Some thoughts on #sermongate
In one of my favorite scenes of The Andy Griffith Show, Andy and Floyd discuss whether or not it was Mark Twain or Calvin Coolidge who said, "Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."
Had that conversation happened today, Floyd would have been able to quickly fact-check Andy with a quick Google search on his smartphone, and he would have discovered that Andy was wrong. Like so many Mark Twain quotations swirling around online, Mark Twain never said anything about people complaining about the weather. According to the September 19th, 1971 issue of the New York Times, Charles Dudley Warner, a friend and collaborator of Mark Twain's, was the person who actually said it.
While Andy's mistake is relatively harmless, it highlights how easy it is to misattribute another person's words. The most egregious form of this is plagiarism, when someone takes another person's ideas and uses it without any attribution at all.
Plagiarism is at the center of #sermongate, a scandal which erupted when people discovered that many of the sermons preached by the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention were copy and pasted almost word for word from sermons preached by the previous SBC president. This led to dozens of responses and articles being written across the country, including the New York Times: ‘Sermongate’ Prompts a Quandary: Should Pastors Borrow Words From One Another?
While it may seem obvious that plagiarism in the pulpit is wrong, particularly in the latest case between the two leaders of the SBC, there is still a lot of debate and discussion regarding what, exactly, constitutes plagiarism. In 2010, the Gospel Coalition ran a series of articles entitled "TGC Asks: When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon? (thegospelcoalition.org)," and those articles do an excellent job of capturing the various perspectives on the issue.
What if the preacher has given you permission to use his work? One of the most famous quotations regarding pulpit plagiarism comes from Adrian Rogers (although many misattribute this statement to Rick Warren), "If your bullet fits your gun, shoot it!" Many have taken this view to heart, as both Rogers and Warren are among the most plagiarized preachers on the planet. This laisse-fair view of sermon sharing has led to the creation of dozens of sermon-sharing websites, including Sermon Central, Pastors.com, Sermon Sharing Service, and Sermon.net. There are also many subscription websites where you can purchase sermons, slides, videos, and all that you need to preach the exact same sermons as the neighborhood megachurch minister. Many preachers downplay the overall issue, arguing that "everyone does it" and that it doesn't matter what is said so long as the Gospel is preached.
However, regardless of how many preachers work to downplay the issue, playing with plagiarism can ultimately lead to downfall for one simple reason: 90% of the people in the pews have the ability to look up any part of a sermon to find out if it's stolen. In that instant, your credibility as a preacher will be shot down if they find you have taken words from another preacher's mouth, whether you've been given permission or not. This kind of discovery has led to a steady stream of preachers being forced to resign.
That said, I do not believe the greatest problem of plagiarism is the problem of stealing from others, although that is certainly one of the most serious symptoms. The greatest problem with plagiarism is that the preacher has robbed himself from the opportunity to fully engage in one of the most serious, joyful, and important tasks of a preacher's life: the practice of sermon preparation.
My college English professor, Gordon Johnston, recently gave an interview in which he described the art of poetry writing. Using the words of a poem by Wendell Berry, he describes the art of writing poetry as the art of practicing resurrection:
The word ‘practice’ means two things. It means practice what you preach; do whatever it is you think ought to be done. But it also means do it over, and over, and over, with an eye towards getting better at it. And resurrection, of course, according to Christianity, is a thing that happened once in the entire history of creation. Berry equates that kind of resurrection with the everyday waking up that we do. Getting out of bed, confronting a life, and making the most of it with the shadows and the light. So, ‘practicing resurrection’ is something I try to do in the poems.”
“A lot of times I start from a place that’s a little dark and uncertain, and I arrive, by working at the poem, in a place of reassurance,” he explains.
That journey that Johnston takes when writing a poem, that journey "from a place that's a little dark and uncertain" to "a place of reassurance" is the same journey a preacher takes in preparing a sermon. Sermon preparation time is a wrestling time, a time to sit with scripture until it knocks your hip out of joint. By taking easy shortcuts and copy and pasting sermons and bullet points, preachers miss out on discovering what God's Word wants to say to them and their people.
One of my favorite images of the preacher is that of witness. The preacher's role is the role of one who has seen and experienced and bears testimony of what they have discovered. When I prepare a sermon, I am absolutely going to research and read what all the great thinkers have thought about a passage, and that includes reading great sermons written on the same text. I may even cite and use the research and ideas from a sermon I have read, striving hard to give credit where credit is due.
However, I cannot say that I have faithfully preached unless I can say I have faithfully prepared, and I cannot say I have faithfully prepared unless I have engaged in a little resurrection practice of my own along the way. That means that in my sermon preparation, I may die a little while wrestling with the passage. I may kneel in the middle of the living room and find myself utterly lost in what in the world I can possibly say or do when the world is out of control. Indeed, I have found myself many times at points when I am preparing a sermon when, like Johnston, I have been in "a place that's a little dark and uncertain." Those times are when the temptation comes to maybe just give up and take what others have written and call it a day. Or, I can practice resurrection...take the time it takes to work my way through what God would have me say. In an internet-driven, microwave oven world, the temptation to cook up a quick sermon has never been greater. However, the world needs us to preach sermons that practice resurrection, that arrive not by might or by power, but by blood, sweat, tears, by waiting and watching, by stumbling and falling and getting back up to higher ground. As Zechariah 4:6 says, "Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit."