I stood, called my text and began to preach. There was a weird response by the congregation. Something strange was happening, but I didn’t know what.
I couldn’t catch the vibe. The congregation, to whom I had preached several times before, was tentative throughout the entire message. But I couldn’t figure out why.
After I sat down, it all became clear. Someone leaned over to me and told me the speaker who had opened the meeting several nights before preached the same text and/or message.
For some reason, this news made me nervous. At the same time, I was at peace. I had preached what I believed the Lord wanted me to say. And my message was the product of my Bible study and sermon preparation.
They gave me a copy of the other pastor’s message. When I got to my room, I crawled into bed with my computer and watched the message.
Indeed, it was the same text. And it was essentially the same message.
We both preached the same doctrinal theme from the text. We organized the messages differently. We labeled the messages differently. I worked through the message with three main points in my outline. He had four. The homiletical approach was different. And the way we argued the message was different.
It really was the same message preached from two different perspectives.
This got me to thinking about the ethical matter of pulpit plagiarism.
The late evangelist, Vance Havner, said when he began preaching he was determined to be original or nothing. He ended up being both, Havner said.
This is true of every preacher. All faithful preachers deliver an unoriginal, “stolen” message — the word of God.
Biblical preaching simply explains what the word of God means by what it says. And if we read the text right, what we see will be pretty close to the conclusions drawn by other faithful Bible expositors.
In fact, if you come up with a reading of the text that no one else has ever seen, you’re wrong! Likewise, most Bible expositors use many of the same exegetical resources. So it should be no surprise for you to hear two messages that “overlap,” for lack of a better term.
But let’s be clear. Stealing other people’s material and preaching it as if it is your own work is wrong.
After the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, a certain pastor preached a message he claimed the Lord had given him. Later that week, his local newspaper outed him, revealing that the message was actually from a website that sells sermons. This “inspired” message had, in fact, been preached and posted by several other pastors across the country that same day!
I repeat. This is wrong. The eighth commandment should apply to our pulpit work: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).
This is not to say that we shouldn’t use sources. To the contrary, it is arrogant for you to study a text and preach a sermon on it without consulting the wisdom of those who have, in some instances, spent a lifetime studying those passages, books or themes.
Milk a lot of cows. But churn your own butter.
When you do the hard work of personal study and sermon preparation, something wonderful can happen. For instance, you can stand and preach a text that was just preached in that same pulpit three days earlier. And you can make the point the previous sermon made. Yet, God can use your preaching — YOUR PREACHING — to declare the unchanging truth of God’s word in a fresh, new and life-changing way.