Some pastors look to the web for sermons
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
By Suzanne Sataline, The Wall Street Journal
The Rev. Brian Moon says he has come up with ideas for his sermons
after water-skiing, while watching “My Name Is Earl” on TV and while
working on his 1969 Buick muscle car. He also finds inspiration on the
Internet, as he did in August when he preached about “God’s math.”
“People are drowning, drowning in their marriages, drowning in their
careers, drowning in hurtful habits,” Mr. Moon told his congregation at
Church of the Suncoast, in Land o’ Lakes, Fla. “They need someone to
rescue them and bring them on the raft. They need people driven by
Those words, it turns out, were first uttered three years ago by the
Rev. Ed Young, pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. His Web
site, creativepastors.com, sells transcripts of this and others sermons
for $10 each.
Mr. Moon says he delivered about 75 percent of Mr. Young’s sermon,
“just because it was really good.” That included a white-water rafting
anecdote similar to Mr. Young’s in the original. Mr. Moon, who has now
been a pastor for seven months, didn’t give credit to Mr. Young, and he
makes no apologies for using a recycled sermon.
“Truth is truth, there’s no sense reinventing the wheel,” Mr. Moon
says. “If you got something that’s a good product, why go out and beat
your head against the wall and try to come up with it yourself?”
These days, a lot of preachers would agree. The sermon — an oration
traditionally expressing the thoughts of the cleric doing the talking
— has entered the age of reruns. Topics and transcripts are available
on sites like sermoncentral.com, pastors.com, sermonspice.com, and
desperatepreacher.com. In the old days, when a preacher wanted to pinch
a sermon, he had to consult a book, a magazine or a sermon anthology.
The offerings have a multidenominational appeal, allowing Presbyterian
traditionalists or megachurch evangelicals to download talks on faith,
hope and charity for a few bucks, or even free of charge. Torah-Fax, in
Davie, Fla., runs a sermon email subscription service for rabbis. Some
sites pay the authors for individual sermons (about $50 apiece) and
sometimes buy up sermon libraries.
The widespread buying of packaged wisdom has touched off a debate about
ethics, especially after incidents in which pastors have resigned over
plagiarism allegations. Some members of the clergy say sermon sales
diminish religious oratory and undermine both scholarship and the trust
between ministers and their flocks.
“Every minister owes his congregation a fresh act of interpretation,”
says Thomas G. Long, a preaching professor at the Candler School of
Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. “To play easy with the truth,
to be deceptive about where the ideas come from, is a lie.”
The plagiarism debate grew louder in recent months after a sermon site
posted an essay by the Rev. Steve Sjogren titled, “Don’t be original,
be effective!” Mr. Sjogren urged pastors to quit spending time striving
for originality and instead, to recite the words of better sermonizers.
“We need to get over the idea that we have to be completely original
with our messages, each and every week,” writes Mr. Sjogren, founding
pastor of the Vineyard Community Church, in Cincinnati. “The guys I
draw encouragement from…get 70 percent of their material from someone
The Rev. Ray Van Neste, an associate professor at Union University in
Jackson, Tenn., wrote on his blog, “Oversight of Souls,” that Mr.
Sjogren’s words were “utterly disgusting” and said that unhappy
churchgoers were writing in. “There are people in church who feel
betrayed by their pastors,” Mr. Van Neste says. “It feels like
After music minister Brian Jonson complained about plagiarism, a
committee at Liberty Heights Church in West Chester, Ohio, a suburb of
Cincinnati, gave the Rev. Terry Fields guidelines for sermon
preparation, including how to reference sources. The plagiarizing
continued, said former Deacon Dan Williamson, who has since left the
After four or five more complaints, Pastor Fields resigned last year.
He didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. “I don’t see preaching
someone else’s sermon as proclaiming the word of the Lord given to
him,” Mr. Williamson said.
Plagiarism allegations have also hit some well-known clergy, including
Rev. E. Glenn Wagner, former senior pastor of the Calvary Church in
Charlotte, N.C., and former minister-at-large with Promise Keepers, a
national effort to promote family values among men. Mr. Wagner said he
left his church in 2004 after admitting that he had delivered sections
of sermons written by a preacher friend. Mr. Wagner said he had been
depressed at the time. “Most of the pastors I know help each other out,
swapping materials and ideas,” he says.
Mr. Long, at Emory, believes plagiarism can come from a clergyman’s
desire to be “sizzlingly entertaining,” and from vanity. “Our churches
have turned into theaters and our preachers have turned into witty
motivational speakers with high entertainment value,” Mr. Long says.
Pastors once pored over periodicals and anthologies to learn the styles
of famous preachers. Now Web sites offer ministers videos, skits and
PowerPoint graphics to match the sermon transcript.
Creativepastors.com, a nonprofit corporation owned by Fellowship
Church, has posted revenue of $1.7 million since January 2004, and has
17,500 accounts, according to the church’s pastor, Mr. Young.
“I think sermons are better today because of the vast amount of
information at our fingertips,” he said. Growing competition from
for-profit Web sites and local churches has led some sites to give away
content at no charge. Sermoncentral.com, considered the biggest, posts
more than 80,000 free sermons, anecdotes and dramas and gets 170,000
visits each week, according to the site.
Users say preaching sites spark creativity, provide research and offer
outlines to help structure scattered thoughts. Glenn D. Bone III,
pastor of Good Seed Ministries in Chicago, says he adapts Mr. Young’s
sermons but adds “an inner-city” flavor. For instance, he will replace
the big houses and cars that Mr. Young mentions with references to
“gold chains.” In January, Mr. Bone supplemented Mr. Young’s sermon
about tithing with a Barry White song.
The Rev. Brett Blair, owner of sermons.com, says anyone who buys from
the trove of anecdotes and 6,000 sermons is paying for the rights to
the material. Others are more restrictive. Pastors.com requires buyers
to agree that the material is for their use, that it will not appear as
part of a church’s resources and will not be made available on another
Web site or a broadcast. Sermoncentral.com requires users to register
and provide contact information. The site says it will freeze the
account of any contributor found to be submitting copied material and
asks that users credit their sources.
Ministers don’t agree about the necessity of attribution. Mark Evans,
senior pastor at the Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock, Ark., says he
routinely credits “Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren from the
pulpit. Mr. Warren says that’s unnecessary. “They are preaching a
sermon, not footnoting a term paper,” Mr. Warren writes in an email.
Mr. Sjogren says he has been amused to hear his own sermons delivered
in other churches. He calls attribution “an absolute waste of time.”
“Real plagiarism is taking stuff out of a book and putting it into
another book,” Mr. Sjogren says. “Speaking, taking people’s material
and putting it into a speaking forum, is not plagiarism.”
Prof. Van Neste says any time a minister passes off material as his
own, he’s plagiarizing. “Credit isn’t really the issue. Integrity is
the issue,” he says.
Bruce Blatz, one of Mr. Moon’s congregants in Land o’ Lakes, Fla., says
he doesn’t mind if his pastor preaches the words of others —
sometimes. But, Mr. Blatz says, “He needs to be able to have some