment for me today) is interesting and a good point.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Speech writing for politicians doesn't set well with me either. Politicians are not prophets; at worst, they are propagandists; at best far short of being prophets. Preaching must be prophetic. One must stand in the counsel of the Lord, as did Jeremiah and all the prophets. Yes, we receive insight and inspiration from other preachers, but we must preach our own sermons!

dave and amy terpstra said...

There is no question that sermon stealing is wrong. However, why is there something inherently wrong with reusing someone else’s material that God has used before and giving credit to the author? All speakers use others’ thoughts? How much use (again properly credited) is too much? A quote? A couple of thoughts strung together? An outline?

This is not an open and shut case of the medium is the message. The messenger is the real issue. If a speaker faithfully and prayerfully prepares a talk that someone else has given, and gives that talk with the permission of the original author, I don’t see why that would prohibit the movement of the Holy Spirit.

History tells us that instead of preparing a sermon, a preacher in London read the introduction to a commentary on the book of Romans for his message. Fortunately, John Wesley’s heart was still strangely warmed during the reading. Apparently God can still show up when we properly borrow others’ work.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


If you say, "Instead of my own sermon, I am going to read X," then that is fine. One does wonder if one is earning one's pay at that point, though. Moreover, people can read books for themselves--if they are literate and if they know what to read. Reading a commentary is not a sermon anyway. They are different categories.

No sermon comes ex nihilo. And it is sometimes difficult to remember where you got all your material. But if you are using the whole structure of a message and much of the content that is taken from someone else, then it isn't your sermon at all.

To cite a good case of sermonic scrupulosity, Pastor David Ward, a graduate of Denver Seminary, and formerly one of my students (and the funniest person in the history of Denver Seminary--and smart too!) recently emailed to ask of a statement of mine made in class--over ten years ago--was uniquely mine. If so, he would cite me in his sermon. It wasn't uniquely mine, but it was good of him to ask.

dave and amy terpstra said...

Again, I don't disagree that using someone else's thoughts and failing to give them credit is wrong. Plagarism is wrong. Stealing is wrong. But your original blog was not just about stealing.

I want to go back to the idea you presented of a speaker selling message transcripts for $4 for someone else's use. I fail to see what is inherently wrong in giving the same message someone else has given, if the author is aware that you are going to give it (In this case, I'll assume the $4-a-message guy is listing his material for that purpose) and if your congregation knows that you are giving someone else's thoughts, (and they are properly credited). Why not prayerfully prepare most or all of someone else's message you have discerned your congregation needs to hear? Why not anxiously anticipate God's work a second time?

At that point it is not about stealing but about originality, and I don't think you have made a compelling enough case for exclusively original material in the pulpit being the only material God wants our people to hear.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


I never said what you attributed to me:

" [That] exclusively original material in the pulpit being the only material God wants our people to hear." You use what you read and hear; it is not "exclusively original"; but you craft it into your own work! If you use a lot from a particular source, it should be recognized.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

This betrays a questionable pastoral philosophy, to be sure:

"Why not prayerfully prepare most or all of someone else's message you have discerned your congregation needs to hear? "

Eugene Peterson would never buy it. Enough said.

Stephen said...

I loved the post. For me, the most compelling reasons against purchasing/cloning/etc. sermons its that it cheapens the office of the expository pastor, it removes the joy of discovery in one's own exegesis, and well, to use a business analogy, the pastor is no longer warehouse supplier, but a middleman trying to profit.
But what a great blog topic...I look forward to stopping back by.