Why You Should Stop Ripping Off Other Preachers (The Led Zeppelin Scenario)

Ever get jealous of a line or idea that another preacher or communicator came up with you wish you had thought of?

Me too.

It’s tempting to think of stealing it and to hope no one notices you didn’t think of it.

Well, all I can say is we preachers ought to be thankful that we don’t face the kind of lawsuits Led Zeppelin did recently accusing them of stealing the introductory riff from Stairway to Heaven off a lesser known band.

The jury found there wasn’t enough evidence to show Led Zeppelin borrowed the introduction for its mega-hit from a song called Taurus by L.A. band Spirit.

So, good for Led Zeppelin. Other bands have not been so lucky. And whether they’re vindicated or not, any band sued racks up tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs to prove their innocence.

The Led Zeppelin case reminds me that plagiarism (stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own) is a serious offence.

Ever wonder what would happen if preachers were held to a similar standard?

With the proliferation of podcasts, free sermon downloads and constant connectivity that describes our era, plagiarism in the church may be at an all-time high.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard lesser-known preachers steal other preachers key ideas and pass them off as their own—with no attribution.

In law, that’s technically a crime.

Now before you go all 1 Corinthians 6 on me and tell me that Christians should not sue one another (I agree), or point out there’s nothing new under the sun or that we’re all in this together, hear me out: I’m with you.

But just because we’re all part of the same Kingdom doesn’t mean we should go ripping each other off and claiming a thought was our idea.

I propose a rule for preachers that goes something like this:

Write your own stuff. And if you didn’t, tell people you didn’t.

That’s it.

Because if you don’t, there are at least five things you’re messing up as a leader.

shutterstock_273018893So what can I borrow?

There’s actually nothing morally wrong with borrowing other people’s great ideas.

But be honest and tell people you didn’t think of it yourself.

If you don’t think this is an epidemic, please know I’m not even close to being the most well-known preacher on the planet, nor the best-known writer. But my team has found other preachers preaching our local series verbatim, with no permission and zero attribution. Even the jokes were re-used. (Note, we happily share our message series with churches that ask. This particular guy didn’t ask.)

Ditto with my blog. My team has found other bloggers who have taken my content, pasted it word for word into their blog, and written their name above the post as the author. (We’ve asked them to take it down.)

So what’s the problem with idea-theft, sermon-theft or writing-theft? Well, clearly it’s not financial. Few of us stand to make millions (or even hundreds) off of having original message or blog ideas. It’s a free economy that way. And we ARE in this together.

But here are 5 things that are simply wrong about plagiarism:

1. You want people to think you’re smarter than you actually are

Let’s be honest…the real reason we borrow other people’s ideas and make them appear to be ours is so it makes us look smarter than we are.

Don’t think you can give credit and still seem smart?

Just listen to Tim Keller. In virtually every message, Keller references a book he’s read or a thinker he’s borrowing from. He does this regularly and generously.

And guess what? Keller’s one of the sharpest thinkers alive today. Also one of the smartest.

Quoting other leaders doesn’t make you seem dumb. It actually makes you look smart.

It’s evidence you’ve read more than a few tweets, and that you’ve dug deep into the heart of history or current events. It’s a sign you’re not lazy.

Ripping people off is lazy. Learning from other authors and thinkers isn’t.

2. You lie

Lying is an integrity issue.

People assume when a speaker, artist or writer shares something, it’s their take on an issue.

I know of several pastors who have been fired by their board for stealing sermons they claimed were their own.

One literally downloaded another pastor’s messages every week and preached them verbatim. Another borrowed different sermons from different sources but never attributed them.

Their boards fired them. Bravo, boards.

If you steal money, you get fired. If you steal ideas, maybe you should be fired too.

3. You stop growing

Of all the leaders and communicators who have their ideas ripped off, Andy Stanley is likely top of the list. He’s one of the most quoted leaders alive today in the Western church, and for good reason. He’s brilliant.

