Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Stealing sermons?

Immature poets immitate. Mature poets steal.

- T. S. Eliot, "The Sacred Wood"

Every artist is a cannibal.
Every poet is a thief.
All kill their inspiration,
Then sing about their grief.

- Bono, The Fly

Do you think there is anything wrong with preaching a sermon that someone else wrote? What about preaching a famous historical sermon (perhaps giving a little context where necessary)? In both cases, I am assuming the preacher gives due credit.*
*Though even this concession makes me wonder how much preaching is about building a reputation.


byron smith said...

I am also assuming you have the permission of the author or that the script is out of copyright.

Aric Clark said...

Under certain circumstances I would say using someone else's words would be acceptable, but I do not think it is generally advisable. The reason is that a sermon is an event that occurs in worship, not a bunch of words on a page. For a sermon to be true it ought to be uniquely constructed for that event by that preacher. The preacher ought to have done the work in the scripture, and with the community in question to be prepared for the preaching event. When appropriating someone else's words those words are intended for a different circumstance, for different people, by a different preacher and all of these things are important. There is a real danger, in using someone else's sermon that the sermon loses the sense of an address - the one doing the addressing is not present, and neither are the ones being addressed.

With that being said, if the preacher strongly feels that the words are uniquely appropriate for this new circumstance it isn't impossible that it could be an effective sermon.

Donna said...

Sure! If it is fitting to the occasion, and if the language is outdated you could just modernise it a bit. Why not?

h. goldsmith said...

i largely agree with aric; like any part of the liturgy, the sermon has to be more than "a bunch of words on a page" - it has to be living and intentional. but not every sermon is so tied to its context as to lose its meaning out of that context - some sermons are more universal, and the occasional (very occasional) reading of them in church is good for the body.

Anthony Douglas said...

I'm happily doing it now! ;-)

Brand new ideas are rare; most of what we preach is recycled from somewhere - there is, after all, nothing new under the sun!

Anonymous said...

Maybe a sermon is like a gift - given out of love, and once given no longer belonging to the giver but to the givees.
If that's right then maybe we need to rethink ideas of ownership and reputation and status. What do you think?

Cool word huh?

CJW said...

I think Anthony's on to something: it's unnecessary to reinvent the wheel, and arrogant to think that in a week or two a preacher can prepare a word that hasn't been more carefully considered or clearly spoken in the preceding 2000 years. Which is not to encourage laziness or discourage innovation. Recognising the value of others' work can set us free: this is why we pray prayers we did not write, and sing songs we did not craft.

Megan said...

I happily use ideas and even phrases from other sermons when I preach. But not entire sermons! Besides issues already mentioned (I agree that a sermon is addressed to particular people and situations) , it strikes me very few people could do this well, as it would in effect become an acted monologue - so someone who is a great actor may do this well with some rehearsal, but most people speak more naturally and more effectively when using their own words, and become stilted when acting (using the words of another verbatim).

PamBG said...

I think it's perfectly acceptable to 'read' someone else's sermon if they are given credit for it.

However, I think that there should be a good reason for doing so. Preferably that the sermon really speaks to the occasion, but I could also see it happening in an emergency.

I definitely don't think it should be a matter of regular practice, though. If that starts happening, a preacher needs to examine their call to preach.

Jason said...

A good question, Byron. A few thoughts:

1) I would be reluctant to use an entire sermon - even with proper attribution - but it is not impossible that the occasion might present itself at some point. I would have to be convinced.
(I think, with proper attribution, a judicious quotation or excerpt can greatly enrich a sermon. It also discourages the notion - not least in ourselves - that this is 'my' sermon; from a different perspective, it encourages the idea that our faith is an ongoing conversation, that I as preacher (and we as a congregation) have learned from those who have come before and from our contemporaries, and that we will ourselves teach and pass on the faith to others.)

2) Borrowing doesn't seem too objectionable so long as it deepens and extends the work and reflection that the preacher is doing for the sermon, rather than substituting for that work. (In other words, borrowing, especially an entire sermon, should never be out of laziness.)

3) Byron's comment about building one's own name or reputation through such borrowing is to the point, although potentially misleading: even if we preach 'our own' sermon, it is not to build up our name or reputation, but to witness to the Lord, to his honour.

4) I suspect that the answer as to whether or not we ought to, in certain circumstances, preach someone else's sermon is inextricably connected with our response to whether, in certain circumstances, we would be content with someone else preaching one of our own.

Anonymous said...


