Stop Stealing Sermons! (Preaching & Plagiarism)

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I’ve often been asked “When did you start preaching?” most are surprised and a little confused when I answer “13.” Yes, I was one of those kids - a preacher boy. My private Christian school participated in conferences where there was a preaching competition. So as a kid who felt called to be a pastor one day, I thought might as well start now. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed about it now, because of how foolish I was and how much I focused on winning. Makes me cringe even as I type this “I won preaching competitions.” Anyways, my first time preaching at one of these competitions was when I was 13. One of the judges was a well-known preacher (I’m not going to name him here) who is most known for being a proponent of the KJV only movement during the 90’s (Yeah, it was one of those conferences). I remember being excited and nervous to preach in front of him or anyone really, but I did, and I “won” (whatever that means). 

The next night this prominent figure in conservative Christian circles was preaching at the nightly rally. It was going well until something sounded really familiar. Then another. And another. I quickly realized that he was preaching my outline that I had given him the day before. My friends all thought it too, they had heard me preach that sermon 4-5 times (poor kids). He even used my illustration of my favorite baseball player. I was furious. I felt like he had stolen something from me. I confronted him after the rally. He just smiled and explained that he thought it was a great sermon and he wanted the other students to hear it. I was a pretty prideful kid so that made me happy enough. Then he gave me his business card and wrote his personal number on it, just in case I ever needed anything. That was it. That’s all it took for me to back off. I kept that card in my wallet for an embarrassingly long time. 

That man stole my sermon. Then he covered it up by using my pride against me. Looking back I pity him because it was not a great sermon, no offense to teenagers but they are generally not the best preachers. Many pastors do this today. Maybe they don’t steal sermons from preacher boys, but they take messages from the internet and act like they wrote them. This is what we call plagiarism. It’s a serious sin.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism does not just happen in the classroom, but in the pulpit as well. It comes in different forms. There are the deliberate acts of stealing others’ work. I remember in North Carolina during my first semester at Piedmont, my pastor preached a sermon and after about 5 minutes I knew exactly what it was. I too had watched Dr. D.A. Carson preach his sermon “The Scandalous Cross” at a Resurgence event that weekend. My pastor stole that sermon and passed it off as his own. I remember going up to him after church and simply saying in our conversation, “Yeah, Carson is a good preacher.” The look he gave told me everything I needed to know. He had been found out and the guilt was written all over his face. I left it there, but I did google everything he said for the rest of that semester. 

Sometimes pulpit plagiarism comes in a different form. It might not be deliberate, but mistaken remarks are still plagiarism. Quotes and phrases that have been stuck in your head without remembering who said it are also plagiarism if you claim credit for them. If you know that you did not come up with a certain phase then you must say something like “I’m not sure where I heard this” and then give the quote. 

Why does Plagiarism Matter?

It matters because stealing sin. It is a damnable offense against a Holy God. It also matters because it robs from others’ hard work. They should be given the credit for their sermon or quote. It matters because it robs the preacher from growth. For myself, I know that when I prepare a sermon I grow more than in my devotional reading as the Word convicts me of sin and encourages me. When the preacher refuses to do his job of exegeting the Word, he is robbing himself of that precious time in the Word and growing from God’s use of it in his heart. Plagiarism also robs the church. The preacher is not just to give a good sermon, but to live that sermon out as an example to the rest of the flock. When a preacher has not been changed by what He has learned then that also stunts their spiritual growth because they have no example to follow in that area.  

Yancey Arrington in his great book, Preaching That Moves People,  writes to the preacher, “He chose you, not a version of someone else disguised as you. God didn’t call me as John MacArthur, John Piper, Tim Keller…He chose me, Yancey Arrington, to preach as Yancey Arrington. If God chose you to preach, that means he called you to preach as you. Trust your calling!” Preacher, you know the context, you know the people, whoever you might steal a sermon from does not. Don’t give into the lie, they cannot effect change in your church like God can through His use of you being faithful in writing your sermon.

What Can I do about Plagiarism?

If you have stolen sermons, outlines, quotes, or illustrations from other preachers then you must repent of that sin. You might even need to do it publicly as you sinned publicly to your church. After you repent, you should investigate. Ask yourself why you did plagiarized. Was it because of a lack of time? Perhaps a change in how you schedule your week would help. Was it because of a lack of desire? Perhaps you should talk with a fellow pastor about that. After investigating, you should preach. Preach the Word. Don’t compromise, don’t settle, just preach. You study the Word for yourself, write that sermon, and edify the Body of Christ with that message. 

- Dean 

Cited Works:

Preaching That Moves People by Yancey Arrington