DALLAS -- Not long ago, two pastors preached at the same suburban Dallas church during the same hour. Each opened his sermon with the same story about a movie that neither had seen.
Coincidental? Not entirely. The pastors one speaking in the gym, the other in the sanctuary had taken the story from Celebration, a preaching resource. Worshipers expect clergy to draw material from a variety of sources. But do they expect them to pass that material off as their own?
No, says Dr. Cleophus LaRue, who teaches homiletics the study of preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. For him, it boils down to integrity. Yes, says the Rev. Mark Link, a Jesuit priest and writer living in Plano, Texas, who's published books of homilies. For him, it boils down to good storytelling.
The answer is critical because the temptation for preachers to take shortcuts has never been greater. The demand for books with ready-made sermons is at an all-time high. The Internet is a virtual flea market for sermon swapping. And sermon preparation time is easily swallowed by the ministry demands of a 24/7 world.
With the click of a mouse, pastors can cruise through history and download the sermons of Martin Luther and John Wesley. Or they can compare notes at sites such as desperatepreacher.com. And for $3.75, they can purchase a ready-to-preach sermon at BlackSermons.com.
With today's resources, lightweight preachers can sound like brilliant scholars, quoting Kierkegaard without ever having cracked any of his books. But as long as the sermon is good, does it matter whether the material is cribbed? Sally Hoover of Dallas said it's easy to tell when a pastor is using canned material because the minister's style changes. The 46-year-old Methodist church organist doesn't mind as long as the message is relevant to the day's Scriptures.
"I understand that pastors have got to get material somewhere," she said. "But if it sounds like it's out of Reader's Digest or they're using an illustration just to entertain me, then they've lost me."
The pressure to entertain is part of what's fueling the scramble to borrow sermons and illustrations, said LaRue. He blames the rise on megachurches and televangelists, whose outreach is built on the backbone of media-savvy preaching.
"A lot of these preachers are just entertainers tickling the fancy of their audiences," he said. "The trouble is that audiences respond and that puts pressure on other preachers to find material to copy that style." The Rev. David Smith, pastor of New Hope Church in Duncanville, Texas, said that he has felt that pressure. People reared on a diet of MTV and fast-action films won't sit and listen to sermons without bells and whistles, he said. So he preaches shorter sermons, full of illustrations. He may scan the Internet, but he usually gets his material from books on Scripture, preaching and, of course, the Bible.
"I have no problem using other people's ideas," he said. "But I take them and put them in my own words. People don't want fakery. They want to feel the genuineness of your heart."
Pastors who stop to make attributions such as "I read this here" or "I saw this movie," often interrupt the flow of their story and undermine the impact, he said.
"Why choke up a story with all of that?" the 78-year-old priest said. "It doesn't help the audience, and that's who you're trying to reach with the gospel."
Link encourages pastors to use the stories from his books as if they were their own. He's content if they never mention that he was the source. "Who cares if you got permission to tell a story?" he said. "Our goal is to promote the Kingdom of God. Just get on with it."
Many experts, including Link, discourage pastors from reading sermons in church that they didn't prepare themselves. But in early church history, even that practice wasn't frowned upon.
St. Augustine, a North African bishop who lived in the fourth century, endorsed the idea in a famous writing, ``On Christian Teaching'': "There are indeed some people who can give a good speech but not compose one. If they borrow from others something composed with eloquence and wisdom and commit it to memory and then bring that to their audience, they are not doing anything wrong ."
The Church of England published books of homilies in the 16th century that clergy were expected to read in worship. It was a time of turbulence in the church, and leaders wanted to ensure that good theology was being taught. "At the time of the Reformation, an awful lot of the clergy were desperately ignorant," said Dr. N.T. Wright, canon at Westminster Abbey in London. "Some had degrees, but many had no training in theology whatsoever."
But today, most pastors are expected to do their own homework. Seminaries have classes devoted to training students to be preachers. They not only practice their delivery, but they also work hard at developing content, spending hours studying the historical and cultural settings of biblical texts. Students learn the different types of sermons: doctrinal, devotional, expository and so forth. And they learn purposes for preaching: to comfort, warn, inform and encourage.
When preparing sermons, sometimes they're advised not to look at other preachers' sermons, particularly contemporary ones. The logic: They'll short-circuit their own thinking and be tempted to shape their sermon to match the one they read. "We think a person who is taught to preach will be a stronger preacher than one who is taught to borrow," said LaRue.
Some professors teach that it takes at least 10 hours of study to prepare a good sermon. For that reason, the Rev. Jon Lee of Dallas sets aside 7 to 9 a.m. every day for prayer and Scripture study.
He prepares his sermon behind the closed door of his home office, which is lined with theology books. For several days, he studies the Scriptures and commentaries that help him understand the appointed text for Sunday.
"I consider it a top priority," said Lee, the pastor of King of Glory Lutheran Church. "The preparation is hard. I reflect on the text, on what's happening in society and on what's happening in my congregation. The sermon pulls it all together."
Lee said he can't imagine ever delivering a canned sermon.
But Dr. Ronald Durham, founder of BlackSermons.com in Newark, N.J., insists there's no shame in pastors buying ready-made sermons. His Internet slogan is: "Black sermons that you can preach for today's busy pastor."
Durham said his business is geared to black pastors who work full-time jobs in addition to their work in ministry. He said he knows firsthand how tough it can be to prepare a sermon in that situation.
"Our business is really a ministry that helps pastors," he said. "Our sermons address the issues of poverty, unemployment, housing and all the issues that concern the African-American community."
But Patrick Marrin, the editor of Celebration, based in Kansas City, Mo., said he'd disapprove of pastors reading his publication's sermons in church. "That's pretty lazy and I think it's regrettable," he said. "We're a resource to help them prepare their sermons, not a substitute for the real thing."