Long before the days of those disgracefully lazy 'download a sermon from the web on Saturday night' pastors, my old pastor once said to me that 'a good preacher is a good pincher'. He wasn't talking about preaching entire texts from someone else (downloaded or not) but that good preachers are constantly on the search for insights, stealing ideas, exegetical insights, illustrations. That's why I am always on the lookout for commentators (see Carson's intro to his commentary on John, for example) and theologians (Thielicke has long been a favourite of mine in this area) who are 'friends of the preacher'. My ol' pastor was a guy who still worked 20+ hours a week on his sermon. The key here is discernment. Most of what's out there I would not line the floor of my budgie cage with.

Having said that, there are times - in fact, only twice in 17 years - when I've felt the compulsion to 'read' someone else's sermon or chapter of a book (of course, I was upfront about it) during the 'sermon spot'.

Of course, not many Church goers would be able to follow you through a 8,000 word Wesley or Owen sermon, or even one of Calvin's classics on Ephesians for that matter. Even old golden-mouth Chrysostom would be a bit of stretch. And perhaps there's not too many congregations that would let you finish a Hauerwas sermon ... mmm.

Gordon Cheng said...

Isn't any Anglican obliged by their history to recognize that sermons may be read, and occasionally, in extremis, compelled to be read for the good of the church?

However I have now heard three recent stories of sermons downloaded from the internet and passed of as the preacher's own. Two of the three preachers, when questioned, denied it.

Possibly there's a moral issue there.

Phillip Jensen always encouraged his hearers at UNSW to plagiarize his material, but I don't think that was what he had in mind at the time.

psychodougie said...

but that said, i've met a few at college who weekly do this. tho they are all ministering to non-english-speaking congregations. they throw in a few jokes about peking duck, or mention amedinijad (i know i spellt that wrong, but you know who i mean), and hey, presto, you have a contextualised sermon!

they are all however working towards learning how to read and exegete and preach from the sriptures in their heart language; the preaching of others' sermons is only ever a temporary thing. which is i think the gist of most people's comments.

and worth mentioning the sermon is given to the reader of the sermon in the context of mutual understanding and relationship. which is different to the context i think others suggest.

provocative question!

byron smith said...

For a sermon to be true it ought to be uniquely constructed for that event by that preacher.
Aric - does the same apply to a song or a liturgy or a Scripture reading? Why must a sermon be uniquely constructed for that event and by that preacher? I assume therefore you would have as much problem with a preacher who uses a sermon twice? (or with a preacher who posts a sermon online?)

There is a real danger, in using someone else's sermon that the sermon loses the sense of an address
I agree this is a danger, but not necessarily a unavoidable one.

Donna - I have done this (once) in the past and found it very effective.

H. Goldsmith - but a Scripture reading must also be more than a bunch of words on a page. What is it that makes a piece of communication living and intentional?

Anthony - Your comment highlights a confusion (inherent in the original question): when we refer to a sermon, am I speaking of the specific words (possibly assumed by those who use full-text?) or of the ideas (possibly assumed by those who don't?)? I take it that few people have a problem with the latter, but there is a scale of borrowing, from an idea, phrase, image, structure, section to complete word-for-word text.

Duncan - as the givee of your neologism, I think I might say "thanks, but I'll stick with 'recipient'"...
Nonetheless, I agree that conceptions of ownership and reputation and pride play far too large a part in our assumptions about this area generally.

CJW - yes, yes, yes. The careful re-appropriation of the words of another is no excuse for laziness, but requires a labour and humility of its own. We are those who receive our faith from others. Of course, this reception is itself a creative and interpretive calling, to be faithful to the good news of Christ as it comes to us in our day.

Megan - doesn't a 'good' scripture reading require 'acting' in this sense? Or the use of received liturgy? We learn to take the words of another on as our words.

Pam - The instance that raised this question for me was an emergency - the sudden absence of a regular preacher to attend a family funeral and the question of whether his (already prepared) sermon ought to be preached by another regular preacher in the congregation, or a new one quickly written (or an old one of the second preacher's selected and used).

Jason - all good points. When I referred to reputation, I intended it in the sense (I think) that you did, i.e. sermons are often seen as trophies or achievements of the preacher and function to build a reputation. I wasn't suggesting that stealing a 'good' sermon might be an occasion for disingenuously building one's own reputation, but that the very fact that we care so much about getting credit for our work (e.g. if someone borrows one of our sermons) might be a warning sign.

Yes, length is also an issue. When I borrowed a classic sermon, I also abridged it somewhat. Is it neutral, bad or good that most contemporary audiences have shorter attention spans than those demanded by some of the great preachers?

