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Do Preachers Plagiarize? Yes and No.

I was sitting in the dim auditorium of a nationally known church, listening to the lead pastor belt out another amazing sermon. It was just electric. The guy's got game, enough to make the rest of us preachers drool with envy. Yet as I listened to his flow of thought, after a while it began to seem vaguely familiar. He was holding our hands through what appeared to be his own independent process of spiritual discovery, littered liberally with alliterative one-liners (as preachers do), when I realized he was quoting, word for word, from a Rob Bell book. That changed my whole impression of the man and the sermon. Afterwards I pulled aside a pastor friend at that church and said, “Uh, wasn’t he just channeling Rob Bell up there?” His only reply was a knowing smirk.

If a pastor uses sources that are unacknowledged, is that wrong? Do standards about plagiarism found in any high school or college apply in church? What responsibility do pastors have to be forthright about the origin of every thought, metaphor, insight, and zinger that is not strictly original?

There are two schools of thought here, and both make important points.

Yes, preachers must acknowledge all sources.

In church world we often joke about “church math.” What’s that? It’s when 13 people show up to your mid-week prayer meeting, but the next day you round up to 20, later in the week you casually mention that there were “about 50” people, and eventually it all but seems you had the Azusa Street Revival. No, sir. You had 13 people. Not 14, not 12. Certainly not 50. 13.

Pastors in our culture suffer from a credibility problem. (See the Barna data on this in Glenn Packiam’s The Resilient Pastor: Leading Your Church in a Rapidly Changing World) Given this situation, we do ourselves no favors when we fail to uphold basic standards of accuracy and honesty that would apply in any other field. Lawyers annotate their briefs to authoritative sources; business managers persuade investors with rigorous proofs of concept. Why should pastors who claim to be proclaiming a message of world-altering importance settle for anything less? It’s not only sloppy. It breeds mistrust.

Moreover, some would say that not acknowledging sources borders on the criminal. There is a thing called intellectual property, and when you lift large blocks of someone else’s work and portray it as your own, there’s a word for that: stealing. If you want to quote some bright person in your sermon, or borrow their stirring image, by all means do. But don’t piggyback on their genius, pretending to be something and someone you’re not.

In fact, pointing out the wise thoughts of others ends up making you look good because it suggests to your listeners that you’re a person broadly acquainted with the issues. Timothy Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism is fantastic here (especially relevant is Chapter 5, “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind”).

Upshot: Yes, preachers must acknowledge their sources when they preach because it’s honest, legal, and boosts credibility.

No, preachers cannot possibly acknowledge all their sources, nor should they.

The second school of thought also makes important points. First, it acknowledges that the contents of almost all of our minds are like a smoothie: at one point there was a discrete banana and discrete berries and a particular splash of milk, but it’s all blended together now and disaggregating is impossible. When a pastor sits down to write a sermon, fragments of insight unoriginal to him or her whose source cannot possibly be remembered swirl around, making new combinations that were not present in the original material anyway. How can anyone be asked to parse all that out?

Second, even if you could un-blend the smoothie, what would be the point? Rarely is it appreciated that the sermon is a unique genre, and that genres come with strictures. Academic-style footnoting in a sermon would not only be strange, it would be counterproductive, killing the unique effects of this mode of communication. It would be like lighting a bonfire on a cold winter night, and rather than letting people gather around to drink up its warmth and beauty and enjoy the companionship, instead forcing them to stand at a distance while you lecture on the chemistry of combustion. Who would do that? There is certainly a place for rigorous annotation. Seminary and graduate school are such places. The pulpit is not.

Third—and this is the most important point—to expect pastors to note where they first encountered each nugget in their teaching is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the subject matter. The substance of the Gospel is not “research” with proprietary rights attaching to each new “discovery.” That’s a scientific model of knowledge meant for labs. The Christian model of knowledge is about the passing on of tradition. The German composer Gustav Mahler said this well: “Tradition is the handing down of fire and not the veneration of ashes.”

When I hear another pastor say something that is fire, or read something that's fire, my job is to hand that fire on to others, mentioning the source if the context allows. The credit certainly isn’t mine, nor is it likely that other guy’s (who knows where he got it from!). The main point is passing on the fire of traditional wisdom. At a deep level, none of us is “original,” and we all plagiarize God. The genre of preaching is a God-given vehicle for warming people with the holy fire of heaven, never mind the chemistry of combustion for the moment, and warning their souls away from the unholy fires of destruction.

By the way, this interaction between preaching and tradition is deeply biblical. If you’ve spent any time studying the New Testament, you know that a great deal of what is found there is implicitly echoing and quoting from the Old Testament, and rarely pointing out the fact that it is doing so. We can’t call this “plagiarism,” of course, because the norms of authorship were radically different in antiquity. Quoting from earlier sources was a respected and sophisticated mode of teaching people who were already in the know about the other sources. (In other words, Jesus was hoping we'd pick up on that subtle allusion to Jeremiah, whereas that famous preacher was hoping we wouldn’t pick up on the Rob Bell!)

Still, it is worth noting that when Jesus or Paul or any other New Testament preacher takes the microphone, a great deal of what they say is not strictly “original” to them. So if Jesus and Paul spoke in a densely “intertextual” manner, echoing almost everybody and citing almost nobody, I think it’s okay if preachers today channel one of their favorite Bible teachers as they pass along the fire.

To quote my friend Rich Wilkerson Jr., a fantastic preacher himself who was once accused of quoting others without giving proper credit, “Sometimes you’ve gotta echo other voices in order to find your own voice.” (That’s the gist of what he said, not his exact words.)

Upshot: No, it would be impractical, counterproductive, and ultimately ignorant for pastors to cite each of their sources as they preach.

If both schools of thought make good points, how do you thread the needle?

I’m certainly not the final word , but our church adopts a two-pronged approach that tries to honor the valid insights from both camps. On one hand, we cite a few sources from the pulpit in each sermon as a matter of honesty and credibility. If we use any big chunk from a commentary or other source, we cite it. On the other hand, recognizing that we can’t and shouldn’t try to cite everything from the pulpit, we have a resources page on our website that contains a comprehensive list of sources the pastors are using as they prepare to teach. By drawing attention to this page from the pulpit, people who are interested in where we are getting our content can go deeper and discover new things for themselves, while we don’t have to arrest our teaching mid-flow with random footnotes.

The most important thing is for preachers to put in the time with their Bible and in prayer before they preach—not browsing YouTube sermons, not crushing umpteen commentaries (although both of these can be helpful). Simply draw close to the Word itself, the Word himself, the Word behind and beyond all words, and let a combustion happen inside of you by God’s grace—chemistry be damned.


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