I could ask the same about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. By the time I got to “the content of his character,” my audience would know I didn’t invent the speech. So, I wouldn’t be violating their trust. But, I might be violating the law with a copyright infringement.
Another example: If I modify the language of a Charles Spurgeon sermon and preach it without citation, is that plagiarism? Maybe. My guess is Spurgeon would be thrilled—and disinterested in a royalty! But it might cause a breach of trust with my audience.
Still another example: If I find a great sermon from another pastor on Matthew 24 filled with crisp, current illustrations, and I recite it verbatim without citation, is that plagiarism? It’s pretty hard to argue that it’s not, even if he’s given me permission to use the sermon. Using someone else’s content extensively requires permission from both the source and from your audience.
In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Steve Sjogren emphatically stated, “Don’t be original. Be effective!” He urged pastors to quit spending time striving for originality; they should instead recite the words of better sermonizers. “We need to get over the idea that we have to be completely original with our messages each and every week. The guys I draw encouragement from…get 70 percent of their material from someone else.” I think that Steve’s on tenuous ground as we must ask the question, “Just how is the 70 percent handled?” I do agree with his point that the expectation of originality can go too far.
Rick Warren is emphatic in the sermons he provides: “Use them!” He asks for no citation. However, a pastor using Rick’s sermons must assess the expectation of his or her congregation. Most listeners expect a certain level of originality, and if it’s not there, they probably expect a citation of some sort.
Several years ago, I asked Max Lucado about his sermon preparation. With no apology (but with great humility), he shared that he has preached someone else’s sermons before. It was during a very dry time in his life due to multiple book projects and a heavy pastoral load in his church. He was just wiped out. This is how he handled it: He called another pastor friend, told him he was in need, and asked if he could preach to his church the same series his friend had just preached at his church. The friend readily agreed. Max openly told his church the source of his material, he preached the messages, and all was well. He clearly borrowed someone else’s work and words, but he did not pass them off as his own; so I sensed no violation of conscience. I, too, would have liberty of conscience under the same circumstances, properly handled.
I believe that conscience is one of three major issues here. “Am I guarding my own conscience in my sermon preparation and delivery?” I must add that my conscience has to guide me, and your conscience has to guide you. If the conscience of others dictates my own, then my conscience will incessantly be conflicted. We aren’t wired to be driven by the conscience of another; each person’s conscience must stand or fall on its own. The conscience of some preachers compels them to cite meticulously; others aren’t so compelled. We must have faith before God that our sermon preparation is approved by him.
“Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” (1 Corinthians 10:29 NIV)
The second major issue is diligence. “Am I faithfully studying the Word that I am preaching?” If using the work of another is simply an excuse or temptation to neglect my solemn duty, I’ve strayed from my calling. Chuck Swindoll emphasized this to me over and over in an interview: “Sermon preparation is hard work.” We are workers.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15; NIV)
The third major issue is that of trust. Frankly, I think this issue brings the most clarity to Scott Gibson’s question. If our mode of sermon preparation breaks trust with those to whom we preach, then the answer to the question posed by the book’s title is a clear “No.” How can a relationship proceed with broken trust? It cannot unless it is restored. And restoring trust is far more difficult than guarding trust in the first place. There are pastors who have paid with their jobs to demonstrate this.