There is a reason that previous generations referred to the pulpit as “the sacred desk;” it is, no doubt, the same reason that the prophets of the Old Testament sometimes referred to “the burden of the Lord”. The responsibility of proclaiming the Word of God to the people of God is a serious and oftentimes heavy calling, and those who have been entrusted with this task should carry out their service with the utmost theological fidelity and personal integrity. In recent years, this concern has become even more evident in light of the growing awareness of the problem of plagiarism. This problem soared to the forefront of denominational concerns a couple of years ago when Ed Litton, then president of the SBC, was found to have plagiarized sermons of the previous president, J.D. Greear. Now, with the proliferation of AI programs like chatGPT that can not only check for plagiarism anywhere on the internet but also write full original sermons on their own, the need for sincere and authentic work in the pulpit is even more pressing.
So, when I came across an article from 2021 entitled “6 Undeniable Reasons Its Nearly Impossible to Plagiarize a Sermon“, I was obviously perplexed, to say the least. At the time of writing, the author was a regional consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, but now he serves on staff at a megachurch in the DFW metroplex area where his son is the pastor. His purpose for writing this article seems to be to defend pastors from erroneous or perhaps even malicious accusations of plagiarism; the article begins, “Recently there have been pastors dismissed based on the ignorance of a few influential, judgmental, overzealous, Internet-exploring individuals.” Of course, he eventually acknowledges that the wholesale presentation of another individual’s sermon word for word is plagiarism, but he argues throughout the piece that borrowing a theological or textual observation here or an effective illustration or application there is not only not plagiarism, but is both wise and good. He concludes, “I want to say to preachers: if my bullet fits your gun then shoot it. I’m guessing you’d say the same to me and I’m nearly certain that almost every pastor in the world would give the same wise counsel to every other pastor.”
Now, I take no issue with the overall thesis of this article; certainly, every preacher of God’s Word is formed and informed by the voices that they consult in the study process, and of course, that will inevitably show up in the pulpit. Moreover, the accusation of plagiarism should never be made lightly, nor should it ever be weaponized. However, it is the underlying reasoning for sermonic borrowing that is assumed in this piece that I find problematic, namely that if I want to be an effective preacher, then I should borrow from other more effective (read celebrity) preachers. In other words, there is an unstated assumption that success in the preaching enterprise is measured by the number of people sitting in the pews or listening online, and that those who have achieved this success are worthy of emulation. In the Evangelical subculture, we have regularly platformed and praised those whose personality and charisma in preaching is able to draw the biggest crowds, and this has lead to an epidemic of comparison whose only cure seems to be achieved by copying both the style and the content of those who epitomize it. But the problem is that this way of evaluating preaching is more cultural than it is biblical. We are not called to preaching methods and styles that tickle the ears and fill the seats; we are called to preaching that transforms lives, both the life of the preacher and the life of those who hear him.
The biblical standard for sermon evaluation is not charisma but fidelity. If we are faithful to the text, clear in our delivery of its truth, and consistent in pointing people to Jesus, then we have accomplished the task. We are called to faithfully expound upon the Word of God, to proclaim its message, and to bring its truths to bear upon the lives of those with whom we have been entrusted. The only way that this can be accomplished is by being absorbed in, with, and by the text, by letting the text form and mold us through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. When and only when the heart of the preacher has been truly convicted by the scripture’s truth will he then be able to preach it effectively and with power. Effective preaching is not achieved through the polish of personal charisma, rhetorical flourish, or grandiloquence. It comes only through the personal conviction of a heart and mind that has been gripped by the power of the Word of God. After we have done our historical work in the text, our literary and linguistic work, our theological work, we must do our “closet work”. Then and only then will we be prepared and equipped to do our homiletical work. This, and this alone, is what makes the preaching of the Word of God effective and powerful, and the truth of the matter is that this the only part of sermon preparation simply cannot be plagiarized.
The problem of plagiarism will continue to be a problem in the church as long as we continue to worship and glorify the personas and personalities that draw the biggest followings, whether in person or online. However, the reality is that the most effective preaching comes from someone who knows their congregation intimately, someone who knows how to exegete people as well as they exegete the Scriptures. Celebrity pastors and online personalities do not know the people that sit in our pews; therefore, they will never be able to shepherd our churches effectively. The most effective pastors/preachers are those who know the Scriptures, know themselves, and know their congregations, because this allows them to bring the truths of God’s Word to bear on the specific questions, the real problems, that their people are facing in their day to day lives. While plagiarism may seem to offer the hope of effective and powerful preaching, ultimately, it is an empty promise that will never be able to deliver. There is simply no substitute, no shortcuts, for the transformation that comes by the Spirit through the disciplines of the Word.
For further study, see: Edwards, J. Kent. Deep Preaching: Creating Sermons that Go Beyond the Superficial. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009. Bio:
Phillip Powers is a pastor/elder at South Caraway Baptist Church in Jonesboro, AR, and he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at SBTS. He blogs periodically at phillippowers.blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhillipPowers.