Religion

Pastors find divine inspiration online

SACRAMENTO, Calif. —To say that the Rev. Barry Smith is always looking for new sermon ideas is an understatement.

The pastor of Impact Community Church in Elk Grove, Calif., has come up with topics for Sunday messages while on retreat, in the shower or on the treadmill.

Smith preaches 38 weeks a year and says he has original ideas for half. The other half? He finds those on the Internet.

"I don't have any problem with taking what people have done and making it interesting to our members in a way that will connect with them," Smith said. "We tweak it, we make it our own."

These days, pastors need to save time like everyone else, so while they reflect on what touches their souls, they also browse the Internet for a ready-made message.

Smith, who checks the church Web sites of his favorite pastors, said he uses other ministers' sermons as a template only and always attributes their work.

Still, ministers can turn to dozens of online sermon sites for divine inspiration. Sites offer sermons, some free, some for a price, on topics ranging from church membership to the perils of drinking to finding harmony in the home.

For about $250, the pastor can purchase an all-inclusive sermon series that includes the sermon, an outline, illustrations, graphics and video.

Sermoncentral.com calls itself: "Your sermon resource center." Sermons.org has sermon categories ranging from Christmas to children's. Desperatepreacher.com has a menu featuring links to "ministry humor."

"We are a resource for pastors," said Frank Schaefer, founder and director of desperatepreacher.com. "We hope that they'll read someone else's sermon and it will inspire them, get their creative juices flowing."

There, sermons are usually written by other pastors who are paid about $35 each.

For some, these sermons have been too tempting, like students drawn to downloading term papers. Incidents of pulpit plagiarism have led to a debate about the ethics of selling sermons, with some wondering about the message it sends the congregation.

Last year, in response to concerns about plagiarism, 5,000 pastors took "The Pastor's Pledge," promising to use the Bible as their primary sermon source.

Sermons have a special meaning for pastors, especially for those who focus on writing their own.

That's what Michael Guisande, pastor of Lighthouse Christian Center in Loomis, Calif., has done for years. Two weeks ago, a thief stole Guisande's office computer and 17-year file of sermons.

"I don't care about the computer," said Guisande. "I just want my sermons back. They're my life's work."

Some small churches have changed the concept — and even the name — of the weekly message because of the pressure on pastors to produce them each week.

At Midtown Friends Community in Sacramento, sermons are called "reverbs."

"The idea is to take a text and see how it reverberates in the congregation," said the Rev. Rebecca Miller. She talks briefly, and worshippers share how they interpret the message. Miller said her idea is not original — a church she attended previously did reverbs.

At Flood, a Tahoe Park, Calif., church with a congregation of about 70, the Rev. Sean Randall preaches one week. The next week, he delivers a brief recap. The congregation then shares a meal during the normal sermon time and discusses the message.

He does not use online sermon sites.

"Pastors need to spend time in prayer and reading. Unfortunately, that's hard to get, especially if you're a pastor of a small church. That's why these online sites are so tempting," Randall said.

He is troubled by how often pastors rely on these sites for sermons and special church series. He cited the widespread use of "The 40 Days of Purpose," the churchwide program for spiritual renewal, based on "The Purpose Driven Life" by Orange County megachurch leader Rick Warren.

"We're setting ourselves up as pastors by regurgitating someone else's work," said Randall. "What happens when the 40 days are over? They have to go back to you."

Other pastors said the sites can be beneficial.

"There is nothing new under the sun. People have always exchanged ideas," said the Rev. Jake Larsen of Rolling Hills Christian Church in El Dorado Hills, Calif. He turns to LifeChurch.tv, which offers sermons and other materials free, as a resource only. "I would never preach someone else's sermon, but it's great to get ideas."

Smith, of Impact Community, said many ideas come to him from watching online videos from cutting-edge pastors, and the process re-energizes him. He has his sermons and series planned through the end of the year.

Smith said he often spends weeks or months "tweaking" a message from another pastor to fit his own church.

"It's a lot of work, but it's what we're supposed to do," Smith said. "Using someone else's work — taking it verbatim — is lazy. It's dishonest."

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