I had a chance to talk with Andy on my Leadership Podcast and I asked him about how he felt about others ‘stealing’ his material and ideas. I loved his answer (you can listen to the episode here or on iTunes—Episode 1).

Andy said—so accurately—that preachers who preach other people’s messages forfeit the growth that comes with preparing a message from scratch. They miss the angst, the frustration and the tremendous reward that comes from wrestling down ideas until they come out in a powerful and helpful way.

Andy’s so right. Preachers, when you start stealing, you stop growing.

You also lose your own voice. If you’re like me, you may not be the biggest fan of your own voice, but it’s a voice God gave you and that God loves.

Further, if you’re simply a copycat, my suspicion is a younger audience will eventually tune you out. Why? Because Millennials can smell a lack of authenticity a mile away.

You may not be quite as clever or articulate as your favourite preacher, but you’re real. And real resonates.

But wait, you say, can’t you buy Andy’s sermons so you can reteach them at your church? Can’t you download Craig Groeschel’s messages and reteach them at your church? Both legally?

Yes, you can.

There can be strategic purposes for doing so. But when you do, give credit. Don’t lose the edge you gain by wrestling through your own ideas, your own reading of God’s word, and finding your own voice on a regular basis.

4. You lose touch with God

When you plagiarize, you lose touch with God in at least two significant ways.

First, the sins of lying and stealing are themselves a barrier. Confession stands between you and God.

Second, stealing ideas required zero reliance on the Holy Spirit for inspiration, direction, courage or insights.

Ironically, in trying to make your content better, you’ve made it worse. You’ve robbed it of its true power. The real power in preaching comes not from our words, but from what God does with our words.

Do the hard work. You and everyone around you will be better for it.

5. It creeps into other areas of your life

I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s generally true that when you compromise in one area of your life, it doesn’t take much to start compromising in other areas.

Sin is like a weed: It grows fast and you never have to water it.

The best way to tackle sin is to pull it out by its root before it creeps into other areas of your life.

So what do I do?

What should you do in a hyper-connected era when you and I are exposed to more ideas in a day than our grandparents were in a month or year?

First, use other peoples ideas generously. Just give credit where credit is due. Quote. Attribute. Link back.

That covers most of us.

But what about those preachers who realize they’re guilty of knowingly stealing entire messages or lines of thinking and passing it off as theirs..and no one has confronted them on it (yet)?

I would strongly encourage anyone in this category to come clean. Talk to your board. Explain what’s been happening, and tell them you want to stop. See a counselor if you need to (there’s something inside that drove you there in the first place), and start writing fresh.

Want to develop as a preacher?

Here are some free resources you can use to become a better communicator. I share the process I use for preparing messages in this 5 part blog series.

I have also learned so much about message preparation, delivery and communication best practices from Preaching Rocket (affiliate link).

Preaching Rocket can help you get started preaching from scratch. Or, even if you’ve been at communication for years like I have, it can help you grow.

You can sign up for a 7 day free Preaching Rocket trial here.

What do you think?

Am I being too hard on us as communicators? What’s been your experience?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

15 Comments

  1. […] even practice, too many preachers whip something off quickly and let it go at that. Or worse, they download someone else’s message and re-teach […]

  2. […] even practice, too many preachers whip something off quickly and let it go at that. Or worse, they download someone else’s message and re-teach […]

  3. Roland Ramsdale on June 27, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    I only get to preach occasionally, but I find it difficult to remember exactly where certain descriptions or phrases come from as I have read many books over the years and often consult several commentaries when preparing to speak on a passage. However I do not like reusing even my own sermons or topics without considerably rethinking them. It needs to be fresh for me, so I can present it well and hopefully with the power of the Holy Spirit guiding what I say and enlightening the minds of the hearers.

