Monthly Archives: July 2014

Who’s Robbing Whom? Some Thoughts on Pulpit Plagiarism

PulpitSupplyHandbookBookCoverThe following article is included in my book, Pulpit Supply Handbook: Answering Twelve Frequently Asked Questions.

Is it wrong to preach another pastor’s sermon?  Pulpit plagiarism can be a hot topic.  To commit plagiarism, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.”  This issue is certainly not new, but there has been a good bit of discussion in the last few years concerning possible answers to this question, some of which are quite disturbing.

Some prominent pastors, such as Rick Warren and James Merritt, openly encourage other pastors to take their sermons and preach them – even without giving proper credit.  However, others disagree. On December 7, 2006, the Albert Mohler Program featured a radio interview between Dr. Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), and Hershael York, a pastor as well as a professor of preaching at SBTS.  They are in agreement about this issue, and the title of the program reveals their perspective: “Plagiarism in the Pulpit: Stealing the Material We Preach.”  They believe a pastor should actually take the time to study and prepare messages suited for his own congregation instead of using something prepackaged and pre-processed.  Shocking, isn’t it?

For years, in addition to full-time teaching, I have preached in a supply capacity, filling in for pastors or serving churches that do not have a pastor.  Study time is a premium amidst family and work responsibilities. It could be tempting to steal others’ sermons.

However, I believe Mohler and York are exactly right about this issue.   I realize there are variations on pulpit plagiarism, ranging from preaching another’s sermon verbatim to extensively modifying it.  Regardless of the extent, when credit is not given where credit is due, people are being robbed.  And the interesting thing is that the ones who suffer the most are not the people whose material is being used, but the people who are stealing it and the people who are having it fed to them.  Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations in at least five ways.

  1. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations of spiritual nourishment they can only get from someone who lives among them and labors in the text of Scripture.

The pastor who is content to steal others’ sermons robs himself of the valuable discipline of study and its benefits for himself. He has less reason to devote hours throughout the week to the Word than he would if he were preparing the sermon himself. The plagiarizer deprives himself of a great blessing that God would freely give to him and the congregation if he would devote himself to the Word.

The congregation also gets the short end of the stick. Just as the milk from a mother’s breast contains nutrients specially and uniquely suited for her child, a pastor who studies the Word and knows his congregation will be able to feed Christ’s sheep with a diet suited to their needs better than any prepackaged sermon can. Phillips Brooks said that a true preacher is one who utters “truth through his own personality,” and this is what every congregation needs. There are particular applications of the text that may be irrelevant to a congregation if taken from a “canned” sermon, and there are particular applications they need that cannot be gained except from their own pastor’s labors in the Word. This is especially true in foreign countries where the people may have no clue as to the point of certain illustrations from American culture and have certain needs that preachers from other backgrounds might not touch upon.

2. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by discouraging consecutive exposition.

Many pastors have found that the best way to feed Christ’s sheep is through expounding the Scripture book by book. This enables the preachers to share passages with the big picture of its context in mind. When done correctly, expositional preaching lets God set the agenda and makes His Word the authority, rather than the preacher. There are variations on this method.  One can, like John MacArthur, preach dozens of sermons from one Bible book.  On the other hand, one can preach overview sermons which cover an entire book in one sermon, in addition to covering smaller units of Scripture.  Faithful expositors, no matter how large a preaching unit they use, agree with what Mark Dever has said: “An expositional sermon is one in which the point of the passage is the point of the message.” And the best way to ensure that you are preaching the point of the passage in each message is to preach consecutively through a book of the Bible.

A plagiarizing pastor may preach expositionally if he steals material from someone who preaches through books. But I would imagine the tendency for many would be to preach whatever sermon strikes them for the week or whatever the latest topical offering is from the mailing list they are on or the magazine to which they subscribe.

3. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by encouraging laziness.

A pastor is called to be diligent (2 Timothy 2:15). He is called to take time to think in order to gain understanding: “Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (2 Timothy 2:7). He must get the knowledge he needs and take time to process that knowledge through meditation and research and study. He must pray and labor. Preaching another man’s sermon requires none of this. One could certainly modify it, but the temptation to carry over as much as possible to prevent as much work as possible will be there.

4. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations of a safeguard against false teaching.

If a pastor is too lazy to study for his own sermons, he will probably be too lazy to check out the exegesis and application of another’s sermon to make sure that it is legitimate. He may begin teaching all sorts of false doctrine without even realizing that he is promoting unbiblical ideas. How can he guard the flock if he only takes for granted that he is feeding them healthy food?

5. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by rendering thieving preachers obsolete.

If a pastor simply preaches a sermon from another preacher, why couldn’t someone else from the congregation preach? Why not simply have the person with the most pleasant voice preach? Why not have the person majoring in drama preach a stolen sermon? Better yet, why not show a video every week of a favorite celebrity preacher?

