Rhetoric & Homiletics: Plagiarism Proves It!

The current discussion and debate on “Plagiarism in Preaching” is back on the front burner, and the heat has been turned up to high! The subject of plagiarism has often been debated when it comes to public speaking or preaching. The scandal involving the newly elected president of the Southen Baptist Convention has put it back on the front burner with a blazing fire under it! 

One of the most interesting articles on the subject is by Craig Larson, “Plagiarism, Shmagiarism,” – The why and when of giving credit.” The post seeks to define the limits and edges of what is and what is not plagiarism.

However, let me make a far different point on the subject by asking this question . . . . 

Why do preachers, and other speakers, plagiarise?

The answer to that question might be varied. I don’t think there are a lot of answers.  Many answers may well fall under three categories . . .

  • time constraints — The preacher-speaker ran out of time needed in the study to put a message together.
  • laziness — It was not a matter of time, but the preacher-speaker didn’t want to take the time. – a sermonic shortcut for the self-serving.
  • sermonic ability — Some preacher-speakers-teachers are not that good, and they know that others consistently connect with their messages. [1]

It is that third reason which undergirds the argument that rhetorical ability is part of the chemistry of preaching.   Plagiarists do not plagiarize sermons from those they believe are weak-to-poor-to-terrible preachers!  They seek to emulate those that are better than they are in sermonic content, creativity, and/or presentation. [2]

 Plagiarists do not plagiarize sermons
from those they believe are
weak-to-poor-to-terrible preachers!

The point is that some preachers understand the art of communication and preaching better than others.  In a few instances, it is because they have a unique gift — natural or supernatural — from the start of ministry.  They are just GOOD and have “always been good at it! 

At other times, their ability to communicate comes by experience AND  “experience marked by awareness.”   Their effectiveness will be more immediate because of attentiveness to that experience.   Sensitivity to the audience feedback [3], continuing homiletical education, & honest self-evaluation are central to that accelerated improvement.

For some, their preaching and teaching improve over a long span of time because of that lack of sensitivity [3], continuing education, or lack of honest self-evaluation.  It is near the end of their ministry that their effectiveness is most notable.

And some plagiarise because they . . . .

  • do not have the years of experience needed to get better, OR
  • lack the self-awareness to realize why they are average or worse, OR
  • believe that their  theological education is sufficient to be an effective communicator

. . . . Or the combination of some or all.

One of the results — mislead an audience [4] by preaching an almost identical message (with illustration and wording) that you wish you could have created in your study!  Why?  Because effective communication takes understanding, education, self-awareness, and conscious improvement.  Effectiveness takes real work!

The idea that “rhetorical” ability is not learned or developing communication skills is somehow an unholy endeavor is seriously flawed.  Learning and employing rhetorical skills does not demean the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Word of God is.  

Most all of us improve over time — and learn how to better communicate.  Speakers and preachers can improve, and do improve, over time, because the ability to be good-to-great at public speaking-preaching can be and is learned! 

√ You can learn it from a ” book.”— There is a reason “homiletics” is taught in seminary and a flood of books have been written, and new ones join the tributaries every year!

√ You can learn it by trial and error over time — The process of trial and error is part of every speaker’s and preacher’s. “practical education.” If you are alert enough to read the feedback, and/or too consumed with the “shipment” of the sermon, important information that will improve your skills will be lost!  Preachers-speakers can, and do, figure out what seemingly works and does not work, what works better and what doesn’t work at all, what captures an audience’s understanding and what loses their attention, etc. [5]

OR . . . .

√ You can plagiarize — That is one of the results of wanting to be as good as another, without taking the time to improve one’s gift and skills in communication!  Yes, some plagiarise because of a failure to take and make the time needed in preparation.  Yes, some are just lazy and take the easy road of sermon preparation.  But still others are not lifelong learners when it comes to communication.  They want expertise without education.  They do not value learning and educating themselves in the art of communication.  Some believe that all they need is a good theological education. [6]

One reason plagiarism takes place is because good preaching is even recognized by mediocre-to-terrible preachers. They want to be more effective, and when they see/hear an effective sermon, they begin to grab parts and pieces of it! 

Plagiarism proves that reality!  Within the most prolific community of speakers and communicators – preachers-Plagiarism scandals establish the reality that developing effectiveness in speaking, preaching, or teaching (and in administration, finances, or pastoral care) can be and is learned — by some, better than others.  Plagiarism reveals that some elect to duplicate the effective rhetorical skills of others rather than educate themselves.

Developing and using homiletical or rhetorical skills is not unholy, and does not demean the working of God in the hearts of men.  It is one of God’s means to an end — in every field of endeavor.

♦♦♦♦♦

“Be clear! Be clear! Be clear!” Clarity does not come easily. When we train to be expositors, we probably spend three or four years in seminary.
While that training prepares us to be theologians,
it sometimes gets in our way as communicators.

Theological jargon, abstract thinking, or scholars’ questions become part of the intellectual baggage that hinders preachers from speaking clearly to ordinary men and women.”
― Haddon W. Robinson

 

“While it takes three years or more to get through seminary,
it can take you ten years to get over it.”
― Haddon W. Robinson



1. Which may be a breath of fresh air in the world of preachers.

2. If he plagiarizes a sermon from a preacher who is equal or weaker — then #1 and #2 have kicked in, or they do not recognize how communicatively weak they themselves are. 

3. You see this upfront and live when a preacher-speaker realizes he hit a sermonic sweet spot with the audience and goes “off script” to develop it further or repeat and rephrase it!

4. The key to plagiarism involves misleading an audience into believing that the illustrative story you are sharing is yours, but it never happened to you.  It involves repeating unique and pithy statements with no change to the wording.  It involves little attempt to make the sermonic material yours, through your personality.  It involves never taking an illustration and doing some of your own research to understand it better or with greater clarity.  It is the audience that defines plagiarism — what do they think about where the material came from.

That does preclude the use of off-used biblical truths or statements — the laws of sowing and reaping.  I have no idea where that came from, but who hasn’t used it with no intent to say that it was theirs.  Seeing the same pattern in a passage that others see (Adam & Eve comparison to Achan or I John 2:16), and preaching on it not plagiarism. Obviously, we preach out of the same 66 books and will see truths and principles that others will also observe.  At times, preachers will refine an idea to make it more accurate or better stated.  Merely because someone else kicked off that revision in our thinking does not require a citation.  Sometimes there are commentaries, articles, or sermons that kickoff a direction of sermonic study with a far different development.

The SBC scandal on plagiarism involves egregious use of illustration, materials, and statements lifted from another preacher without any indication otherwise.  The clear implication was that it was his stories, events, work, and message, but it was actually that of another.

All of us have heard illustrations taken from one area of life (football, golf, astronomy, physics) and said to ourselves — “That is good!”  The illustration has lead me to search out another area or field of study, similar or far different, and develop and work out my own illustration — to do what he did in concept, but with a different subject or field of study.

5. You can’t be sensitive to audience feedback if you are reading from a manuscript, are terrible at eye contact, and/or are not engaged with your audience.

6. If good preaching only required a good theological education, homiletics would not be offered in seminary, and/or more preachers would be effective in the pulpit.  You can learn to be more effective!

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