It is hard (impossible ?) not to feel heartsick at the state of the Christian church these days.

Churches have gone to court to plead their inability to raise $25M to honour their appointed contribution to a First Nations’ healing fund to support residential school survivors, while at the same time finding $300 million for church buildings. We hear of clergy abuse and malpractice, insensitivity, disregard for the well-being of congregational members, unwillingness to honestly acknowledge egregious wrongs committed by self-appointed religious arbiters of right and wrong who refuse to acknowledge the lived experience of real human beings simply because that experience falls outside these religious leaders’ comfort zone. The list of grievances against the church is long and deep. It is a messy picture.

And then, if all that is not enough to plunge church-watchers into despair, we pile this on top of the heap of rotting church carcasses:

The question in the NYT headline is remarkably banal: “Should Pastors Borrow Words From One Another?” It sounds so innocent.

Once, only once it never happened again, during my undergraduate studies, I “borrowed” words from a scholar to enhance an essay I submitted to a highly respected professor . To my eternal embarrassment, he recognized immediately the presence of plagiarism, failed my paper and called me into his office for an exceedingly uncomfortable conversation. This is bad enough for a twenty-year-old young man in pursuit of a better mark than he deserved. But, for a sixty-something highly respected pastor to pass off another pastor’s words as his own without any credit contravenes the most basic ethical standards we might expect of any public speaker.

But preaching is not just any public speaking.

In her NYT article, recounting this sorry tale, author Ruth Graham, quotes Professor Scot McNight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill who defines preaching as

a person studying the Bible, encountering God in their own life and history, and then spewing it all out on Sunday morning for the good of the people of God….It’s a personal encounter.

The essence of a sermon is the lived experience of the preacher who is able to make real to the congregation the intersection of biblical text with personal life because it is something the preacher has lived. If the words of the sermon are not mediated to the congregation through the life of the preacher, they are just words. In the absence of “a personal encounter” the preacher’s words lack all vitality and power. They may appeal to the intellect; they may be entertaining; but they will never penetrate the heart because they have not travelled through the heart of the preacher.

I once knew a pastor who sat every Friday at his typewriter with a copy of “The Expository Times” on his desk to his left and typed, word for word, the sermon printed in the journal for the coming Sunday. I have no idea whether it was the intention of the editors of this journal that the words they printed should be presented verbatim from the pulpit. But, I do know that words preached by someone who merely copied the thoughts of another person, may have filled the liturgical slot assigned for the sermon, but they never brought life to me as I listened. If it does not come from the heart of the preacher, it will not go to the heart of the person listening. For a preacher to take ownership of another person’s words is to betray the incarnational nature of preaching in which truth is mediated through person, just like Jesus.