Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cut and Paste Preaching

I have sent the following article off to my denominational magazine for possible publication, but wanted to share it here as well, since the problem is becoming more widespread in all the churches.

Cut and Paste Preachers

"It’s time to name names. Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, Ed Young Jr., Craig Groschel, Joshua Harris, John Ortberg and a half dozen others. Unindicted co-conspirators in a growing fraud being perpetrated upon the unsuspecting church. The crime? Pulpit plagiarism. The practice of passing off another’s sermon as one’s own.

Now this has been a problem for years. Charles Spurgeon relates the story of attending a church service only to hear the young pastor preach one of Spurgeon’s own messages. As a young man I used to make a game out of guessing what Charles Swindoll book my pastor was using to “craft” his sermon. But now the problem is becoming epidemic. No less than the Wall Street Journal has published an article on the growing problem of preachers preaching other preachers material.

And this is a problem I now find within the RCA as well. I have made it a habit over the last year or so to surf the various websites of RCA churches and have begun to notice a disturbing trend. More and more pastors are using not merely ideas, illustrations or even outlines, but entire messages and message series from other preachers. And it runs the gamut, big church, small church, old church, new church; young pastors and established ones as well seem to be succumbing to the temptation.

Why? I can think of at least three reasons for this. First, because of the computer. It is so easy to access good preaching on the internet. You are just a click away from downloading a MP3 or a PDF file from Rick Warren or a host of others. Sites like Sermon Central or Preaching Today offers thousands of messages for the asking. Some churches like LifeChurch.TV are giving away not only sermons, but all the accompanying power-points, music and drama resources as well. Second, the culture which has made celebrities out of the likes of Rob Bell and Joel Osteen leads the layperson to expect all pastors to preach like them. The average preacher finds the need to measure up somehow. Thirdly, the cutthroat competition between churches leads pastors to seek any edge they can get. If the guy down the road is drawing a crowd with Andy Stanley’s stuff, they must counter with Ed Young’s. And with congregations stressing numerical growth as a measure of success, it is no wonder that preachers seek shortcuts.

Now I had talked to some pastors who say that it shouldn’t matter as long as the people are being feed. And I have heard some claim that preaching canned series frees them up to do more ministry. I have two issues with this kind of thinking. The first is in regard to personal integrity. How can we claim to be authentic when we use the words of another? Is it fair for a congregation to pay the salary of a minister who downloads his messages for $4 from Pastors.com? And what about the pastor who misses out on a call because the church has found a “better” preacher? Who of us can compete with a Bill Hybels clone? Now I have had some ministers say that they credit the preacher they use. Yet even if ones acknowledges their sources does that make it acceptable to preach a steady stream of someone else’s work? My second concern is for theological integrity. Most of the oft-copied preachers lack any real depth. Their messages are more pragmatic than biblical. And many are from denominations that denigrate Reformed thinking. The minister has a responsibility to preach God’s word to his specific congregation, not what tickles the ears of a California mega-church.

Right now the problem appears to be a small one in the RCA, but with our push to add more and more churches in response to Our Call I think we might see this trickle become a flood. Now is the time to stem the tide. Pastors need to repent of the crime of pulpit plagiarism. Churches need to repent of their celebrity worship of certain Christian leaders. And as a denomination we must resist the urge to create an environment where we are turning out cookie cutter churches and cut and paste preachers. To preach the Word of God is a sacred trust and one we must undertake with great integrity. God and His people deserve no less."

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