Evangelical churches and ministries across America are reeling today after a lower court in Manhattan found the defendants guilty in the "U.S. vs. 'Rev. John Smith'" sermon sharing case.
On April 1, 2007 the justice department filed charges against thousands of pastors and seminary students across America. Due to the large number of parties involved, the justice department simply designated the defendant as "Rev. John Smith" to represent the whole.
At the center of the suit are the sermons and writings of Rev. Timothy J. Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. After an intensive three year investigation the justice department uncovered an extensive network of pastors, seminary students and other church workers who downloaded hundreds of sermons by Rev. Keller, distributed them and preached them regularly in churches across America.
Lead investigator Roscoe P. Coltrane commented, "we received a tip from an elderly lady from Flynt, MI named Lois McGillicuddy. Being retired, she travels extensively throughout America and is in a different church every Sunday. She noticed that she kept hearing the same sermons over and over and after three years of this became suspicious and notified us. We launched an investigation which uncovered a massive underground network of illegal sermon sharing. Mrs. McGillicuddy was right, the same sermons are being preached over and over again in the churches throughout America, and they all are tied to Keller."
The means for sharing these sermons are various. Coltrane noted that the recent explosion of "Christian leadership conferences" has been a major source of sermon sharing - "On any given day, one to two dozen of these 'leadership conferences' is being held in churches, conference and convention centers across America. And these conferences are multiplying like rabbits, we estimate there are three to four new nationwide leadership conferences announced every week. Ninety percent of the pastors in America attend 6 or more of these conferences a year, as well as a large percentage of seminary students and others training for ministry." Coltrane went on to point out that these are prime opportunities for sermon sharing. "Attendees will frequently be found exchanging small USB devices containing pirated sermons, and there are many hallway and backroom conversations telling each other where to find more."
But by far the biggest source of sermon sharing has been the internet. Just as hackers routinely break into Microsoft to acquire copies of the latest software, these sermon hackers have bypassed all of the security measures of the "Redeemer Online Store," which stores Keller's sermons. Every sermon Keller has ever preached has now been downloaded and is available to preachers and ministry leaders across America from "sermon-warez" hackers.
When notified about this, Art S. Prince of Redeemer Church Associates, cooperated fully with the Justice Department. "I can appreciate that pastors need material to preach from," said Mr. Prince, "but we have to maintain some quality control here, people are taking Rev. Keller's words and are mixing them with their own, so we need to put a stop to this."
On hearing about the verdict, Genea Simmons, a spokesperson for the Redeemer Church Associates said, "I do feel bad for these pastors who can no longer use Mr. Keller's sermons. But we here at Redeemer believe this is all a part of God's sovereign plan. For 15 years now we have been telling everyone that God wills that every Christian in America move to New York City - if we reach New York City with the gospel, we have reached the world. This will force pastors and others who want to use Keller's material to come to New York City to hear it live. And by living in New York City, they are helping insure that the Great Commission is fulfilled."
The fallout has been devastating, even catastrophic for some. One denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, found that from 2002-2006, 65% of the sermons preached in their pulpits were plagiarized from Mr. Keller. Even more alarming was the fact that new pastors who graduated from PCA related seminaries from 1995-2006, 87% were using versions of Mr. Keller's sermons each Sunday. Because of this verdict, 37% of PCA churches across America closed their doors last month because they couldn't find preachers.
The seminaries are also being hit hard. There are no new enrollments at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, and the various campuses of Reformed and Westminster Theological Seminaries. Sean Fanning of Napsterville, IL recently dropped out of Covenant Seminary. "The only reason I went to seminary was to get 'credentials' so I could pastor a church. I felt called to pastor a church but have never been a good student. The leaders in my church told me not to worry about that, I could go to Covenant and skate by with C- grades in all my classes and still graduate. Then when I got 'on the field' they were going to hook me up with the 'Keller underground' and I'd have all my sermons taken care of. Now that's all gone."
But it's not only the PCA that is suffering from this, the Southern Baptist Convention has also taken a hit. Every Southern Baptist Church that has been planted in America since 1995 has either been planted by the Rev. Ed Stetzer or by someone who was following the script of one of his books. But Stetzer confesses "frankly I lift all of my material from Tim Keller, with this ruling I'm done." Because of this, Stetzer has been relieved of his duties as the SBC's "Missiologist in Residence," and he has ceased his writing and speaking ministry. Dr. Frank Page, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, says "I'm not sure what we're going to do - now that Stetzer has dried up we can't plant SBC churches and most of our younger pastors are dropping out. They just can't go on without Stetzer."
Geoff Hammond, President of the Southern Baptist's North American Mission Board (NAMB) is upbeat. "Yes, losing Stetzer was big, and we wish him well in his new job as Marketing Director for the Dunder-Mifflin office in Erie, PA. But we Southern Baptists are a creative and resilient sort - we'll adapt. In fact, just this morning we recast the purpose and mission of the NAMB. Since we don't have Stetzer we're no longer trying to plant churches - instead, we are moving forward with a new vision of hosting more Beth Moore conferences. In fact, on January 2, 2008 Broadman and Holman will publish Beth's newest book 'Become a Moore Better You,' to coincide with her much anticipated 'Your Beth Life Now,' nationwide bus tour. So yes I am upbeat - who needs Stetzer or Keller when you've got Moore?"
The internet was the arena where most of Keller's sermons were shared, amongst Christian blogs and social networks. But these are being hit just as hard as the denominations. Famed Keller blogger and minister Steve McCoy of the Reformissionary blog has shut down his blog and left his church and is pursuing his dream of becoming a member of the Hollywood paparazzi. The leading Keller blogger on the internet, D. J. Chuang believes this is the end of the "Christian blogosphere." Chuang says "when it comes to 'Christian blogging' 50% of the bloggers out there were either blogging Keller's words or commenting on them. The other 50% were arguing with them. Now 50% of Christian bloggers have nothing to say and the other 50% have no one to argue with."
It remains to be seen what the total fallout from this verdict will be. Many Christian leaders refused to be interviewed for this story, evidencing a sense of shame over their involvement in this sordid affair. But the feelings of all the defendants in this case were expressed eloquently by Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. When asked to comment, Driscoll said simply "@!%$*+^% *&^%@#!"
© 2007 - The Garlic News Service