A pastor at Clayton's Central Presbyterian Church near St. Louis, Mo., recently resigned his pulpit after confessing to his 1,800-member congregation that he had preached sermons that were not his own. The admission came after church staffers and members recognized some of his sermons as the work of the Rev. Tim Keller, a nationally renowned preacher at New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Text and audio versions of Keller's sermons are among the scores of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu sermons or teachings available online. Cregan Cooke, director of communications and media for Redeemer Presbyterian, said the unauthorized borrowing of sermons is "not an issue" for the New York church, because Keller--like many religious leaders who post sermons online--simply wants to spread his message. "All ministers borrow from each other. It's a very common thing," said Cooke. "The only issue is attribution."
Indeed, originality has never been paramount in a profession built around the exegesis of ancient texts and propagation of age-old doctrines. Theological accuracy, inspirational power and dynamic delivery matter more to most religious leaders. Many St. Louis area clerics say they often cull online sermon guides--as well as journals, tapes, CD-ROMs and books--to mold their own remarks.
Brian Larson, editor of Preachingtoday.com, an online portal for sermon materials, sees demand rising for Internet sermon services like his. Just 2 years old, the service had 12,512 subscribers in January 2001. Last week, he counted 17,790. Larson said he has no problem with preachers sharing materials, if the author gets credit and the church accepts the practice. "All preachers are preaching from God's word," said Larson, who is also editor of Preaching Today, a long-standing audio service. "It's not their idea."
The use of canned sermons has plenty of precedents. Some writers, including a few in St. Louis, make their living crafting sermons and sermon outlines for subscribers. Books and mimographed copies of sermons have long been big sellers at clergy conventions.
From Massachusetts to Texas, preachers have been caught delivering sermons verbatim--and without attribution--that they purchased from online and print sermon services. In one case reported by the Boston Globe, a minister lost his job after publishing cribbed sermons under his own name.
Still, Oglesby--like most clerics, scholars and ethicists--draws the line at the verbatim delivery of sermons that belong to others. Religious leaders who cross that line, and do not credit their sources, risk losing the trust of their followers. They may also preach sermons ill-suited to their particular faith communities, since the canned talks were intended for another audience. "You're cheating your congregation of your own holiness," said the Rev. James Cormack, Catholic pastor of St. Catherine Laboure Parish in south St. Louis County.
Cormack, a Vincentian priest who won the Great Preacher Award from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in 1995, said the occasional preaching of another's sermon is acceptable, as long as the speaker tells his congregation that the work is not his own. But repeated reliance on the words of another signals a problem. A prayerful, hard- working priest can capture his audience's attention, Cormack said, if he takes the time to pray and reflect on Scripture. "In the end, that cuts deeper than somebody who's slick and glossy and doesn't seem to have any depth," Cormack said.
Still, clerics agree that smooth delivery--and a few good jokes, which can be easily skimmed from Internet sites--liven up a sermon. Rabbi Ze'ev Smason presides over Nusach Hari-B'nai Zion Congregation, a 300-member orthodox synagogue in University City. To add to his repertoire of jokes and hone his speaking skills, Smason combs Internet sites in English and Hebrew and recently attended a public speaking seminar. In the age of the Internet and cable television, Smason said, religious leaders must work harder than ever to keep the attention of their audiences. "It's almost as if we're expected or we need to put on a show," he said.