An educator friend of mine recently shared a link to a website designed to help teachers check their students’ work for plagiarism. A teacher can just paste a section of the student’s paper into the search engine and in a matter of moments know if the work has been copied from some online source. After just a minute or two of exploration, I found there are many sources teachers can utilize to detect cheating by plagiarism. I have no idea how well these websites deliver on their promises, but I do know from the number of available sites this must be a serious problem teachers face as they seek to educate their students.
As I looked at these sites I remembered students aren’t the only ones who plagiarize. Preachers plagiarize, too.
As far as I know there is not a website designed to check whether sermons are plagiarized, but if there were, the red light would be flashing constantly. Some preachers do not consider plagiarism to be a problem. After all, if a sermon is good, what is the problem with it being preached again in another setting by another preacher? Why not preach the best sermons you can find?
Plagiarism presents multiple problems. A preacher who plagiarizes cheats himself and his church. By presenting someone else’s well-researched and well-written sermon the preacher escapes the hard work that is disciplined research and writing. By plagiarizing sermons a preacher can pretend to be something or someone he or she is not. By plagiarizing a preacher avoids difficult work, misrepresents himself, and steals from another.
I know of one minister who presents himself as an expert in a particular field when in reality his “expertise” is entirely “borrowed.” I know another who regularly posts the words of others as his own in status updates and tweets. I know of preachers whose sermons series are lifted directly from the latest release of a book on the Christian bestseller list. The sermons are preached without any prayerful digging into the text, critical thinking and processing, theological reflection and disciplined writing.
I’m writing this to remind myself and my preaching friends that when we quote others in sermons, blog posts, or even status updates or tweets — let’s give credit where it is due. There can be great benefit to using good, helpful material from others when we properly give credit. Let’s not allow plagiarism to undermine our own spiritual maturation. And if we have such a craving to be thought an expert or witty or wise that we would steal, perhaps we need to address the underlying heart problems.