Eco-Preaching: Recycling and Plagiarism

We live in an age of unprecedented access to information.  Cut and Paste was a hassle until a few years ago.  Now there is endless resource online just sitting there ready to be plagiarized.  At the same time, preachers face the pressure of busy lives.  And then there’s the pressure to live up to the impressive and often carefully edited sermons of the superstar preachers that everyone can listen to all week.  It’s a recipe for plagiarism.

There’s plenty on this subject online already, so I’ll just offer a few thoughts on recycling content that is not our own:

1. As ministers of God’s Word, we should have higher standards than academics and journalists (and they can lose their jobs over it).  Sadly, some act as if everything is fair game for cutting, pasting and preaching as if it is personal work.

2. Oral communication doesn’t require, and cannot support, the tedious footnoting needed in academic work.  But it does need integrity.  If I’m quoting the words of someone else, I mustn’t give the sense that they are my own.  Last Sunday, for several reasons, I quoted “a great figure from church history” (and was fully prepared for people to ask who that was after the message).

3. Appropriately using a well-turned phrase or a helpful illustration as part of a message that is unequivocally yours is not the same thing as lifting a whole outline or sermon and preaching it as if it were your own.  The latter is stealing intellectual property, it is deceitful toward your listeners, and it is cheating both yourself and others due to your lack of time in prayerful biblical preparation.

4. First person illustrations from someone else should not be shared in the first person.  If it didn’t happen to you, and you give the impression that it did, you are lying.

5. Inasmuch as I’ve tried to be clear here, we need wisdom since there is so much that is unclear in this issue.  May our wisdom be thoroughly shaped by the good character of the God we represent as we preach!

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7 thoughts on “Eco-Preaching: Recycling and Plagiarism

  1. While I’m on board with most of what you say here, I don’t buy this at all:

    Appropriately using a well-turned phrase or a helpful illustration as part of a message that is unequivocally yours is not the same thing as lifting a whole outline or sermon and preaching it as if it were your own. The latter is stealing intellectual property, it is deceitful toward your listeners.

    How is it “stealing intellectual property” any more than singing a song that someone else wrote? So long as you acknowledge your source, I don’t see anything in the least deceitful about using someone else’s material.

    (Of course there are lots of other reasons to be wary of doing it, as you’ve discussed elsewhere in this series.)

    Many’s the time I’ve thought that a preaching slot could have been much better used by someone standing up and reading out C. S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory or something of similar heft.

    • Mike, I disagree, but let me make my position more clear. If you sing a song that someone else wrote “as if it were your own” then it is stealing. So in my quote there are two points:

      1. Appropriate use of an element – where appropriate would include acknowledgement that it is not your own.
      2. A lifted sermon preached as if it were your own – this is stealing and deceitful.

      If you acknowledge your source, then you aren’t doing what I describe there.

      Now I do slightly complicate things by not completing the matrix of thought – inappropriately using smaller elements or using a whole outline with acknowledgement of source. I am suggesting that wholesale sermon use, which often comes without acknowledgement, is a bigger issue (for multiple reasons, as you note).

      • Only just realised three years later that we never finished putting this to bed!

        Obviously your #2 above is unacceptable. I would happily say “This is a sermon by C. S. Lewis” or whoever, and then preach it. I certainly would not preach it without that acknowledgement!

        So if all you’re saying is that using other people’s material without acknowledgement (whether it’s a whole sermon or an included chunk) then we have no disagreement, and I just misread your original post.

        The bottom line is that where there is acknowledgement, by definition there can’t be plagiarism.

      • That was a long pause in a conversation, Mike 🙂 There may be the odd occasion when giving an entire sermon or outline from someone else is appropriate, but for the most part I think it is profoundly unhelpful. It may be more polished than the speaker can manage for themselves, but they are the one that is preaching. The work of preparation and the process of internalisation is critical to preaching. I suspect that plucking and regurgitating someone else’s work, even with acknowledgement, will not result in engaged listeners, or transformed lives, and it certainly won’t be part of the growth and maturing of the preacher. Where there is acknowledgement, there won’t be plagiarism. At the same time, where there is too much direct reliance on the work of others, then there likely won’t be growth. Thanks for following up on this post!

      • I do agree very much on the importance of internalising a message. It’s why, as I now approach for the first time re-using one of my own sermons, I’m a bit unclear in my own mind how to prepare for it. Listening to the recording will help, but I doubt it will be the whole story.

        But there’s a reason why I keep mentioning Lewis. The sermons I have in mind are ones that I’ve lived with for years, read and re-read, and have pretty deeply in my heart.

        Where we clearly agree entirely is that it wouldn’t work well to just pluck sermon off the Internet (however good it is) and deploy it that week.

  2. I have hears messages in the past that pretty much were cut and paste from a book. I did not realize how often this pastor did it until one day he did a sermin series from a book I had recently read. I joked with my wife that I wished I had brought that book with me as opposed to my Bible because it was clear what book he was preaching from. Later, others had figured out what he was doing it, and called his sermons “the pastors book club hour.”

    Thr point is when thr Word is not the main focus of the sermkn, the message falls flat. There is little impact because the book that is sharper than a two edged sword is not used.

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