How to Use Other Preachers' Material Without Compromising Your Integrity
by Brian Mavis
"All work and no plagiarism makes for dull sermons!" – Henry Ward Beecher
"Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed." – Proverbs 15:22
Is Using Other Preachers' Sermons OK?
Have you ever wondered if researching other preachers' sermons for your own sermon preparation was wrong? What about reading or listening to just one other preacher's sermon? Or what if you used someone's outline, or main idea, or illustrations—or even most of someone else's sermon? Where is the line, and have you ever wondered if you crossed it?
Even people who think that they are being completely original are probably not quite right. Some copy ideas without even knowing it. Rick Warren (a very copied preacher) is known for saying, "If you take an idea from one person it is called plagiarism. If you take ideas from a number of people it is called research." Ironically, even that was said before by US playwright Wilson Mizner (1876-1933). He said, "Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research." John F. Kennedy is credited for saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." But it was really his ghostwriter, John Kenneth Galbraith, who wrote it. And Galbraith may have lifted the idea from Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, "We... recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return."
As the manager of the largest sermon resource site on the Internet, I deal with the pros and cons of using material from other pastor's sermons on a daily basis. I get emails worldwide from pastors saying how reading other pastors' sermons has helped them as a person and as a preacher. But occasionally I uncover someone who has submitted a plagiarized sermon and is probably preaching it as if they wrote it.
Relying on Other Preachers' Sermons is Common
Researching other preachers' sermons is not new. Sermons have been printed in books for centuries, and sermons on tapes have been abundant for decades. But with the advent of the Internet, researching and copying other preachers' sermons is easier and more common than ever. Last week SermonCentral was used over 170,000 times. It is the most popular online sermon resource site, but it certainly isn't the only one. Just that fact alone proves there are a lot of pastors looking for sermon help.
Advantages of Sermon Resource Sites
There are different reasons preachers rely on other people's sermons—some good, some bad. Some benefits of sermon resource sites are:
- They can help you write a better sermon, which can lead more people to know and grow in Christ.
- They can give you other perspectives and help you grow in your knowledge of God.
- They can give you the benefit of other pastors' research and resources.
- They can help you save time.
- They can help you with better big ideas, outlines and illustrations.
Disadvantages of Sermon Resource Sites
Some detriments of sermon resource sites are:
- They can lead to laziness.
- They can shortchange your personal conviction that comes with struggling over a passage.
- They can prevent you from taking into account your congregation's need, which produces generic sermons.
- They can tempt you to take false credit for a sermon. Because reading, listening, researching, and relying on other preachers' sermons is so widespread, and because it has potential for such great benefit or detriment, it is important to do it right and for the right reasons.
What Not To Do
- Don't wait until Saturday to begin your sermon preparation. (Preparing a good sermon is like brewing good coffee—it needs time to percolate.)
- Don't go to a sermon resource site and just print off a sermon and read it.
- Don't retell a story as if it happened to you.
What To Do
- First, go to God and ask Him what He wants to say to your congregation.
- Study the Bible passage on your own before you rely on someone else's study.
- Apply the passage to your life—walk what you are going to talk.
- With the passage in your heart, and your congregation in mind, discern the main thing (just one thing) you want to say and how you want to say it.
- Now you can look at other sources. Be open to any better ideas, clearer ways to say things, missed points, and superior illustrations.
- In your personal notes, cite your sources.
- When you go to preach, reference your resources. If you just have some common illustrations, ideas, or quotes, there is no need to clutter your sermon with, "I got this information from..." But if you have used a significant idea, outline, illustration, or section (and even an entire sermon), give credit where credit is due. You can either mention something before the sermon or in the midst of it. You can also handle this by placing a note in the bulletin. For example you can say something like, "In my research for this sermon, I used Chuck Swindoll's outline from his sermon called God is Good."
The widespread use of gleaning from other people's sermons is here to stay. The goal is to use the resource wisely and well. To cheat your congregation by overusing sermon resources is wrong. But it can be equally as wrong to avoid using them because of pride, and possibly cheat your congregation out of a better message. The Good News combined with good resources is a powerful combination for reaching your congregation and community for Christ.