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Sermons to go

Plagiarism controversies and a growing sermon-prep industry bring attention to a question pastors face when preparing material for the pulpit: How much borrowing is too much?


Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Sermons to go

The first time Scott Gibson heard a minister plagiarizing material in a sermon, Gibson was a teenager and the preacher was his pastor.

Gibson was a new Christian and a regular participant in a weekly book group at his church. During a Sunday morning sermon, as the church’s pastor recounted a personal experience from the previous week, Gibson says the story sounded familiar: “It was straight out of the book.”

Another member of the reading group also noticed the similarity, and confronted the pastor. Later that afternoon, a deacon summoned Gibson and others to a meeting. Gibson says the deacons chastised the group for hassling the pastor: “I almost got kicked out of the church.”

The experience shook Gibson, but he stuck with the Christian faith, and he later served as a pastor and a longtime professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. (He now teaches preaching at Baylor University.)

Since writing a book about pastoral plagiarism over a decade ago, Gibson says he receives phone calls several times a year from members of churches facing a similar dilemma: Their pastor has been plagiarizing too. What should they do?

Gibson thinks the problem is more common than some realize but says churches often don’t think about it until after a crisis strikes: “This is just not something people want to talk about.”

Plagiarism isn’t a new problem, but at least some Christians have been talking about it again recently: In late June, Ed Litton, the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), faced accusations that he had copied chunks of sermons from J.D. Greear—the outgoing president of the SBC.

Days after Litton’s election to lead the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, videos circulated on Twitter showing strong similarities—and at times identical phrasing—between some of Litton’s preaching from 2020 and a sermon series Greear preached in 2019. Litton said he had asked Greear’s permission to draw from his material on Romans, but he apologized for not crediting Greear when he used portions of his messages.

In a 2019 sermon on Romans 8, for example, Greear lists five “selfs” opposed to God: self-will, self-glory, self-gratification, self-righteousness, and self-sufficiency. In a sermon on the same passage, Litton preaches the same list. Greear recounts a story about his driver’s education teacher stomping a giant brake on the passenger side of the car. Litton tells the same story. Greear says that since sin grieves the Holy Spirit, small areas of compromise are just as devastating as big ones. Litton says: “Small compromises are just as great to the Holy Spirit as great compromises.”

The sermon controversy has rattled the SBC, but it’s also raised broader questions about how much borrowing is too much when it comes to preaching—particularly when busy pastors have access to thousands of sermons, often for free, but sometimes packaged for a fee. In a sermon-filled marketplace, how should pastors preach? And how should Christians listen?

Websites offering sermon-related resources

Websites offering sermon-related resources

THERE’S NO SINGLE FORMULA for how pastors prepare and preach sermons. And there’s no lack of sermons to watch or hear online. Many churches livestream or post sermons each week for members and outsiders, and some churches post message transcripts as well.

Other sermon-related sites market directly to pastors as a resource to consult as they prepare their own sermons. Sometimes they charge a fee. North Point Community Church near Atlanta offers a ministry resource page dedicated to “premium sermon kits.” The site says each kit comes with “all the resources you need to deliver the content of this message.”

A link to licensing requirements for the material does include stipulations that “no more than 100 words may be quoted directly from the series” without written permission from the ministry and that personal examples from the series should be replaced with appropriate examples from the buyer.

It’s not clear whether the ministry conducts any follow-up to see if pastors are borrowing too much language directly from the sermons marketed as kits. (A spokeswoman from North Point declined an interview request.)

Prices vary, but one recent six-part sermon package sells for $120. The resources include message transcripts from Pastor Andy Stanley, speaker notes, audio files, more than 100 logos and other graphics to accompany the messages, and a promotion video. The series title: “Better decisions, fewer regrets.”

The website SermonSearch offers the text of pastors’ sermons and outlines, a database of sermon illustrations, and preaching tips for a fee, ranging from an a la carte purchase of a single sermon for $5.99 to a $149 annual fee that gives access to 360 sermons a year. Contributors receive a royalty for each sermon downloaded, according to the site. The sermon manuscripts include a copyright notice that the database is meant to “inspire the development of new messages.”

