Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sermon Plagiarism is Different Than Borrowing Ideas and Illustrations

That Sermon You Heard on Sunday May Be From the Web - "The plagiarism debate grew louder in recent months after a sermon site posted an essay by the Rev. Steve Sjogren titled, 'Don't be original, be effective!' Mr. Sjogren urged pastors to quit spending time striving for originality and instead, to recite the words of better sermonizers."

Yesterday I bought a Wall Street Journal. I have not bought one in years but I saw a leading story on preaching and plagiarism so I spent my dollar to read the one article. Then I see that Tim Challies wrote a post on this same article.

My pastor goes out of his way to source his sermon material. I think his practice of mentioning who he read to get an illustration or an idea is great. However, some people misunderstand his sourcing content that he uses from books. One fellow was intimidated by the often mentioning of book. He was of average or better intelligence but he was not an avid reader so he felt a little chided every time a Christian book was mentioned. Since the practice is not wide spread to source one's sermon material, people can misunderstand it. This guy did.

I have mentioned many times I grew up in a rural church setting. It seemed pretty obvious to me even as a youth that country preachers used each other's material. The way to learn how to preach and get material for sermons was to go to revival services, go to camp meetings, go listen to good preaching. I believe it was understood that everyone would borrow from one another by borrowing illustrations, syllogism, ways of interpreting a passage, word play, speaking techniques, and ways of explaining a well know problem.

While I am NOT encouraging plagiarism, I think it is generally accepted that anecdote and other public speaking material are accepted as borrowed and brought alive in retelling. That is just in public speeches in general. In regard to preaching specifically, I don't think the average parishioner is expecting total originality. I do think they are expecting an original sermon, just not all the material contained there in. I find it amusing that someone would try to be original in trying to explain their own proofs for God when this topic has a well defined body of knowledge surrounding it and most of us would be hard pressed to do some original work in explaining the existence of God. Perhaps Ravi Zacharias has come up with some original thinking on this topic or Jeremy Pierce might come up with something original.

Preaching is a oral communications art. Our preaching institutions, seminaries, however focus on written communication. It is sort of a shame that we can't make the curriculum focus more on oral communication skills. While we have standards for sourcing in writing, the rules are different for sourcing material for public speaking and I think also for preaching. Since our seminaries teach writing through out the curriculum, seminary trained pastors might feel compelled to use the same types of sourcing that one would use in a term paper. I just don't think that works. The brief mention of the writer in passing is what is really required, or even sometimes simply say "I have heard the following illustration on this point". That makes it clear that you are using someone else's material, and most people don't care who came up with it originally.

Where retelling someone elses sermon illustration gets us into trouble is that the story might not be right. Some illustrations and stories may not have the facts correct. A friend of mine heard a pastor tell a story of King David hiding in a cave from his enemy. Not long before the enemy approached the cave, a spider quickly spun a web across the entrance of the cave. When the advesary saw the web, he did not bother searching the cave since there was a web across it. He left assuming no man had entered the cave due to the web. The only thing is, this story is not in the Bible, it is from the Koran. The main character is not David but the founder of Islam. My friend and I were taking Arabic class when he found out the source of the story. He was shocked. Preachers need to source their sermon material not only for the sake of guarding against plagiarism, but also to verify the material. The folks in the pew might just find out you told the story wrong.

In summary, I think sermons do not have to be sourced the same way that a term paper is sourced. Oral ideas and stories are meant to be retold. Reciting someone's sermon as your own is simply wrong. Sourcing sermon material needs to feel natural to the audience and keep the preacher on the straight and narrow with his facts.

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