I first encountered this writer last summer when some classmates and I protested the selection of Bishop Eddie L. Long as our commencement speaker. He covered our effort in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which helped give our plight some necessary push. It’s good to see that he’s still on the prowl.
Pastor inspiration: Divine or online?
Surfing for sermons: Sometimes desperate ministers lift texts from Web.
By JOHN BLAKE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/12/07
Two days after the Virginia Tech shooting, Bishop Eddie Long walked before the congregation of his Lithonia megachurch and said the Holy Spirit had a message for them.
The senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church preached a sermon he called “Act of Man or Act of God?” He talked about a “misguided, twisted” student who murdered 32 people before killing himself. He invoked the book of Job and punctuated his delivery with dramatic sighs and anguished grunts. The congregation was shouting by sermon’s end.
Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, took much of his sermon on the Virginia Tech shootings from a Web site. Other pastors also use texts found online. Some are open about their sources; others are not.
Few, if any, knew the inspiration for Long’s sermon wasn’t confined to the Holy Spirit. It also came from sermons.com, a preaching Web site that offers pastors prepackaged sermons for a fee. Long’s words matched large portions of a Virginia Tech sermon with a similar title (“Acts of Man and Acts of God”) posted on the site. A Google search revealed that at least three other pastors — including one in Alpharetta — had preached long passages from the Internet sermon.
Parishioners who dwell on the meaning of their pastor’s words now face the question: Is the sermon an act of man or an act of the Internet? Sermon borrowing — called “pulpit plagiarism” by critics — is spreading among the nation’s clergy.
“The kerosene on the fire is the Internet,” the Rev. Thomas Long, a professor of preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (and no relation to the New Birth pastor), wrote in a recent article in Christian Century magazine.
Pastors pinched for time no longer lean solely on divine inspiration. With a credit card and a few mouse clicks, they can surf sites like sermons.com and desperatepreacher.com to find sermons to fit virtually any occasion — Mother’s Day, say, or Easter. The sites serve as the Home Depot for homilies. Any preaching tool is available.
Some pastors, though, don’t let on they’ve sermon-shopped. They pass the ideas off as their own. Critics say they’re dishonoring their calling and deceiving their flock.
“A sermon is supposed to reflect what God has given you to say to the people,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a veteran civil rights activist. “If I don’t feel God gave it to me, I feel like I’m lying on God and to the people.”
Attribution is optional
Bishop Long declined a request to explain his Virginia Tech sermon. A review of audio from New Birth revealed no instances in which Long told parishioners that extended passages were not his own, and Long
did not provide any examples of attribution. However, he did sell the sermon under his own name on New Birth’s Web site.
Another Georgia preacher who delivered the same Virginia Tech message from sermons.com said he told his church that it came from a third party.
The Rev. James Thalacker of the Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Alpharetta said he used the Internet homily because he didn’t have one prepared in the wake of the massacre.
“The sermon itself was a good sermon and I thought it was relevant for people today,” Thalacker said. “This is the first one that I’ve done totally like this. It’s only because I had another sermon prepared and the whole thing [Virginia Tech shooting] happened.”
The Rev. Brett Blair, owner and president of sermons.com, declined to speak about his Web site but released a statement. He’s written many of the recycled sermons.
“Paying members are allowed to use any of the material as they see fit,” the statement said. “Citation of sources is always advised but we do not obligate any user to cite one way or another.”
Now a handier commodity
Evangelists’ swiping of material from one another is as old as the Bible itself.
Scholars say writers of Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels borrowed heavily from the Gospel of Mark — but don’t bother hunting for footnotes. In a more modern example, the Rev. Jesse Jackson didn’t coin his signature sermon, “I Am Somebody.” It was created by an Atlanta pastor, the late Rev. William Holmes Borders of Wheat Street Baptist
Church on Auburn Avenue.
The emergence of preaching Web sites has made sermons a commodity, said the Rev. Darryl Dash, senior pastor of Richview Baptist Church in Toronto. “It’s an industry,” Dash said. “You do have people making money from it.”
Dash wrote a recent essay called “Confessions of a Sermon Thief.” He says he didn’t set out to steal sermons. He did it for the same reasons he thinks other pastors do it: lack of confidence in themselves, being overworked, trying to sound like the famous pastors.
Dash said he stopped stealing but can tell that others haven’t. He posts his own sermons on his Web site — where traffic spikes every Saturday night and Sunday morning.
“There are a lot of guys just sitting at the Internet at night saying: ‘What am I going to say tomorrow?’ ” Dash said.
Some borrowers pay price
There are signs of a borrowing backlash. Parishioners using Google or Yahoo have forced some pastors to resign after discovering that their sermons weren’t original.
Yet some New Birth members weren’t bothered that Bishop Long preached without attribution.
Ben Jakes, a New Birth elder, said Long’s Virginia Tech sermon revealed that God can orchestrate circumstances so that preachers deliver the same message across the nation.
“I really believe it’s an act that shows honor and respect for [God],” Jakes said. “You’re basically communicating a unified message.”
Sometimes, pastors catch their brethren plagiarizing
Lowery, the civil rights leader, who was part of the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr.’s inner circle, once preached a sermon that grew out of a comic encounter he had with his daughter. He was agonizing over the outcome of a professional tennis match on television when his daughter attempted to interrupt him. He told her to hush until she finally told him that the outcome had already been decided because the match was a delayed broadcast.
He used the incident to preach a sermon about the futility of worrying because God had already won the battle. Later, Lowery was attending a funeral in Washington, D.C., one day when he heard a prominent pastor, whom he declined to name, launch into a story: “I was watching a tennis match one day. …”
The pastor never credited Lowery. Afterward, Lowery walked up to the man. The fellow preacher could barely look Lowery in the eyes before slinking away.
“First, I was flattered that he was using my illustration,” says Lowery. “I was sure at the end that he would give me credit. Then I was angry. I thought a little less of him, and he’s one of the most prominent preachers in the country today.”
Professor Long from Emory recalled being invited to a church where something similar took place. Before he stepped into the pulpit to deliver his message, a friend of the church’s pastor approached him with a request.
“He said several months ago he [the minister] preached one of your sermons and he’s really hoping you don’t preach that sermon tonight.”
Ultimately, said Dash, the self-confessed sermon thief, authenticity is more important than eloquence.
“If everything I say to my wife is scripted from a Hallmark card, it may be beautiful, but it will be hollow,” Dash said.
Dash recently put that belief to the test. He said he stopped stealing sermons and started composing his own. His sermons weren’t as polished, and he worked much harder. But people in his congregation seemed to like them more.
He said he stole sermons because he was insecure about his own ability, but his decision to rely on his own voice was vindicated when a member of his church approached him after a sermon one day and said:
“It’s almost as if you’ve stopped talking to us in general, and now you’re talking to us.”