Let’s stop getting hung up about using and sharing material for the sake of the kingdom

The other day, I spoke about a blog post on the Pastor’s Academy website written by John Benton. You can read what I said about that here. I was addressing the main point John was making in that post and disagreeing with it. I am not intending to dunk on that post again, but instead to highlight something interesting and helpful (I think) in what he wrote. The reason I am doing that here is because these things were not part and parcel of the main points John was originally making and weren’t pertinent to my reply. But they are worth noting here.

Here is the particular things I wanted to pick up on. John states:

Many pastors have had it drummed into them in their training that every sermon they preach must be original to them and they feel (perhaps understandably) that they can only manage one such sermon a week. There just isn’t time for more. Hence the morning only Sunday suits them. But they forget that our calling is not to be original but to be helpful. I’m not saying you should just rip off other people’s sermons from the internet and read them out. You have got to preach things that have touched your own heart. But that means that it is not wrong to use other people’s material—that which has spoken to you and fed you spiritually can feed others. Ever heard of the Synoptic problem? The idea that we must never use other people’s material is simply not scriptural. And was it so wrong of Jude to ‘rip off’ 2 Peter (or vice versa)?

Now, I don’t want to revisit the question of how many services we ought to have. You can read my linked post for my views on that should you want them. Instead, I just wanted to pick up on this question of ripping off other people’s sermons and material. The reason I want to pick up on it is because I think John is essentially right here.

I was speaking to another brother recently, who has been a missionary in another country, and (for altogether different reasons) he mentioned to me that people in that country do not have nearly the same qualms that we often do about plagiarism. At least, they have no concern whatsoever of “borrowing” somebody else’s sermon or material and repackaging it for their own purposes. In particular, my friend is often asked if people can use his sermon in something they are doing. His response was, why not? If it was helpful once, maybe it will be helpful again delivered by somebody else. If it will serve the church and the people in that place, have at it!

I am minded to agree. I don’t mean to dunk him in it, but my Dad will periodically email or phone me – having been asked to preach somewhere or lead a bible study on something – and ask if I have any sermons or studies on the passage/topic that he can “look at”. By which, of course, he means unceremoniously take and deliver. Incidentally, if you’ve heard my Dad preach and it was decent, that was probably my material; if he was rubbish, let’s assume those were the bits he decided to do on his own! But in all honesty, I have always taken the view that my brother did. If it was useful once, it might be useful again. If it helps someone see something in the text, or it helps them figure out how what they already know about the passage might be usefully turned into a sermon, I have absolutely no problem with this at all.

I mean, let’s be honest, what do most of us think we’re doing when we read commentaries? Clearly, the insights I gain into the text are not unique to me. Why do we ever get non-technical commentaries as pastors? You know, those ones that are essentially a collection of someone else’s sermons in the book we are currently preaching. Clearly it is because we want to see how someone else preached the passage because it might help us think about how we might preach the passage. We might not rip the sermon off word-for-word (though I am pretty sure we have all listened to people who have done that), but the idea that significant chunks of what they have said do not make it into our sermons (even in slightly different words) is clearly nonsense.

When we ran some afternoon services for a while (yes, John, we did do them for a bit!) we used some short theology videos to prompt discussion and feedback. We didn’t make any of the videos. They were usually things like these short answers on the New City Catechism or stuff from 3-minute theology. We would watch a video, discuss three or four questions in groups, feedback altogether then watch another video, discuss some more questions and feedback again. We didn’t create any of this stuff, we pinched it and used it for our own purposes. I assume that is what they sit publicly available on YouTube for.

I am grateful for many people who have taken the view ‘there is no copyright amongst Christians.’ I don’t mean not paying people for stuff when you should. But godly folks who have been happy to share their materials and resources with me and encouraged me to use them however they might be useful. I have always been glad to do the same. If the membership handbook we use in our church might be of any use to people in trying to create healthy structures in their own church, I’m more than happy to fire it over and serve them that way. Somewhere on my computer I have a file with a whole load of similar stuff from Capitol Hill Baptist Church who did exactly the same thing at their weekender – they just gave everyone what they had and said use it for God’s glory and the health of your churches such as it serves that end.

If people think my sermons are of any value, I’m more than happy for someone to take what is useful and use it to teach their own people. I’m not at all precious about people using my stuff if they are doing it in order to teach people scriptural truth. Why would I possibly mind about that? Far be it from me to ascribe motives to those who demur, but I can’t think of many grounds to be concerned about that other than fear of losing glory for the wonderful material. Which, aside from not being a particularly godly attitude, seems to forget that – if it is actually credible at all – you have (hopefully) effectively plagiarised it all from scripture in the first place!

Of course, if you are using other people’s material, it is right to credit it. If you are quoting someone, it is good to say who you are quoting. If you are taking something and using it that someone else has done, it is good and right to admit that. It isn’t good to pretend that stuff you haven’t really prepared yourself is yours and to take plaudits for other people’s work. Minimally, highlighting that is important. But at the same time, what was Paul’s attitude to those who were preaching Christ out of all manner of dodgy motives? Here is what he says in Philippians 1:

15 To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. 16 These preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. 18 What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice 19 because I know this will lead to my salvation[e] through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all courage, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

People weren’t just ripping off Paul’s sermons, they were preaching specifically so that they might cause him further trouble in prison. They were preaching out of jealousy, rivalry and selfish ambition. And Paul’s response is: who cares! Who cares, so long as Jesus is being proclaimed and the gospel is going out? If that is Paul’s attitude to those seeking to damage him, I struggle to see why it couldn’t and shouldn’t be our attitude to those who might like to use our material in order to build up the saints. Indeed, even less so if they ask permission for it. If it is for the purposes of serving the church and proclaiming Christ, shouldn’t we rejoice that our materials is being used? And who cares whether we get the glory for it or not, because all glory belongs to Jesus at any rate.

I happily admit, I’m not sure I would want to stand up in the pulpit and deliver somebody else’s sermon word-for-word. Not because I think it would necessarily be wrong to do so (if I had been granted permission) but that I just don’t think I would make a very good job of it. We all preach in our own way with our own style and words, which may not come across well if we take somebody else’s word-for-word. Certainly, not for me anyway. But if somebody felt that was a good way for them to serve their people with a sermon of mine, have at it! Use it to build your people.

Whilst I wouldn’t do that, I would gladly read somebody else’s sermon to get some ideas as to how I might preach a passage myself. I can see how their structure might just helpfully get me to a point where I can see how I will structure my own sermon. They might have ideas that are helpful which I may draw out in my own sermon. For me, these are the ways they might help. But I don’t see why we should have any qualms about doing that. It is the same Christ we’re preaching, from the same scriptures, so I would hope there would be some significant overlap between what we’re preaching at any rate. But if I were ever on the receiving end of someone using my stuff that way, praise God that it is being used to build up God’s people beyond the four walls of our own church.

So, having dunked on John’s original post, I just wanted to highlight what I think he really got right here. I think our aversion to plagiarism (which I fully understand) has led to us being unwilling to make best use of other people’s materials. If we’re all about the kingdom, as ministers of the gospel, we should have no problem with people using anything we’ve got if they think it will serve their people well. We may not want to claim glory for work that isn’t ours (that is right and proper), but we shouldn’t let that stop us using what will work to the benefit of God’s people from elsewhere. Whether you use such things for an evening service or put them to use somewhere else, let us get over this hang up. Let us use material that was made for the kingdom to serve the kingdom and rejoice that, through it, Christ is proclaimed, his people built up and the gospel goes out.