As a young pastor, I could never repeat a sermon any more than I could eat yesterday’s breakfast again. Each sermon was a one-time thing. When it was over, it was gone forever.
And then, the invitations began to come in to preach in churches pastored by friends who thought I had something worth sharing with their people. That’s when I had to get serious about repeating a sermon. After all, my friend’s members have not heard my stories or sermons. Anything I did would be new to them.
Those early attempts to preach repeats in my late 20s and early 30s were fairly pathetic, I’m thinking. Since my sermon notes were always one thing and the actual sermon something else entirely, nothing in writing told me what I had preached the first time so I could reproduce it verbatim. So, I had to go from memory, or better, get with the Lord anew on that sermon.
These days–I’m now 70 and retired–almost every sermon I preach is on a topic I’ve preached before (with the occasional exception; hey, I’m not living on reruns here!). As a result, I have more or less figured this thing out, at least to my satisfaction.
Maybe pastors wll find something of benefit here.
No sermon will ever be an exact copy of the way you preached it the first time.
The absolute worst thing you could do in repreaching a sermon would be to take the earlier manuscript and deliver it verbatim. Not a good idea at all.
After all, a lot has changed since you preached that.
–The world has changed. Circumstances change, cultures evolve, technology advances. Illustrations get outdated and language changes.
–You are at a different place in life. You’ve grown. You know more about the Lord and His Word than you did a year or two ago.
–You are preaching to a different congregation. As any preacher will tell you, the hearers of a message have a lot to do with how it is preached. I’m not able to tell all the reasons for this, but I know it to be true.
I think of the pastor who preached in the afternoon to a different congregation the same message he delivered to his own people that morning. Asked why it had been so powerful in the morning and had bombed four hours later, he said, “Poor preaching is God’s judgment on a prayerless congregation.”
Every congregation is different. Therefore, sermons will not be the same everywhere or work in the same way in every setting.
The pastor should go back to the Lord to see what He wants said this time.
The fact that the Holy Spirit led the preacher the first time does not automatically mean He has said all He has to say on that subject or has nothing to new to add.
The pastor is now ready to receive more than he was when he first produced this sermon. He now has a grasp of the basic text and a good understanding of the thrust of the message. So, as he prays over it and rethinks the material, he is able to do something pastors rarely get a chance to do: improve on a sermon he has already preached.
This is one of the most exciting aspects of repreaching an old sermon. You get to make it better. As a result, you become a better preacher yourself.
This is a great reason for pastors to accept invitations to preach in other churches from time to time.
Ask any schoolteacher. The first year a teacher covers a subject, he or she is laboring at night trying to assemble the material for the next day’s class. That first year is an ordeal. The second year is better since the teacher has been through this jungle before, has carved out a path, and knows he can get to the destination. Fortified by the experience of the first year, she looks around to see if there is a better way to teach this difficult event or explain that hard-to-grasp concept. The second year was more fun, more effective, and more productive than the first.
At this point, the teacher faces a crucial decision: he can reteach the first year’s material again and again, or keep learning on the subject and trying to perfect his methods.
Pastors who simply regurgitate previously delivered sermons without restudying them, praying them through anew, and looking for better ways and sharper insights, are failing their people.
I expect we all have known pastors who went from one short-term pastorate to another doing this. And they wondered why the people in the pews never grew.
The number one reason people in the pew are not growing is that the man in the pulpit has long since ceased to grow.
A good preacher is always working to improve his best sermons.
He reads something and realizes it fits with the sermon on grace. He finds a great illustration that works for the sermon on stewardship. He stumbles across an insight from scripture that is ideal for the message on God’s Word.
How he incorporates that into the sermon so it will be there waiting the next time he preaches it is up to him. If, like I tend to be, he is a totally right-brained preacher (that is, spontaneous in his impulsiveness, disorderly in his scheduling, and haphazard in his filing system), he will drop the note into a drawer or file it in the pages of his Bible and may or may not find it when he needs it. The stories I could tell about searchs for those gems I had hoped to use the next time I preached this sermon!
