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Pastors are Finding Inspiration from ... the Internet?
By: Shawn Paul Wood
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Many argue it was a better time before the Internet. Things were so much easier back then, right? People actually worked for a living and were proud doing it. Now, if they want anything, they are just a click away from finding whatever tickles their fancy. The Internet has ruined print journalism and possibly TV-watching pleasure, but would it shock you to learn that even the days of walking atop a mountain and getting some of that divine revelation are passé? 

Yeah, because that has happened. The great Sarah Pulliam Bailey of RNS and Christianity Today calls it "Pulpit Plagiarism," and it's catching on (regretfully, for the uninspired out there). 

The Internet has been the single greatest thing to happen to research since that annoying schlep from Encyclopedia Britannica came knocking on your parents' front door. The world is there at the click of a finger, and providing you are honest and cite your sources, it is a great tool. Put that in the hands of some ne'er-do-well who didn't get much love as a kid and looks for all the credit today, and you get thievery of intellectual property. Evidently, pastors are the latest folk to blame the Interweb for their lack of inspiration and their present deviation based on this article from the aforementioned Ms. Bailey

Big-time preachers — the ones who may or may not have a TV deal, a publishing deal, and a multi-campus deal — are attracting the ire of several others for lifting material. Mark Driscoll in Seattle (Mars Hill Church) and Craig Groeschel (LifeChurch.TV) in Oklahoma City are the latest accused of being "inspired" but not being ethical. This "I didn't steal it; I found it" mentality is not a new thing in the Church. Scott Gibson, director for the Center of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, actually wrote a book about it entitled Should We Use Someone Else's Sermon

What a dumb question to ask, right? It would be if there weren't pastors doing it on a weekly basis. Many pastors claim that "it's difficult to footnote sermons." Others blame theology sourcing, saying it can be "too dense for the average churchgoer." While I call B.S. on one and get my feelers hurt on the other, they should remember what they do for a living. They are purveyors of information, sharers of inspiration. 

As David Gushee, ethicist at Mercer University (as quoted in Bailey's article ... see how easy that is?) says, "There are ways to borrow illustrations without being deceptive." Sure there are, but why isn't that happening? Are the pastors concerned they'll lose credibility because all the hermeneutical brilliance didn't derive from their pen? I mean, the people attend their church, so I would think the term "captive audience" applies. 

The ease of the Internet could be a double-edged sword for some pastors looking for material. With sermons and books so easily searchable online, watchdogs have better means of cataloging, searching, and reporting offenses. And it’s much easier to learn about and report offenses of plagiarism than ever before.

Right, only those pastors don't know about the latter, which is why they think they can get away with it. Bailey quotes Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, who should have probably gone into our world of PR. Check out this spin cycle:

“Most people understand that verbal footnoting is cumbersome,” Lischer said. “Christianity is not as focused on issues of copyright as other sectors in academics.” There is an attitude among Christians that “what’s mine is yours,” that you don’t necessarily need to footnote Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream,” he said. “It’s the nature of preaching. It’s like singing a song. You don’t just sing it once to never sing it again,” Lischer said. “It’s not so much cheating as it’s demonstrating a continuity with people who came before.”

While noted haters of the church like Bill Maher will have a field day with this inept attempt at brushing off stealing, this greatly disturbs me. I love going to my church. I have provided public relations for countless others. And the pulpit should be the one place where citing sources is a natural occurrence. It's okay to borrow information and say that you didn't come up with it. It's not okay to rattle off brilliance like George Carlin (sans the salty language in church, please) and pretend you did it. I mean, in church, people are accustomed to hearing about other people's gifts. Why can't they hear about some more from the pastor? 

Oh, yeah, and then there's that thing called a Bible. They kind of cite that source every Sunday, so what's wrong with a lousy shout-out to another author from whence that brilliant zinger came? Just a thought. Amen. 


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About the Author
Shawn Paul Wood is a hack-turned-flack with more than 20 years of collective journalism, copywriting and marketing communications experience. Shawn Paul is founder of Woodworks Communications in Dallas, Texas. If you need him, ping him here or follow him on Twitter @ShawnPaulWood
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