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Word for word

Religion | More and more pastors lift entire sermons off the internet-but is the practice always wrong?

Issue: "Rick Santorum: Penn Station," April 30, 2005

Glenn Wagner was a successful mega-church pastor in Charlotte, N.C., until one of his elders heard a sermon on the radio that was identical to one he had heard from the pulpit. Mr. Wagner confessed that he had been preaching other people's sermons off and on for two years, including some he broadcast on Christian radio. He resigned from his ministry last fall.

A similar case occurred after members of the National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., found on the internet sermons that Alvin O'Neal, moderator of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a celebrated preacher in that denomination, had preached. Mr. O'Neal apologized for his actions and remains in his ministry.

A number of lesser-known ministers across the country have also been caught stealing sermons. Sometimes it makes the newspapers, but other times congregations or denominations handle the matter quietly.

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But is preaching a sermon written by someone else as serious an ethical lapse as academic plagiarism? Does a sermon really have to be original or are people overreacting to a common practice in the ministry?

Preaching canned sermons has a long history. During the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote out sermons that were inherited from the medieval church for the theologically illiterate clergy to preach to their people. Up through the 19th century, sermons were regularly published, and there are many accounts of them being preached in other churches. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon tells in his autobiography about how he was ministered to by his own sermon when he heard another pastor preach it.

Some pastors argue that there is nothing wrong with preaching another person's sermons.

"The question is whether this pastor is a faithful shepherd preaching and teaching the full counsel of God," said David Bayly, pastor of Christ the Word Presbyterian Church in America in Toledo, Ohio. "Specifically, is what he is preaching true? Does it meet the spiritual need of his flock at the point at which it is preached? Is it faithful to the Word? No honest pastor will be quick to criticize a fellow pastor for being helped at times by the work and words of another."

Other pastors disapprove. "The best sermons are those that are preached from the heart. People listening to sermons know when they are hearing a performance and when they are hearing a genuine, sincere, authentic sermon," said Paul McCain, interim president of Concordia Publishing House.

Preaching borrowed sermons is probably more common than most people realize. "Pulpit resources" are available to pastors, often providing full-blown sermons. Stewardship programs, Lenten series, and promotions for special services (such as pro-life Sundays) often come with ready-made sermons. Popular authors such as Max Lucado and Chuck Swindoll-ministers whose books are usually compiled from their sermons-are regularly plundered.

With the internet, whole sermons are online for users to search either by biblical text or topic. Sermons.org offers Baptist sermons free of charge. The plaintively titled DesperatePreacher.com charges $39.95 per year.

The largest site, SermonCentral.com, charges $9.95 per month and claims to be used more than 170,000 times per week. PreachingToday.com, a venture of Christianity Today, gives subscribers access to a database of sermon illustrations, outlines, preaching tips, and other resources for $49.95 a year. Christianity Today also sells full-text sermons at a sister site, PreachingTodaySermons.com, at $4.95 each. The site lists as "Top Sellers" sermons by Lee Strobel, Chuck Swindoll, and Bill Hybels.

Craig Brian Larson, editor of Preaching Resources for Christianity Today International and the editor of PreachingToday.com, said he is concerned that the service could be abused, with pastors simply downloading sermons and preaching them as their own. Mr. Larson said the site has posted a statement saying that credit for the sermons should always be given.

Kent Edwards, president of the Evangelical Homiletics Society and a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, cites "the pressure today's preachers face to be effective communicators" as the reason some get mired in plagiarism.

Many pastors simply do not have the time and lack the homiletical skills necessary to produce high-quality and culturally relevant sermons, he said. "They have succumbed to the expectations of their churches to be omni-competent and omnipresent."

Nevertheless, according to Mr. Edwards, "If at the end of a sermon a congregation incorrectly believes that a preacher authored the sermon, then the preacher is guilty of deception."

Pastors are better off allowing adequate time to prepare a sermon and getting advanced training in how to create their own engaging sermons, Mr. Edwards said. "Learning from a master is wonderful. Pretending that the work of the master is your own is wrong."

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