  4. Vicki Hanes on June 26, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    I would add that the congregation is more well read than ever before and things ring “familiar” to them. I’ve been in a service where the jokes were exactly the same. Without credit given, it seems deceptive and hurts the trust between the pastor and the congregant. When I brought up the issue in a creative planning meeting about attribution, I was told I was being too legalistic, that pastors have this generosity and you can and should use others ideas that are better than your own. I thought maybe I was being “overly-sensitive” because I’m an English teacher and plagiarism, to me, is a form of deception. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was patronizing to the congregation as well as deceptive. I prayed I wasn’t being overly critical, but my trust was a little broken.

  5. Gustavo Gonzalez on June 26, 2016 at 11:18 am

    What would you say about those ministries (like reThink aka Orange) that sells entire series that includes everything you’ll need. Small group discussion, graphics, social media plans and yes sermon scripts. I think there are other ministries that does the same thing. How is someone suppose to handle that?

  6. Weekend Leadership Roundup | on June 25, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    […] Why You Should Stop Ripping Off Other Preachers (The Led Zeppelin Scenario) – Carey Nieuhof […]

  7. David Libby on June 24, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    The #1 reason that I work to never plagiarize in sermon writing is that my church body is different from yours, or Andy’s, or Craig’s. My people have specific issues, and they’re living in a specific area, and as I visit them, I learn more about their specific background and view of the world, of faith, of God. Andy Stanley is speaking to a completely different group in a completely different place than I am. Preaching pastorally, to me, means writing a sermon with all of the people that I’m preaching to in mind: their viewpoints, their baggage, their understanding of God, etc. I as a preacher want to have my congregation in mind when I’m preparing and writing.

  8. Martin on June 24, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    So what do you think about giving credit by saying, “One writer says . . .” I often do this because in my early years of preaching I cited every quote or thought (as one would an academic paper) and was chided for too much “name dropping.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 24, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      I think that’s just fine. I’ve done that many times in addition to attributions back to named individual. Sometimes you can’t even verify the original author because even online, multiple attributions happen. The idea is just to give credit where credit is needed and not to claim ideas as your own that aren’t. Make sense?

  9. Jacob Vangen on June 24, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Carey, thanks so much for posting this article. This is such a big temptation for me as a young preacher (23). It’s so easy to just listen to Matt Chandler or Andy Stanley and use the phrase on my own. I want to go through the hard work of crafting sermons, as Andy says, and allow God to speak through the voice he’s given. It’s going to take a lot of humility, self confidence, and time.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this post! Your content always helps me lead like never before.

  10. greg walker on June 24, 2016 at 11:48 am

    I’ve heard preachers use another person’s sermon. Almost invariably, I can sense it, because it’s not in the speaker’s voice. It’s not “him.” I can’t deliver another person’s sermon… it would sound like me reading you the phone book. We need to start reinforcing the genuine over the perfectly crafted (stolen) phrase.

  11. Brad Farnsworth on June 24, 2016 at 11:11 am

    I’ve always said, “Do the hard work. You and everyone around you will be better for it.”

  12. Danny Murphy on June 24, 2016 at 8:33 am

    That is one of the very best articles I’ve ever seen about pulpit plagiarism. It covered a lot of important ground! Here is a portion of an old piece of my writing – Vows of
    Cohabitation – that was originally published in The Door Magazine in January of
    2000. “I, John, take you Mary, to be my cohabitant, to have sex with and to
    share the bills with. I’ll be around while things are good, but I probably
    won’t be if things get tough. After all, the grass frequently is greener on the
    other side of the fence. And, forsaking many others, I will be more or less
    faithful to you as long as it feels good to me. If you should ever catch me messing
    around on you, remember it doesn’t mean that I no longer care for you. I will still
    probably want to share a bed and the bills with you. So help me, me.” Years
    later, something eerily similar showed up in videos of skits produced by lots
    of churches. Does that look familiar, Reverend?

  13. […] Why You Should Stop Ripping Off Other Preachers (The Led Zeppelin Scenario) –Carey Nieuwhof I propose a rule for preachers that goes something like this: […]

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.