The website is part of a network of other sites operated by Salem Church Products that includes SermonSpice—a site with background graphics to accompany worship services and sermons. It also includes Playback Media, a site offering “the best in mini movies, church countdowns, and worship backgrounds.” A description says: “Words on a screen only go so far. We believe that the right background or visual element can open up our worship in ways that the printed word never could.”

Another website, SermonCentral, states its goal as equipping pastors and says it contains “150,000 sermons, illustrations, and dramas” for research, with over 250,000 church leaders coming to the site every week.

Sermon transcripts are free, but the site sells an upgraded membership for users to download sermon graphics and sermon slides and to more easily copy and paste sermon transcripts for reference.

The site also contains a statement saying the group is “adamantly opposed” to plagiarism and reserves the right to freeze the account of anyone submitting plagiarized material. It asks users to acknowledge the work of others in their preaching, but it also recognizes the inherent limitations for any site or church posting sermons: It’s nearly impossible to make sure others aren’t misusing them.

Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton (standing at left) and outgoing President J.D. Greear (kneeling at right) talk with denomination members at the conclusion of the annual Southern Baptist Convention on June 16.

Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton (standing at left) and outgoing President J.D. Greear (kneeling at right) talk with denomination members at the conclusion of the annual Southern Baptist Convention on June 16. Mark Humphrey/AP

CONSULTING OTHER PASTORS’ sermons isn’t wrong. Pastors routinely use commentaries and books to study for sermons, and some say they find other preachers’ messages helpful in that process. The Christian study software Logos includes sermon collections in its suite of Bible study resources for purchase.

But questions arise: How can pastors avoid drawing too much material from another sermon or resource? What are the standards for pastoral plagiarism?

Scott Gibson, the Baylor professor and author of Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon?, offers a simple definition in his book: “Plagiarism is kidnapping someone else’s thoughts, words, or ideas.” (He notes that the Latin root of the word plagiarism means “kidnapper.”)

But when pastors or students ask Gibson how to know when they’re crossing a line into plagiarism, he instead suggests a different question: “Am I being a person of integrity with the use of this material? Am I doing my homework?”

After the controversy broke over Litton’s sermons in June, the Alabama pastor talked about the homework that goes into writing his sermons. Litton said he works each week with a preaching team of eight men from his church who help with research and brainstorming for his sermon. He said the team approach allows him to mentor young men for ministry and helps to keep his own voice young.

Litton said he and his preaching team consulted Greear’s online manuscripts often during the preparation for Litton to preach on the book of Romans. (Greear confirmed he gave Litton permission to draw from his material.)

After bloggers pointed out similarities between Litton’s sermon on Romans 1 and Greear’s message on the same passage a year earlier, Litton said he reviewed all 46 messages in his Romans series. He said he found “in some places similar illustrations, quotes or points of application. One shares the same title, and one has a similar outline.”

“I am sorry for not mentioning J.D.’s generosity and ownership of these points,” Litton wrote. “I should have given him credit as I shared these insights.”

It’s unclear exactly how many sermons share similarities and whether a similar pattern precedes the Romans series. By early July, Litton’s church had removed dozens of sermons dating before 2020. Litton told The Washington Times that the church was removing the material to prepare for a new website launch. The church’s elders released a statement saying they removed the messages because “people were going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor.” (Litton later said in an SBC podcast interview that both reasons were true.)

Meanwhile, at least one blogger pointed out similarities between a sermon on the book of Acts that Greear preached in 2013 and a message Litton apparently preached in 2015. The videos show strong similarities between content, illustrations, and casual jokes.

In his sermon, Greear says some people imagine God sending unsuspecting people to hell while He mumbles in Latin: “tough cookies.” Litton tells his congregation he’s talked to people who paint a picture of a cruel God who sends people to hell: “And in Latin He says, ‘tough cookies.’”

An associate pastor at Redemption Church told WORLD that Litton was out of the office and unavailable for interviews for a few weeks. The church’s leadership provided a statement saying Litton had shown a “commitment to do things differently” in his discussions with the elders. The statement said the leaders are developing a church resource that will define plagiarism and outline the guidelines the preaching team will follow to ensure proper citation going forward.

“Ideally you really want your engagement with the text to so grip your heart that preaching is the overflow of what it’s doing in you.”