Gordon - yes! Cranmer had no problem with sermon swapping (provided they were his sermons being preached!). The potential pitfalls of laziness or deceit (or both) are certainly present, but as you point out, the possibility of abuse needn't undermine proper use.

Doug - thanks for an example I hadn't thought of before. I suspect that Cranmer's policy was in a similar vein, that is, an emergency measure in a situation of largely un(der)-trained/formed preachers with a goal of growing better ones.

In summary, I guess this discussion raises the more basic questions of "what is a sermon?" and "what is the role of a preacher in a sermon?" I wonder whether some of our assumptions on this score mightn't owe more to the romantic movement's idea of the creative genius or an existentialist notion of authenticity than to Christian faith. I'm just raising this as a possibility for further thought.

A further question: what about collaborative partnerships in which one member specialises in writing sermons and another specialises in delivering them? Is that a problem?

byron smith said...

Or here's another idea for collaborative preaching: a bunch a preachers get together and thrash out a preaching program and a basic common understanding of the passages, themes and topics covered. Each then goes away and prepares a proportion of the sermons in the program and shares these sermons with the others in the group, to also use (with suitable local adaptation if necessary). What do you think?

byron smith said...

"A bunch a preachers" - an Australianism or a typo? :-)

CJW said...

"buncha" is almost as bad as "youse"! ;)

Your second suggestion for collaborative preaching sounds similar to what is practiced in my local congregation, only each of us preach from different passages on different days. For us, then, this is not so much localisation as personalisation.

We work (hard) as a leadership team (including those who don't preach) to form series of sermons that speak not only to all of us as a community, but from us a team. This approach is not so much about efficient use of resources, but arises from the assumption that as a sermon is formed - whether in community, or isolated (from the other sermons or indeed other ministries of the church) - so it will be received.

Aric Clark said...


I would say that a sermon and the liturgy and a scripture reading are different and serve different functions. Liturgy helps us pray with the church over time. Scripture is an encounter with the Word of God, as is the Eucharist, but a Sermon is a fresh and unique proclamation of the Word of God for those people in that time. Just as liturgy would lose some of its function if it changed too often and therefore we were no longer praying with any of the same words that other Christian have used to pray, the Sermon loses some of its function if it isn't fresh proclamation. So, yes, generally I'm not in favor or rehashing sermons.

All that being said, I did acknowledge that there are circumstances where it could be appropriate. Some words have the power to become fresh again and address new people in new circumstances, but I would think that would be the exception.

None of this though, means that I'm against collaboration as some of the folks here have suggested. I teach an adult-ed class in my church each week on the upcoming lectionary passage precisely so that I can get the insights of congregation members for use in the sermon. I think it is a great practice.

Megan said...

yes, I think reading the Bible does often require acting in that sense, but then I would say that very often the Bible IS read badly - without much expression and life! How powerful is the Word of God that the power shines through anyway? Half an hour of this, though, could be soporific. To read a sermon well, you would need to rehearse - in which case it would lose the easy option advantage....(not that that is why you would do it).

Anonymous said...

"thanks, but I'll stick with 'recipient'

common Byron, where's your sense of linguistic adventure!? Givee is way cooler.

PamBG said...

Pam - The instance that raised this question for me was an emergency - the sudden absence of a regular preacher to attend a family funeral and the question of whether his (already prepared) sermon ought to be preached by another regular preacher in the congregation, or a new one quickly written (or an old one of the second preacher's selected and used).

This is exactly the sort of situation that I envisaged when I say 'an emergency'.

The instance when my church did this was when our minister went into hospital on Saturday night and no one felt able to extemporise a sermon (I know that some church cultures place a lot of value on extempore sermons, but as a 'writer' I like to think that the Holy Spirit can also work in advance!).

We used a sermon from preaching journal and acknowledged it as what it was, giving the author and his context. It was well read by someone who has a gift for making readings come alive.

I too have heard of people taking sermons off the internet and passing them off as their own and I find that troublesome. That is something that I certainly think is wrong.

I guess it also depends on what your church culture things 'a sermon' is. My church culture would see it as one of a number of elements of Sunday worship, including praying, Singing hymns (a very big part of our spirituality) and the Lord's Supper. If the sermon is the be-all and end-all of coming to church and nothing else matters, then you probably ought to be reading one of the Great Sermons of All Times.

I've been preaching now for 7 years (pace to those who don't approve of women preachers) and I have yet to read another's sermon. I certainly don't pass off other people's work as my own.

Anonymous said...

I am quietly judging you...

byron smith said...

Thanks Frank T. J. Mackey (between 3:55 and 5:12).