Note from Collin Hansen, TGC editorial director: This week we're examining the thorny issue of pulpit plagiarism. We're hearing from pastors, scholars, and researchers to work toward common understanding on this pressing, perennial dilemma. Next we turn to Tim Keller, TGC vice president and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.
Yes, it does appear to be a problem. For these reasons. Preachers today feel under much more pressure to be spectacular than they used to feel. Christians are much less likely to be loyal to a church of a particular place or a particular theological tradition. What they want is to have a great experience on Sunday, and that means they will travel to get to the most gifted preachers. When you put this pressure together with (a) a busy week in which you haven't felt able to prepare well, and (b) the accessibility of so much sermon material through the internet—the temptation to simply re-preach someone else's sermon is very strong.
Nevertheless, we must be careful not to over-react. I don't think anyone expects oral communication to have the same amount of detailed attribution as we expect in written communication. To cite where you got every allusion or basic idea or general illustration in a sermon would be tedious. A certain amount of leeway must be granted. Also, if you take a basic idea or illustration and “make it your own,” I don't think you have to give attribution. Often the preacher you fear you are stealing from got that idea from some Puritan author and re-worked it into more contemporary form. And the Puritan might have gotten it from someone else. In fact, in the act of preaching, we often say something that we know we heard somewhere, but we can't even remember where we got it. Again, I think we need to be charitable to preachers and not charge them with plagiarism for every un-new idea. Brand-new preachers, especially, are going to do a lot of copying of preachers that have influenced them.
However, I think the problem comes in when a minister clearly has not done his own work on the sermon, and lifts almost entire sermons whole cloth from someone else. If he takes some preaching theme word for word from someone else, or if all the headings almost in the same words are taken from someone else's sermon, or if he reproduces an illustration almost phrase by phrase—then he should give attribution. When the basic ideas of your sermon have come from some other brilliant sermon you can early on mention the minister, and say, “Rev X, whose great sermon on this passage has helped me understand it so much . . . .” And that's all you need.
Seldom does this kind of lifting-whole-cloth from someone else happen if you have spent hours studying the text and working out your own outline. The problem comes when you haven't given the text the time, or when you have been too busy to read widely and pray deeply and develop your own ideas.