PASTORS HAVE A RANGE OF IDEAS about how much material is OK to borrow from another minister, but many emphasize the importance of citing any outside source that a preacher quotes from directly or relies on heavily during a sermon.

Some have quoted the late preacher Adrian Rogers as saying it was fine to use his bullets if they fit your gun, “but use your own powder.”

A decade ago, Christian theologian D.A. Carson wrote about the seriousness of plagiarism, saying that taking over another person’s sermon and preaching it as your own is “always and unequivocally wrong.” He counseled against using another sermon’s structure or outline in significant chunks, but said if you do “borrow” you should cite the pastor.

While many pastors consult outside sources like commentaries, books, and sermons, some also consult research assistants. In an interview, Greear told me a research assistant on his full-time church staff helps him gather study material as he prepares to write his sermons. “Rightly employing research aides means using them to collate that material,” he said. “Wrongly using them means having them write your messages for you.” (Greear posts sermon manuscripts with footnotes on his church’s website.)

Greear says that more than a decade ago he used the services of a research group called the Docent Group for about a year. The Texas-based organization hires researchers with some seminary training or degrees to help pastors with sermon research. The group also prepares study curriculum for congregations and sometimes helps churches conduct surveys of their congregation or surrounding communities.

Greear says a Docent researcher usually prepared a 30-page document with material from commentaries and illustrations for his sermon preparation but says the group never wrote a sermon manuscript for him. (He says his current assistant doesn’t either.) Texas Pastor Matt Chandler said he used Docent for similar research services for many years and also said the group didn’t write his sermons.

Glenn Lucke, president of Docent, told me by email that sermon research accounts for about half of the group’s business. Lucke says Docent provides citations for any material it includes from commentaries, news articles, and other outside sources, and says the group doesn’t write sermons.

Jed Ostoich, a Michigan-based writer and editor, says he worked part time for Docent for about four years. (Ostoich is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary.) He says his first assignment involved assisting an elder at a church that had recently lost its pastor.

The elder took on preaching duties and needed help. Ostoich says he would research and write a few pages of commentary on the elder’s sermon text and give suggestions on how to build the sermon and apply it. He said he noticed some of his writing ended up in the elder’s sermons but that he didn’t write the sermons for him.

After that contract ended, Ostoich says he worked with a team of Docent researchers assisting a well-known pastor of a large church, mostly with writing projects. Ostoich says he was surprised when a handful of briefs he wrote on complicated New Testament passages showed up as posts on the pastor’s blog, without much change.

Lucke told me that Docent occasionally writes position papers and articles for pastors and other church staffers: “A few churches have put portions of the article or position paper on their websites, which is fine with us.”

Ostoich left Docent a few years ago. He says he’s grown uncomfortable with the idea of a system that could allow pastors to use other people’s skills and time to “manufacture an image or a brand that could not exist if only one person was doing it.” But, he adds, “An industry exists because there is a market for it.”

THAT MARKET DOESN’T MEAN using a research assistant is wrong, but some seminary professors emphasize it’s especially important for students or pastors also to make sure they are wrestling with the sermon text themselves.

Hershael York says it’s something he teaches seminary students in his preaching classes at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He says study is important, and listening to other sermons can be helpful, but: “Ideally you really want your engagement with the text to so grip your heart that preaching is the overflow of what it’s doing in you. … That’s not really something I get from reading someone else’s sermon notes per se, but that’s what the text does in me.” (He also says he’s had a student preach a sermon he recognized as coming from somewhere else: “And he got a failing grade for that.”)

Kevin DeYoung teaches pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and serves as the pastor of Christ Covenant Church, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Matthews, N.C. DeYoung says a proliferation of online voices can put pressure on pastors and lead them to think: “You know who really has influence? It’s the podcasters and the bloggers and the authors and the people speaking at these other conferences.” Sometimes, he says, that might be true.

But DeYoung says that reality should lead local congregants to remember the importance of the pastor God has given them: “Are you, first of all, being shaped by the faithful preaching of your local pastor, whether he has 10 gifts or two?”

York says he realized a long time ago that his congregation at Buck Run Baptist Church can listen to better preachers than him online. “But that’s why I emphasize shepherding,” he says. “None of those guys can shepherd my people.”