If a pastor simply steals sermons from someone else, why go through all the trouble? Why not fire the pastor or free him up to do the other things he needs to do and let someone else preach a “canned” sermon or show a video?

In his book, Walking with the Giants, Warren Wiersbe gives a relevant warning:

Two dangers we must avoid as we read the sermonic literature of the past: imitation and plagiarism.Imitation robs me of my individuality, and plagiarism robs me of my character; both are insidious. One young preacher was so taken with the sermons in a certain book that he decided to preach them as a series. What he did not know was that one of his members owned the same book and had read it. As the member left the service one Sunday, he said to his pastor, “That was a fine sermon this morning!” Then he added with a smile, “Next week’s is good, too!” The problem, of course, lies not with the character of the printed sermon but with the character of the preacher reading it. Blackwood was rather blunt in his counsel: “If one is tempted to steal the fruits of other men’s labors, one ought to let such books severely alone. . . ”

Francis Bacon, in one of his essays, compared students to spiders, ants, and bees, and we may justly apply the illustration to preachers. Some preachers never study but, like the spider, spin everything out from within, beautiful webs that never last. Some are like ants that steal whatever they find, store it away, and use it later. But the bee sets the example for us all: he takes from many flowers, but he makes his own honey.

So, let us neither spin sermons without study, nor be thieves like the ant. Let us be like the bee. As we benefit from a multitude of sources, we must make the final product our own. We need to be, as Dr. Erwin Lutzer said, those who milk many cows but make our own butter. Let’s learn from many sources.  Let’s assimilate what we have learned and produce our own sermons. If we fail to churn our own butter and merely lift our messages from other men, we do not merely rob them (even if they say it is okay), but we rob ourselves and the people of God of a rich spiritual feast.

A version of this article was originally posted at SharperIron and has appeared on this blog before.

* Audio of this radio program is available at www.albertmohler.com

Thanks to the Common Ground Herald for publishing a version of this article here.

John 3:16: a Few Reflections

Although it may not be as well known today, for many years believers and unbelievers alike could recite, verbatim, the KJV rendering of John 3:16:

For God so loved the world,
that He gave His only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish,
but have everlasting life.

There is so much life-changing truth packed into this verse that, according to some stories, evangelist Dwight L. Moody’s life and ministry were changed by sitting under the preaching of a man who preached from John 3:16 throughout daily meetings over an entire week!

The verse shows up toward the end of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, the Jewish ruler who came to him by night.  Jesus had told him of the need to be born again, born from above, by the Spirit of God.  Jesus told him that the Son of man must be lifted up, even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, pointing forward to the crucifixion, with both events sharing the need for personal faith in those looking at the exalted symbol of God’s judgment on their sin.  In John 3:16, Jesus explains the love of God as the motivation for sending the Son, for the purposes of rescuing believers from perishing and granting them everlasting life.

Two key ideas in this passage are the reasons God gave, and the reasons we should believe in His Son (this concern for personal faith is the whole motivation of John’s Gospel, see 20:30-31).

Why God Gave

God gave, because He so loved the world.  God created the world, and the people in the world.  It was His idea, not some random freak accident.  His love is seen to be all the more magnificent when we see that He gave His Son to a world that did not welcome Him (1:10-11).

God gave, because the world was in danger.  People would perish because they were in rebellion against God, their Creator.  Men wanted to be their own law, rather than submitting to God.  This rebellion deserves eternal death and separation from God’s love, yet the danger of perishing motivated God’s gift of His Son.

God gave, because the world couldn’t save itself.  Mankind was in such a predicament that no human scheme could be devised to escape God’s wrath.

God gave, because His Son could and would save.  Jesus was able and willing.  The Son of God becoming flesh, living a perfect life, dying on the cross, and rising from the dead was the perfect choice and only way for mankind to be rescued.

Why We Should Believe

God gave.  We should believe.  We should fully trust Christ and entrust our eternal destiny to Him and His finished work.

We should believe, so that we will not perish.  If God had not sent His Son, we would have perished.  If we do not believe in the Son, we will perish.  We don’t have to perish, but we must believe to avoid perishing.  Those who do not believe are already stand condemned (3:17), but God sent His Son so that we wouldn’t have to perish (3:18), so let’s make sure we believe!

We should believe, because we can’t save ourselves.  We can’t reform our habits, manners, or speech sufficiently to impress God.  Even if we could, that still wouldn’t erase yesterday’s rebellion.  We are incapable of spiritual good apart from God.

We should believe, because Christ can and will save.  This salvation extends to “whosoever” believes.  Regardless of our past, Christ can and will save, if we believe in Him.

