Don't Be a Sermon Stealer!

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2013 14 Jan

The following note arrived over the weekend:

We have discovered that our pastor is preaching sermons directly from your website virtually verbatim. He has been confronted on this issue and doesn’t see it as a problem. How do you feel about this?

Let me say right up front that I don’t know who wrote this or who the offending pastor might be. So my remarks aren’t directed at anyone in particular.

Here are my thoughts:

1. The nature of the Internet makes it easy to steal someone else’s work and make it your own.

2. But the Internet also makes it very easy to find out when a pastor has been using someone else’s work. 

3. At Keep Believing Ministries we freely offer over 800 full-text sermons online, knowing that pastors around the world will use them in their own message preparation.

4. Having served as a pastor for 26 years in three local churches, I know how hectic and pressured life can be. Some weeks all your study time disappears because you are dealing with one crisis after another. The picture of a pastor spending 30 uninterrupted hours in his study each week is more a myth than a reality. Especially in smaller churches, the pastor inevitably gets pulled in a dozen directions each week. In larger churches a pastor probably has staff members who care for various needs in the congregation. But in smaller churches, the pastor may be the only person on staff so it all tends to fall on him. 

5. Most churches would not object to a pastor occasionally leaning heavily on the work of others. Life happens in unpredictable ways. But if those unpredictable things keep on happening and you keep preaching the sermons of John Piper, John MacArthur, Herschel Ford, W. A. Criswell, Joseph Parker and Charles Spurgeon, you will be found out sooner or later. 

6. Usually he is found out because the preacher doesn’t sound like himself. Spurgeon had an amazing gift for painting word pictures. I doubt that any of us today could successfully preach exactly as he did in London 130 years ago. Times have changed, expectations are different, and the culture of the 21st century is quite different from late-19th-century London. But Spurgeon’s sermons remain a treasure of sermonic gold that every preacher should mine. 

7. I know of one pastor who preached a series that sounded so unlike his normal preaching that people went away scratching their heads, saying, “Where did he get that?” Now I don’t know where he got it, but it sounded so unlike his normal preaching that people noticed the difference and commented on it.

8. Having said all that, I agree with Dr. Criswell that if you are preaching through a book of the Bible, there is nothing more valuable than reading a book of expository sermons. That’s where the Internet can be very useful. Some years ago when I was preaching through Genesis 1-11, within the space of two hours I downloaded over a hundred sermons (all free) from preachers around the world, all on Genesis 1-11. As I worked through the text, I found it very useful to see how others had handled the the same material.

9. There is a fine line that a preacher must not cross, and it’s hard to say exactly where that line is. For instance, I enjoy John Piper and read his sermons almost every week, always with profit. I have used material from his sermons on different occasions, but I don’t preach his sermons because (besides all the obvious reasons) they are his sermons, not mine. They don’t sound like me and I don’t sound like him. I use quotes, illustrations and ideas from all sorts of places, but I make them my own. Or I set them apart with quotes. Or I rephrase them. Or I just throw them into the “homiletical juicer” and let them ferment for a while. 

10. What about using an outline verbatim? From my point of view, that’s fine because an outline is not a sermon. I don’t think you need to give credit for an outline unless it is amazingly unique. The same holds true for ideas and thoughts that you may find here and there. No one wants to hear a sermon that sounds like a pastiche of quotes: “As John Piper pointed out . . . John MacArthur suggested this application . . . Spurgeon used this illustration . . . To borrow a thought from Geoff Thomas . . .” Some of this is just a matter of common sense. When you borrow a big section or a very unique idea and certainly when there is a significant quote, give the attribution. But don’t go overboard either.

11. What about the pastor who allegedly is using my sermons verbatim? Let me say again what I’ve said before. That’s just plan dumb.

Dumb, dumb, dumb. 

12. In earlier years I used to say that people could use my sermons any way they like, and I still mean that. But I never meant, “Use them word for word.” It never occurred to me that someone would do that. 

You’re bound to get caught sooner or later. 

13. So this is what I say nowadays: You are welcome to use my sermons in your own message preparation. Use them, amend them, revise them, by all means improve them, and make them your own.

14. I would normally hesitate to speak for a great man like C. H. Spurgeon, but I think he would agree with me on this count.

15. Don’t preach anyone else’s sermons verbatim. 

16. My bottom line was suggested to me by Dr. Erwin Lutzer, pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago:

Milk many cows but make your own butter.

So for all the preachers out there who come to the Keep Believing website, it’s all free and you are welcome to what we have. We’re all in this together for the Kingdom. Come, and welcome. Use what we have in your own sermon preparation. But, please, make your own sermons. Your people will be blessed by what you have to say when it comes from the Word and from your own heart, delivered with clarity, boldness and passion.

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