Preachers and teachers pour themselves into the effort of preparing sermons and Bible lessons, seeking wisdom and inspiration first from prayer, and then from a variety of other sources. Christian messages have been preached countless times over the centuries, so it only makes sense to tap into others' inspired teachings to create a powerful message, uniquely crafted for a specific application. But caution is required to avoid crossing the line between inspiration and plagiarism.
Preachers should turn to these resources to supplement the research they've already done themselves, says Brian Larson, managing editor of PreachingToday.com. "You know the text, you have your ideas, and you know what you want to convey," he says. "Now you look for illustrations or for what other people have said to see what you may be missing. Use these resources the same way you use a commentary—to validate your thinking."
Larson cautions that inexperienced preachers should limit their use of preaching resources because they need to learn their craft by failing, succeeding, and finding their own voice, rather than relying too much on the work of others. All preachers must avoid using the words of other preachers as if they were their own without giving proper credit.
One reason preachers look to use another person's sermon, says Larson, is because they are inspired by the words, theology, and application of the other preacher. A second reason is that a lack of self-confidence leads some pastors to use the sermons of others so their congregations get the very best messages. A third motivation is that preachers are simply looking for a short cut.
You can preach the exact sermon of another preacher, provided you give credit. Announce it from the pulpit, print a note in the bulletin, and inform the board to avoid even a suggestion of plagiarism. If you borrow heavily from the sermon of another, adding a few of your own embellishments and illustrations, then you should also give credit. The key thing to remember, says Larson, is to never act in a way that violates the trust the congregation has in you.
"Every year, we hear several stories of preachers caught in plagiarism," says Larsen. "And without exception, their people feel as if they have been lied to, like the preacher has been dishonest and betrayed a trust. How do you keep this from happening? You give credit. There must be complete, up-front honesty."
Another reason to avoid plagiarism is that your sermon should be a unique word for your congregation on that day. People will feel short-changed if they do not receive a message tailored for them, born out of prayer and seeking God's direction for a word suitable for that group at that time.
Can you use the sermon outline of another preacher without credit? Larson suggests that credit be given if you use an outline word-for-word. The guiding principle is the amount of your own time you put into the "borrowed" sermon. "If you do 12 hours of work yourself [on an original sermon], you should put in at least 12 hours on a sermon if you have gained inspiration from someone else," he says. "You still need to pray through the text, adapt it, and add your own illustrations. When you do that, it's not a shortcut."
Whether you want to put the very best effort into sermon or lesson preparation, or simply want to enjoy the benefits of being exposed to great preaching and teaching, you'll find the following resources helpful:
Compelling and memorable illustrations help preachers apply the biblical text to the present-day needs of the listeners. Effective illustrations include quotations, stories of everyday people who apply the selected text to their lives, and metaphors and analogies that connect listeners to the text.
Outlines provide the skeleton that shapes and supports the flesh of a sermon. Preachers read outlines to learn about structure, application of Scripture, and how to effectively transition from one section to the next.
By reading and listening to excellent sermons, pastors gain insight on preaching a particular text, learn about structure and delivery, or simply receive solid teaching.
Sermon series can be a great help to preachers who plan their calendars in advance, particularly if they are tied to a certain time of year or passage of Scripture. Some preachers adapt the entire series, while others use only the basic idea and conduct their own supporting research.
Preachers use lectionaries to provide scripture readings and sermon ideas that follow a particular church calendar year.
Pastors are increasingly using visual aids such as PowerPoint slides, video illustrations, and video screen backdrops to accompany their sermons and emphasize key points.
Homiletics resources and articles are available at some websites to help preacher advance their technical preaching skills and spiritual formation. Seminary websites can offer these kinds of resources as well.
Worship planning resources such as hymn search engines, dramas, and "countdown" videos to be used for the few minutes preceding worship are also available.
Some websites offer interactive opportunities for preachers to ask questions, comment on each other's sermons, and offer advice about sermon preparation.
"We've had archives of printed sermons for centuries," says Ron Forseth, general editor of SermonCentral.com. "Now, sermon archives have migrated to the Internet and have proliferated." The Internet has become the king of preaching resources delivery methods, offering all the types of resources mentioned above.
Websites are moving away from printed copies of sermons and toward recorded sermons in the downloadable MP3 format. Cassette tapes and CDs are still offered, but downloadable audio files are clearly the future. Steven Lee, founder of SermonAudio.com, says pastors and others who want to listen to sermons while commuting or away from their computers appreciate being able to use an iPod device.
Some of the more popular websites include:
PreachingToday.com. The annual cost of this site is being lowered to approximately $70. PreachingToday includes sermons, illustrations, outlines, series, instructional articles, specialized search tools, and more.
SermonCentral.com. Monthly Pro account ($14.95 per month) and Annual Pro account ($119.50 per year) give access to the site contents and a "Pastor's Resource Kit."
SermonAudio.com. Churches can join this site for a one-time fee of $150 and a monthly fee of $29.95 and can then access the site's collection more than 160,000 sermons.
Some preaching resource websites also allow preachers to upload audio and video copies of their sermons.
There are abundant printed resources of sermon compilations, illustrations, and quotations. Preachers can consult yearly volumes such as The Minister's Manual (Jossey-Bass), The Zondervan Pastor's Annual, The Abingdon Preacher's Annual, and Nelson's Annual Preacher's Sourcebook. Prices of these resources generally range from $15 to $20.
Preachers can also learn from books on homiletics such as The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson; Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson; Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell; Invitation to Biblical Preaching by Donald Sunukjian; and Communicating for a Change by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones.
In addition to books, periodical resources include Preaching Magazine (a yearly subscription of six issues and access to an accompanying website for $39.95); Leadership journal, a general church leadership publication with specialized articles on preaching (new subscriptions are $22 for four yearly issues); and Homiletics Magazine, available in print and DVD (the bi-monthly journal and access to website contents is $69.95 a year).
Lee A. Dean is a freelance writer living in Michigan.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Your Church magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Your Church.