Preachers and Plagiarism

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.

No Innocent Text

Chris Erdman’s Countdown to Sunday: a Daily Guide For Those Who Dare To Preach is, as you might guess from the title, primarily for preachers. In it Erdman suggests a weekly rhythm for preachers working with the text. He offers specific suggestions for each day of the week leading up to Sunday.

In the section on Wednesday, Erdman suggests “there are no innocent texts in the Bible. Every word, sentence, and page has an agenda.” He goes on to suggest exegetical work on Wednesdays that discerns “the mischief this text wants to do among us come Sunday.”

But it wasn’t the thoughts on exegesis, per se, that caught my attention in this chapter. It was the prayer Erdmans suggested for the hours in which the preacher is discerning “how Sunday’s text wants to form the people of God.”

“Lord, why this text? Why, among so much other material, was this little piece included in the Bible? I know it’s not innocent, but I’m not yet clear about what it’s guilty of trying to make of your people.”

I love that expression, “no innocent text.”

And I love that prayer, “What is this text trying to make of the people?”

And since it’s Wednesday and Sunday is closing in…

It’s time to pray!

Steinbeck, Worms, and Preaching

Today I am sharing a quotation from Chris Erdman’s Countdown to Sunday A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare To Preach in which he quotes John Steinbeck to illustrate how preachers should handle the text. Enjoy!

“If you want to know how to handle this text, I’ll steer you toward the novelist John Steinbeck over the mass of contempoary preachers. Stenibeck knows how to handle the kind of stories, rants, poems, prayers, commands, and whatever else makes up the pages of the Bible. Steinbeck knows nature and the human condition into which you and I are sent to preach the gospel. Here’s Steinbeck with a pretty accurate description of the preacher’s art —

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream….How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise–the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream–be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto the knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book–to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.

I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better way of handling the Bible…and opening its pages among those whose lives are as full of as much stink and noise, light, tone, and habit as those whose lives the Bible wants us to capture whole. Work too hard at getting them out and off the page, and you’ll do them damage or injustice. Better to open the page and let the stories crawl out all by themselves. That’s when your preaching will be its best, and you’ll find yourself working at your task with more wonder and a lot less chore.” (pages 49-50).

The Gathering

“We gather for worship to remember who and whose we are. We come to recount the stories that shape our faith, stories that turn us from a collection of individuals into a community with a common source and vision. The church as a worshiping community carries our biblical faith and spiritual tradition down through the ages to each individual. We are joined to that community in Baptism, tutored in faith through the interpretation of scripture in preaching, and nourished at the Lord’s Table as a family of believers. Life in the church teaches us that we are made for a communion not only with God but with one another in Christ.”
–Marjorie J. Thompson in Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, p. 60.

Preaching Without Masks

2 Corinthians 11:11 (NIV)
“Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”

The sermon I preached yesterday about Paul’s dealing with his critics reminded me of these words with which Chris Erdman opened his book, Countdown to Sunday A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare to Preach.


“Those of us who preach know how tempted we are to be someone else, wear masks, and live inside our own skin in ways that are not altogether authentic. The demands of pastoral ministry are many and diverse, and while tending the souls of others and the life of a congregation it’s not hard to betray our own selves. We stand up on Sunday mornings in a place that can often feel more like a place of danger than a sanctuary. Conflict over a decision of the board, the pain of a family in crisis, the desires of those who hope you’ll tilt the church in the direction of their hopes and dreams, your own lingering mistakes and self-doubts and private cravings load the room where you stand to preach; it’s little wonder we wear masks.

It’s possible to preach in such a way that we keep these masks intact. But I don’t think we can keep them intact and preach Christianly. Christian preaching is, among other things, an announcement of the new creation, a whole new humanity in Jesus Christ, a liberation from old captives. When we wear masks, preaching becomes more about technique and the arts of rhetoric and oratory–managing those masks with greater skill–than it is about entering God’s new world made real through preaching. And preaching, if it is to be Christian, requires real humanness–God’s own in Jesus Christ, and ours as his witnesses, as scandalous as that may be.”


Paul’s critics were all about style over substance. Paul would have none of that, seeking instead to focus on the power of the gospel message. Rather than wear masks, Paul was open and honest about his suffering and hardships, even if his critics used them to discredit him.

Most encouraging to me is the line from 2 Corinthians 11:11 that I quoted above. What helps Paul take off his masks and minister with honesty and authenticity was knowing that while people might impugn his motives, God knew the love in his heart.

When I love, God knows; so I can just take off my mask and preach!