Walking through sorrows and joys with his congregation helps him write his sermons with congregants in mind, and he tries to apply the messages in a way that “it’s landing where they live,” he says. “And man, that’s just the joy of pastoring. There’s nothing like it.”


Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C.

@deanworldmag

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Pastor Ward

I was deeply influenced by Dr. York when he was my preaching prof at SBTS. We learned to dive deeply into the Scripture, alone, as we began to prepare a sermon. Read and reread, praying for the Spirit to prompt us for His key meanings inspired in the authors. This may take days (or more) and should include digging in to the original languages AND determining theological specifics and how it all points to Christ and the Cross/Resurrection. Then, after identifying the Spirit's leading in that, we next meditate on the Scripture, seeking to understand what the original hearers/readers understood in their historical/linguistic context and, finally, to learn how all this applies in our context. This also may take days. After documenting all this and organizing it coherently for presentation (again - all we've referenced so far is the Bible), we were to consult trusted commentaries and colleagues - primarily to confirm the Spirit's guidance. It has happened that I've totally missed a key point and learned of it in this last step ... BUT more often I've honed the message (iron sharpens iron) the Spirit revealed and, I believe, never plagiarized. Dr. York was a true discipler of all of us in this Bible/Christ centered way to prepare for our preaching.

Trumpetly Speaking

The way the church circles around its powerful wrongdoers betrays the sin of pride rampant in church leadership today. We the congregation need less sermons on how to obey Matt 18, and more sermons on cultivating Christlike responses to just criticism.

SJS

“Words on a screen only go so far. We believe that the right background or visual element can open up our worship in ways that the printed word never could.”

I remember Leonard Ravenhill saying something along the lines that a pastor should spend his week in the heavenlies and come down on Sunday to preach about what he heard. It is not glitzy AV setups, "worship" teams, witty anecdotes, wordcrafted sermons. It is God speaking to his people that changes lives and churches and the world. Where has this perspective gone?

plumbbetter

Yep! Our church is going through the same thing. Our Pastor just resigned over it.

mrbobmac

(Disclosure: I am not a pastor, but I do teach financial management seminars in my company and teach in our kids' homeschool co-op.)

Plagiarism is a challenging concept, and it tends to be focused on certain professions more than others. Pastors and politicians, as well as professors and students of course, have to be careful about the stories they tell and the content they deliver, giving credit where credit is due. At the same time, keeping in mind that as a profession, pastors deliver more content than most professions. If there are 300,000 pastors in our country, that's about 15 million sermons per year. If I am poring over books and listening to podcasts and others' sermons, there will of course be times when I intentionally or unintentionally pass on content others have created.

I suppose a pastor could do what one of my Cru college ministers said at the beginning of his very first talk at our weekly meeting: "This is my first time! Everything you are about to hear is plagiarized!"

I do appreciate the opening paragraph of this article which asks the appropriate question, "How much is *too much*?" Defining what is plagiarism and what is simple adaptation is helpful (and typical in grading high school papers). Nevertheless, I would hate to ever pass on a story in the first person when it did not actually happen to me. But at the same time, when I'm giving outlines and principles in talks, they are almost entirely built on the foundation of countless things I've read/heard over the past 20-30 years.

Conversely, professional musicians often tell stories in the first person that are not their experience. I chuckled as an adult when I realized that all of those heart-wrenching songs I heard my favorite artists singing (both Christian songs and secular ones) were written by others. When I heard Elton John sing "Norma Jean", I thought he actually met Marilyn Monroe. But we don't expect that of them. In fact, the same song can be passed along countless times... The Beatles' "Yesterday" has been released 422 times by other artists. Of course they don't claim it as their own.

Anyway: This is a difficult situation, and I would encourage anyone who is criticizes pastors for plagiarism (intentionally or unintentionally), should first try writing 52 fresh sermons (or 520 or 1040, etc.).

FIMIKI

Thank you for this timely article. Of course all else being equal I enjoy a well-crafted sermon delivered to me weekly from my local pastor, but it is sad that the consumeristic church culture we have in America spurs pastors to lean on outside resources to a degree that would surprise their congregants. It's good to hear that Litton's church is making their sermon preparation process more transparent, something that perhaps more churches should do so as to defray concerns about what external forces might be influencing their leaders.