Wednesday, September 20, 2006

See, I am Doing a New Thing

Interesting debate growing within evangelical church-growth circles: Should sermons be plagiarized?

An Ohio pastor named Steve Sjogren recently published an article entitled
Don't Be Original -- Be Effective, in which he proposed that rather than write their own sermons, pastors should copy (verbatim) sermons preached at growing megachurches. Choosing originality over effectiveness, Sjogren says, is the sin of pride.

In response, a professor named
Ray Van Neste says that this approaches reduces preaching to a matter of performance, when in truth it is something far more important:

Our people do not need a performance. They need to gather with their brothers and sisters to hear their own pastor, who knows and loves them, and to hear the overflow of his heart resulting from his own wrestling with the text that week.

So, you may ask, what does the Egg think on this? Those of you who recall our furious rampage against college students copying papers from Wikipedia may be surprised to hear that we find Sjogren's idea . . . well, defensible at least.

The title is catchy, and there's a grain of truth in it. Given the choice between originality and effectiveness, who wouldn't choose the latter? You could even argue that we owe it to our congregations. And for the record, most good preachers are students of preaching, perfectly willing to borrow a trope from Chrysostom or Donne, from Wesley or Willimon. Some of them make a big deal about mentioning it, others don't, and the sermon isn't better or worse for their decision.

The devil of course is in the details -- what does it mean to be "effective"? Sjogren seems to take for granted that it means "prone to create larger congregations." There are at least two problems with this idea: (1) many factors other than preaching create large congregations -- favorable demographics, skilled team-building, a clear vision for ministry shared by pastor and parish alike; and (2) "effective" preaching, for many Christians, simply isn't measured by the number of rear ends on the pews. It is measured by eloquence, by faithfulness to the community's confession of faith, and by relevance to the life of the particular group of people assembled in that particular place. By that last measurement, a sermon preached by somebody else, to somebody else, in some other location, will never amount to much.

Effective preaching is also measured, in our experience, by the degree of trust that it inspires -- trust that the preacher is honest, and can be relied upon to speak honestly about the Gospel. Outright plagiarism will sooner or later erode that trust, no less than deception regarding sex or money or any of the other things that pastors get themselves into trouble with.

So, with a heavy heart, we have to conclude that ripping off sermons from better preachers than oneself is really not a good idea. Because people don't want to hear a stranger's take on the Gospel. They want to hear their pastor's. They want -- they need -- to hear the Gospel from the person who baptized their baby, who confirmed their kid, who buried their mom and who may well bury them, too. And if their pastor's sermon isn't really their pastor's sermon -- if it is somebody else's ideas, even words, passing through their pastor's mouth -- then they aren't going to trust their pastor.

And if you do not trust the preacher, how can you trust the Word that is preached?

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