Where do sermons come from?
July 26 2002 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Where do sermons come from? | Friday, July 26, 2002

Friday, July 26, 2002

Where do sermons come from?

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor

Have you ever wondered where the preacher at your church gets the sermon material you hear on Sunday mornings?

If you are fortunate, the sermon starts with the Bible and comes from the pastor's own heart, experience, insights and daily relationship with God. Even poorly presented sermons can be tolerable if you know they have an authentic base in the preacher's life.

Chances are just as good, however, that all or part of the sermon originated with someone else and found its way to your pastor through a book or journal. There are ways to use such source material ethically and effectively. And there are ways to abuse it.

A case of full-blown pulpit plagiarism made headlines recently when Baptist Press reported that Reba Cobb, an official with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), had used someone else's sermon when speaking to a meeting of Baptist Women in Ministry. When confronted, Cobb admitted that she had used material she didn't prepare, but said she didn't realize it was copied because she had hired a research assistant to write the sermon for her. Cobb issued a public apology. I hope her assistant returned the fee.

Unfortunately, the practice of passing off others' sermons as the preacher's own is as common as it is inexcusable.

Many years ago, the story was told of a seminary professor who preached a powerful chapel sermon on the subject "Peter's wife's mother lay sick of a fever." The next week, a student supplying the pulpit for a small church parroted the sermon. The following week, another student brought a powerful message on "Peter's wife's mother lay sick of a fever." When a third student preached yet the same sermon, a frustrated member of the congregation was heard to say, "Lord, I hope that woman gets well soon!"

I don't know if that story is true, but I'm confident many seminary chapel sermons experience more lives than a cat.

More recently, I heard about a pastor who was sued because he reportedly downloaded a sermon from the Internet, preached it on Sunday, and then posted it on his own church's Web site as if he wrote it.

You can be sure the carefully alliterated sermons preached at pastor's meetings and evangelism conferences, along with anything written by Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, will be heard again and again.

Preachers draw sermon material from other pulpiteers on a regular basis, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Really good stories and clear windows into the meaning and relevance of scripture ought to be repeated - but with proper credit given to the source.

I heard preachers at both the SBC and the CBF annual meetings use nearly identical versions of the same sermon illustration this past June. Neither gave credit. The illustration, about a poor person having the inner wealth to give away a precious stone, originated in the Hindu tradition as the story of a wandering mendicant known as a sannyasi. I first read it in The Song of the Bird, a collection of stories put together by a Catholic priest named Anthony de Mello. It's a good story and worth retelling - but not as a current event.

I was a pastor for 26 years. I know the dual pressures of short time and tall expectations, and how tempting it is to find a good sermon book and just preach your way through it.

Publishers do their part to help pastors by producing large quantities of resources. Pastors who use the lectionary can find ready-made sermons and illustrations tailored to the weekly text in journals like Homiletics and Pulpit Resource. Others may prefer magazines like Preaching or LifeWay's Proclaim magazine.

There are sermon books by the hundreds, preaching Web sites by the score, and a variety of software programs packed with text-keyed sermon illustrations (mostly really old ones).

If I were asked to suggest guidelines for the appropriate use of preaching resources, here's where I would begin:

(1) Do your own study and research. If you don't have the time or the talent to prepare a sermon yourself, maybe someone else should be preaching.

(2) When using illustrations or insights gleaned from someone else's material, give credit where credit is due. If you use a direct quotation, say so. It can be distracting to stop and attribute every insight, but a "catch-all" credit is appropriate. "In preparing this message, I profited greatly from Max Lucado's imaginative treatment of the same text," for example.

(3) Never - unless it's an obvious joke - recite someone else's experience as if it were your own. This is dishonest to the core and fatal to your future credibility with those who know you misrepresented the truth.

(4) The best stories are your stories, growing from your personal experiences and theological reflection on daily life. Do not, however, tell stories that might embarrass other people (including your family) without their permission.

The preacher who spends adequate time in Bible study and prayer, who pays attention through the day, and who is open to the Spirit's leading will find no shortage of exegetical insight and homiletical application. The real work comes in choosing what to say and how to say it best in order to proclaim God's truth to God's people.

That, after all, is the preacher's job.

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7/26/2002 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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