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how original is your sermon? – jonathan robinson

plagiarism

I remember a comment from years ago by R.T. Kendal (former incumbent at the famous Westminster Chapel, UK) who admitted that he felt tremendous pressure to always have something original to say when preaching. He realised he needed to be careful with this, novelty is not a criteria of orthodoxy, and that preaching the Bible faithfully was more important that impressing his listeners with previously unheard of insights. I have to admit I have the same tendency, I love finding angles and interpretations that people haven’t heard before, my favourite comment from a church member is, “I’ve been hearing the Bible taught for 50 years but you always bring something fresh out for us.”

On the other hand I know of a pastor who supplements his income by writing sermons for other preachers. He finds sermons “easy” to write and doesn’t see any harm in what he does. Personally I could never preach another person’s sermon and I don’t think anyone else could preach from my notes. Sometimes in moments of dire urgency I have been tempted to download something to fill the gap but I have discovered I am pathologically incapable of preaching someone else’s words as my own. Recently Scot McKnight, among others, took exception to the practice of Pastors using ready-made sermons. He admits, though, that sermon content usually draws from many sources:

“To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that were used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting, it is convergence — it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others. It brings together other people’s ideas and says so if it is substantial; but it is a uniquely personal, local, and temporal bringing of those things together. Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.”

I’m not so sure McKnight is right to be quite so condemnatory. Of course we shouldn’t convey other people’s anecdotes in the first person – that is deceptive. Of course pastors are expected to be spending time in study preparing sermons and if they are not doing that then what are they doing with their time? Of course we should not present other people’s insights and work as if it were our own unique thoughts. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. (Phil 1:18) Is borrowing another person’s sermon, something I have never done, really so bad in itself?

In Preachers and Preaching by Martyn Lloyd-Jones he recounts two stories about Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher of 19th C. London. In the first Spurgeon admonishes a student preacher for stealing one of his sermons, on closer investigation it turns out that the plagiarised sermon is by one by William Jay, and that Spurgeon is also guilty of, unintentional, plagiarism. In the second story Spurgeon, under an attack of depression, hears one of his own sermons preached by a lay reader in a small Essex chapel. The preacher is mortified to be found out but Spurgeon replies,

“I don’t care whose sermon it is,” said Mr. Spurgeon, “all I know is that your  preaching this morning has convinced me that I am a child of God, that I am saved by grace, and that my sins are forgiven, that I am called to the ministry; and I am ready to go back to preach again.”

I like McKnight’s idea of a quilt, and this is the sort of preaching I aspire to and would like to receive. But I wonder if the academic paranoia about plagiarism is misplaced. I love Spurgeon’s response to plagiarism. Who cares who wrote it if it brings God’s grace and truth to the hearer?

What do you think?

 

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