Scalzi v. Lifehacker
Recently, a disagreement occurred in online circles between the tech lifestyle blog Lifehacker and the author and professional writer John Scalzi. I’m a fan of them both so to see their differing takes in my news feed within hours of each other sparked my interest.
Lifehacker wrote about a perceived need for writers to write for free until they are able to be paid for their writing…and even then, keep doing it:
If you want to write for a living, you should write for free. If you already do write for a living, you should write for free. And that free writing should be some of your best work.
John Scalzi disagreed with the premise and article, as he wrote:
If my work is being used to extract monetary value from someone, somewhere, then I need to be paid. I don’t work for free, especially when someone else is attempting to gain a financial benefit from it.
To be a professional writer, according to Scalzi, you need to see that your work has value and you should be at the front of the line to receive that value. Putting stuff out there for free for others to use is not being treated like a professional writer.
Is a preacher a professional writer?
I wonder if I’m in the categories that these two authors are debating.
I am a manuscript preacher. I typically write 3000-3500 words each week and perform them by preaching, with additions or subtractions made in the moment. The result is a crowd-tested document written by me in my professional role. I share authorship with the Holy Spirit, but so far, She hasn’t made a copyright claim. 🙂
By the above definitions, a manuscript preacher is a professional writer. We don’t get paid per word or per instance, but as a result of our professional role. Few preachers are JUST professional writers, of course, as our varied responsibilities include pastoral care, leadership, advocacy, and changing the dang toner in the copier. But it is part of our role. We have a finished product at the end of it that we own, even though our organization paid us to write it.
So should we put that document online for free?
Shared Inspiration and Delivery
I believe Preachers should make their sermons and studies available for free online to contribute to the Body of Christ.
Preachers rarely have original strings of thought from end to end. We receive inspiration from Bible scholars who explain a passage. We reflect on theologians and books that interpret and apply. And we have our own upbringing and families of origin who have imprinted their perspectives on our very souls. The end result may be novel to us, but the underlying elements come from others.
I have a strong incarnational theology: if your word was uttered in a local church or ministry context, it is embodied and belongs to the people from whence it came. Our work is so indebted to others that to lock away sermons or studies behind paywalls is to privatize what God has put into the Body of Christ. The Hand says to the Body “I have no need of you unless you pay.”
I’m not a big fan of Life.Church, an evangelical network of multi-site churches in my home state of Oklahoma and surrounding areas. But I respect and appreciate their commitment to free content. Their Open network puts their sermons, studies, graphics, and other media online for free use and remixing. It’s part of their theology and they have the resoruces to do it well. I’ve adapted their content to my post-Christian progressive context before, so you can see the range of its use. 🙂
I have much less appreciation or respect for the Sermon Silos of websites like Pastors.com, Sermoncentral.com, and others that lock away sermons behind a paywall. I have no idea what their authors are compensated—maybe their authors are not compensated by a local church. But I suspect many are.
Preachers are professional writers who have already been compensated for their work and whose work’s inspiration is shared with the body. The resulting documents deserve to be made freely available for further inspiration, refinement, and proclamation.
The exception might be preachers from classes traditionally excluded from the pulpit: persons of color, LGBTQ persons, and women (in way too many traditions). Such insights from these classes of humanity have tremendous value in their novelty and contextual authority, and as a straight white male I can’t demand they put out their work for free. But for everyone else, I’m hopeful for free contributions instead of paid content submissions.
Where do we put our sermons and studies?
There are myriad places where preachers can put their content online so that others might be inspired and pushed in the right direction. Sermons that coincide with the Lectionary are terrific additions to websites like Textweek.
But really, just starting a blog and putting the Scripture or keywords or topics in the title or lead paragraph help with google searches finding them and winning over devoted readers. And if you are related to a denomination or network of churches, look for group blogs or studies to be a helpful addition to your “tribe” of people.
What about plagiarism?
Yes, if you put your sermons online, people will copy them. They will be proclaimed by unscrupulous pastors in distant pulpits. That has been going on for decades. I remember one megachurch in Oklahoma City would mail audiotapes of their pastor’s sermons in the 1990s. They had an equipment malfunction and stopped it for a few weeks, then received a call from a distraught pastor the next state over that needed to get his sermon for the following week!
Yes, it will be copied, perhaps even without your name. Bloggers and other preachers will hopefully cite their sources when they use your work, but maybe they won’t.
But even if so: your work will have contributed to the story of Jesus Christ. Your ideas, informed by your context, tradition, and education, will be placed alongside stupid ones and narrow-minded ones, and perhaps drown them out. The Internet’s bad content and theology cannot be censored—it can only be overwhelmed by good content.
So your responsibility is to be a person of integrity that names your sources. Even on podcasts (I admit I’m having trouble finding the best way to put footnotes in the podcast fields—leave suggestions in the comments!). Be the change you hope to see in the world and correct your own work whenever you find you have fallen short on citations.
You may be a freelance author of sermons who is not compensated weekly by a local parish. This blog post isn’t about you: keep doing you.
But if you do have a main gig, I hope you keep your Spirit-inspired wisdom freely in the Body of Christ, not stuck behind a paywall.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.