August 1, 2006
Word for Word: what is driving pastors to plagiarize?
The New York Times ran the story last week of a high-profile pastor busted for plagiarizing sermons, and his congregation's willingness to forgive him. Trying to explain what led to his behavior, Rev. Jackson says:
"It's a pattern you get into," he said, explaining he was struggling at the time with issues of self-esteem. "It happens bit by bit. You end up using more and more. You're using a little material maybe initially, and then using more. It's really not rational."
In recent years I've been alarmed by how frequently I'm hearing reports of pastors plagiarizing sermons. Clearly, the internet has contributed to the problem. Sermons in both written and audio form are quickly accessible, and the temptation to plagiarize is easier than ever before to indulge. In this regard the sin differs little from the epidemic of internet pornography.
But accessibility alone cannot account for the problem. Just as many believe porn is an unhealthy way of coping with a lack of intimacy, there must be some underlying issue that drives pastors to plagiarize. Rev. Jackson's comments above are revealing. Is a lack of self-esteem among pastors on the rise? And if it is, what is the cause?
A few months back Shane Hipps posted about the impact of video venues on preaching. Hipps says multiple-site churches that use video preaching communicate that:
"Only a preacher with a golden tongue has authority to preach the gospel. It conveys the unspoken belief that no one in the satellite congregation has the authority to speak to their context because preaching requires unique talents that only a few actually possess. Like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, only the larger-than-life giants, painted by pixelated light, and hovering above the congregation, possess these elusive talents."This exaltation of one teacher leads to what Hipps calls "the papacy of celebrity."
Celebrity preachers are nothing new, of course. In the 18th century everyone knew the name George Whitefield. In the 19th century it was Moody. And no history of the 20th century church will fail to include the name Billy Graham. But with the advent of digital media technology and savvy church marketing in the 21st century, celebrity preachers have become omnipresent brands.
Unlike the past, gifted speakers are not merely heard by their congregation or those attending the revival or crusade. Today's "best preachers" are broadcast daily on radio and television, and their sermons resonate through cyberspace via podcasts and streaming audio.
Recently, The Church Report issued the Top 50 Most Influential Churches of 2006. Tellingly, the visual layout of the article (especially the print version) isn't dominated by the churches' names, but by headshots of the senior pastors. Remove the text and the article could have been titled the Top 50 Most Popular Pastors of 2006. Christians in America cannot hide from the celebrated shadows of Hybels, Warren, Osteen, Stanley, Young, and Jakes - and neither can pastors.
With a celebrity church culture is it any surprise that less celebrated pastors may lack self-esteem? With parishioners consuming excellent preaching Monday thru Saturday, it's understandable why their expectations for Sunday are high. I can also understand why churches are happily adopting video venues to keep quality high and religious consumers satisfied. Some churches are even forgoing a preaching pastor altogether. Opting instead to use the previously recorded video messages of a celebrity pastor from across the country.
Of course, none of these realities justifies plagiarism. There is no excuse for deceitfully accepting credit for what is not your own. We all must take responsibility for our actions and our insecurities. But, we would be foolish to ignore the factors contributing to the problem.