Preaching a Sermon for the Umpteenth Time: The Temptation to “Phone It In.”

A football player’s head is not in the game and he’s just going through the motion. The narrator says he is phoning it in.

The stage actor has said those lines precisely 568 times before audiences and an untold number in rehearsal and in front of his bathroom mirror. He has to really work at his craft, lest he “phone it in.”

The teacher has gone over those lessons each year for the last two decades. She could do it blind-folded while making a grocery list. If she’s not careful, she’ll “phone it in.”

Our Lord warned of religious people using “vain repetitions” in their prayers. Putting the mind in neutral and the mouth spouting out those words and phrases we’ve all learned, as though the Lord hears and answers based on sheer volume. Phoning it in.

You’re a retired pastor and travel a good bit. You get invited to guest-supply in various pulpits and speak to congregations that have never heard any of your best stuff. By the third year of this, you’ve boiled your preaching down to a solid one dozen messages. You’re having more fun than you’ve had in a lifetime of ministry.

And no deacons meetings to attend, no church business conferences to moderate, no angry church members to deal with. You preach, accept a check from your host, pray the Lord’s blessings on him and his ministry, and go back home. Next week, another drive to another church to deliver a similar sermon.

Question du jour: How does a minister keep from robotically and mindlessly mouthing the same platitudes over and over in a sermon he has preached ten, twenty, fifty times?

It’s Sunday morning, three a.m., and that’s my challenge for later this morning. Fortunately, I know the answer. (What, you ask, are you doing up at this hour of the morning? Answer: I’m a preacher and I’m delivering a sermon in a few hours. That’s what I’m doing up at 3 a.m.)

How to keep the sermon fresh and alive.

1. Pray.

These twelve sermons are not concoctions I whipped up in a seminary library one Saturday afternoon. These are messages which God gave me in embryonic form many years ago and has continued to add to, improve on, develop, and strengthen through these many years. (How many years? Next December will be exactly 50 years since my ordination. Forty-two of those years were spent leading churches, five as the “director of missions” for the SBC churches of metro New Orleans, and nearly three in retirement work.)

As soon as an event goes on my preaching schedule, I begin praying for the Lord to prepare me and to prepare those who will be hearing me. “Lord, I do not want to waste your time, their good will, and my opportunity. Please show me what to preach and prepare the hearts of all who will hear.”

2. Love.

I love the Lord, am committed to the work to which He has called me, and–even though I’ve not met anyone in this congregation where I’ll be preaching in eight hours except the pastor and his small family–I honor the Lord’s church. My heart’s desire is to honor the Lord, bless these people and be used of God in their lives, and acquit myself well.

3. Rehearse.

Driving from our home in suburban New Orleans yesterday to this sweet little community in South Central Georgia, a jaunt of 520 miles, several times I went over sermons new and used. I talked to the Lord about what to preach and went over familiar ground, seeing if this was still the right thing to say.

A generation or more, Professor and Pastor Clyde Fant made me aware in his book “Preaching For Today” that preaching is an oral art, not a written one, and that some of the best preparation the preacher can make is to speak the sermon out loud. Until that moment, I would sit at the typewriter (anyone remember those?) and compose the best message I could, go over it time and again, and then think I was prepared. But I wasn’t.

Saying the words out loud activates the mind in ways that staring at printed words on a page can never do. And, even though I have quoted this text a hundred times before, this scripture is God’s living Word which means it never gets old or trite or stale. Even though I have preached this sermon multiple times, the challenge is to keep it fresh.

4. Experiment.

Is the way I’ve been delivering this sermon the best way? What if we moved that story from the first to the end? Perhaps one of the scriptures to which we refer in the body of the sermon would be a better beginning text from which to launch the message. What if I tried that.

So, in going over the sermon while driving, I’ll try various ways of preaching it. In deciding which is best, my only guide is the Holy Spirit within. That is, having asked the Lord to show me His way, as it comes out of my mouth, I pretty well know if this is working or “pushing it.”

5. Living It.

Professor James Taylor told our class of young seminarians this very thing nearly a half-century ago at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, but it didn’t “take” with most of us since we were just beginning in the work. The way to keep a sermon fresh after preaching it numerous times is to experience it anew along with the congregation each time.

The Word of God is alive. And if the message I preach is His Word, then these will be living words too.

God help me to do it well. To be faithful. To be strong and courageous, to look these people in the eye and tell them the truth in love. To extend Heaven’s invitation with all the force I would if the Lord Jesus were in the audience–He is!–and to expect people to respond as though He were preaching it.

I hope He is.

7 thoughts on “Preaching a Sermon for the Umpteenth Time: The Temptation to “Phone It In.”

  1. Yes live it….it should have been #1….that I know by experience…..and one omitted, give plenty of room for the Holy Spirit, this is one thing to pray for but another to let the Spirit do the work…I fail to do that many time and again by experience. Let me explain: Did it ever happen that suddenly in the middle of speaking, an idea just pop up, you are compelled to express it yet you decide to stick to the prepared sermon or prepared statement? Where do you think it come from?

    God Bless

  2. Joe,

    You are such a special friend. Those early days spent in the back of the class drawing cartoons with you and the couple of revivals I spent with you were special times of bonding for me. Then we each went off our own way for forty (?) years only to be brought back together again. You’ve meant so much to so many of us–thank you–your insights and wisdom benefit all who read with an open heart and mind.

    Joyfully Serving Christ,


  3. Joe, thanks. Well, I was up at 3AM, too, but for different reasons. I did not have to preach a sermon that day. But I did have to attend my Sunday School Class and take care of a number of other things on Sunday and I needed to rest in the Lord yesterday and to listen to Godly men proclaim the Good News. I have busy week scheduled this week and I needed to be encouraged in the Lord. I will see a number of people that will look to me to do things that I have no idea how I can and want me to make things happen that I have absolutely no power to make happen and have knowledge that I do not possess and ask some questions I have no idea how to answer, but still have to answer. All of our lives we need to live in the expectation that God will supply all of our needs-not wants, regardless of what we do. It took me 56 years to learn that. Thankfully, to Him, who is able to accomplish all that we ever ask, according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus, is my prayer for you and your familly and me and my family and all I come in contact with today.

  4. Thanks, Joe. As always, right on target and right helpful. 30 years ago, I assisted a retired pastor at a graveside service for an infant, tragically killed in a yard accident. The pastor just threw it into automatic and “phoned it in.” I was appalled and could only wonder what the young, grieving couple must be thinking and feeling. That, and I sensed the Lord saying to me, “Son, someday you’ll be an older, experienced preacher. Stay in tune with My Spirit, and your words will be sincere, appropriate, fresh, and edifying.” Your admonitions are good reminders of what our Lord desires from us. Bless you, Greg Loewer, NorthStar Church Network, Northern Virginia

  5. As usual, Joe — right on target. I’m learning this lesson, again! So far — I’m very thankful I’ve been able to avoid the temptation to “phone it in!” And, your 5 points provide a great summary and check list for all of us. and, yes !! I’m having great fun!! Looking forward to our time together the week of April 29th!

  6. My solution has been to do some street ministry and get a few people healed in the name of Jesus with divine miracles (no limp, growths gone, blind eyes see, etc.) This does wonders for eliminating platitiudes. Mark 16:15-20 is the answer for vain rpeptition.

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