We should believe, in order to experience God’s love.  God has showered untold kindness on us already.  But this is temporary if we do not believe.  If we do not believe, this life is as good as it gets.  If we do believe, this life is the worst thing we will experience, as eternity will be full of life and joy.  This love of God spares us from perishing and gives us everlasting life, a life that cannot end, a life that is wrapped up in the Giver of life, in the One Who is life and is the life (1:4; 14:6).

What Is Our Response?

If you do not know Christ, I pray that you will see the greatness of God’s love and your need for the gift of His Son, and that you will have faith in Jesus.

For those of us who know Christ, may this verse increase our gratitude and love toward God and impassion us to share this glorious message with others.

Have you memorized John 3:16?  An easy way to do so is to sing it to the tune of “Silent Night”:

John 3:16; John 3:16
For God so loved the world,
that He gave His only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish,
but have everlasting life.

 

This post was originally published at Gazing at Glory.

Books available on Kindle and in paperback: 

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How Can I Anticipate the Unexpected? Part 2 of 2

The following article is an excerpt from my book, Pulpit Supply Handbook: Answering Twelve Frequently Asked Questions.  Part 1 of the series is here.

Response Plans for the Unavoidable

Many situations you will face are simply outside your control.

Accidents & Storms

You may find yourself in an unexpected jam because of a motor vehicle accident on the only road you can take.  You might even have a vehicle accident yourself.  You may experience a downpour that makes it too dangerous to drive.

In these sorts of situations, when it is safe to do so, you should phone the church and/or your contact person to let them know of your situation, and whether it will make you arrive later than expected or if it will be impossible to make the appointment.  That way, they can pray for you and carry on as best they know how, under the circumstances.

Sometimes, however, there is simply no way to let people know.  I was scheduled to preach at a church in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, a land beyond the signal of the cell phone towers, and was caught in a torrential downpour while traveling there.  Although I had been to the church before, I missed a turn amid unusually heavy rains.  I realized I had made a wrong judgment, and in my misguided haste to make up for lost time, I took our minivan around the curvy mountain roads a bit faster than my young children could handle, only to have three who had lost their breakfast before we pulled into the church parking lot.

The church folks had been concerned about the absence of the guest preacher, and they were gracious in caring for our family and helping my wife clean up the mess.  I was there just in time to preach the sermon.  At about 11:30 a.m., with embarrassment, I explained and apologized for my tardiness, and proceeded to try to preach.  Those are circumstances I hope I do not have to repeat!

Interruptions

Another thing that is hard to avoid is interruptions.  The nature of the interruption and your own personality are factors in how you will handle interruptions.

A baby may cry while you are preaching.  The baby may keep crying.  And crying.  Will you raise your voice and try to speak over the inconsolable child, managing things as best you can, or will you ask the mother to please deal with the little one and return when things are calmer?  I don’t recommend defaulting to the second option, but if you choose it, you need to be as gentle and kind about it as you can.

Some folks may chat while you are talking.  I had this happen with some teenage boys who had been bused in to a church, and have seen it happen in other services to other preachers.  I chose to stop mid-sermon to address the situation, as we were in small quarters and I was afraid that they posed a significant distraction to others who would want to hear the Word.

There are plenty of other possible interruptions.  One time I was preaching and my children were in a room within earshot of the platform.  While I was preaching, I kept hearing one of my children crying.  The crying persisted.  I finally thought I would have to either see about it directly or ask someone to do so, so I stopped my sermon and asked if anyone could go check on my wife and children.  A lady from the church went to the room and found that one of my children had accidently bloodied a sibling’s nose with a boomerang from the toy box.  Then she opened the window because the room was warm, but an angry hornet flew in and stung another child, which resulted in more crying!

You Can’t Plan for Everything

It is a great comfort to believe in the sovereignty of God over His creation, His people, and our circumstances.  He works all things together for the good of those who love Him, even your own foibles and distractions you may face when supply preaching (Rom 8:28-29).

Although you want to be as prepared for pulpit ministry as you are able, it can remove a lot of pressure when you realize that there is no way to be absolutely certain that you have the answer for every possible situation!  Sometimes you just have to experience and enjoy life.

One memory that continues to make me smile occurred while I was waiting my turn to preach in a church service at another church in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.  I was a visitor, and had little idea of what to expect.  An anonymous lady I will call “Patsy” entered the building and set her stereo boom box on the table at the front of the church building.  Later, someone requested that she sing a song.  As I recall, Patsy’s response was something like, “Honey, I didn’t come prepared for that.”  Shortly afterward, she had her tape playing her musical accompaniment as she sang along, presumably “unprepared.”  Now, when you’re a guest preacher, what else can you do with that but smile?

Books available on Kindle and in paperback: 

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