The best way to preach an old sermon is to experience it anew with the congregation.
This little insight came straight from the lips of Professor James Taylor, teacher of preaching, in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid-1960s, and has lingered there ever since.
That’s how Christian entertainers like Dennis Swanberg and Andy Andrews do it. They relive whatever they’re sharing along with their audiences. Look at their faces and you know in a heartbeat that even though they have their material down pat and know exactly what comes next, they are experiencing it afresh along with you. It’s a neat trick (or, if you prefer, it’s a masterful art) that comes from loving people and devoting oneself to one’s craft.
In time, you the preacher will have far more material on this sermon than you can use in a sermon of normal length.
You can’t preach every insight you have found, can’t use every good story you have uncovered on that subject, and can’t bring in every text that pertains to the message. You will have to pick and choose. This is great, because it means you can give your very best stuff to your congregation. They get to hear the choicest offering you can give.
Pastors sometimes have the experience of a church member hearing him preach a repeat in another church and observing, “That was great, pastor. You ought to preach that for us sometime.” He thinks he did, but he didn’t. He preached an earlier incarnation of that sermon. A slimmer version. The embryonic form.
Young pastors have to learn the hard way not to toss in every insight, every story, every text that fits a sermon. Audiences do not have an infinite capacity to take in and retain all the preacher throws at them. He needs to respect their limitations and keep the sermon at a reasonable length by laying aside all but the most important elements.
After all, the pastor’s goal is not to convince his audience he knows all there is to know of a subject. What he’s trying to do is to convey the Lord’s message on that subject. His goal is to get people to do the will of God in that area. The only question is how to do that the best.
If the pastor stays at one church long enough, he will eventually want to preach repeats to his own people. He should not hesitate to do so.
Most pastors I know tell the congregation when they are preaching a repeat. They might dress several up as “summer reruns” or “back by popular demand.” I know at least two pastors who each year on the anniversary of their arrival at that church will deliver the same message, year after year. I have no idea how well they do it, and sometimes wonder why they do it.
However they do so, if the sermon was preached more than a couple of years earlier, calling attention to its being a rerun is completely unnecessary. After all, the sermon will not be the same as it was before. (Or, it shouldn’t be!) The preacher has changed, he knows more of the Word and the subject and the people than he did then, and the sermon will be a different animal.
Invariably, some church member will seek out the preacher following the sermon with her finger pointing to a verse in her open Bible. “Pastor, you preached this same sermon three years ago.” Count on it happening.
But don’t let it bother you.
The proper answer to that is: “I preached the same text. But it’s a different sermon. And by the way, don’t be surprised if I come back here again. It’s a great Scripture, isn’t it.”
Have fun preaching those repeats, pastor. At least this is one time you do not have to reinvent the wheel or discover fire all over again.
Finally, here’s what happened to me just this week after writing the above.
I was in a four-day revival in Milton, Florida, and had planned to preach sermons I’ve used before and found to be effective. The sermon for the final service, Wednesday night, I call “Regardless.” The thrust of it is We should obey the Lord regardless of what we have or do not have, how we feel or don’t, what others do or say, what we know or do not know, what we understand and what we still question.
The text is Habakkuk 3:17-19, a truly unique passage which is dearly loved by God’s people. Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines; though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food; though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet; He causes me to walk on my high places.
I introduce the sermon with a story of a lady in our church who had risen up from poverty and was struggling to make ends meet. We had led her and her children to the Lord and baptized them. She was making great strides forward as a believer. One day she told my wife, “I know God wants me to tithe my income. You know I don’t make enough to live on as it is. But I’ve just decided I’m going to do it regardless.”
When my wife relayed that to me, the Holy Spirit sent that one word regardless like an arrow straight into my heart. I realized this is how the Christian life is to be lived–regardless of what we have or do not have, what the economy does, how we feel, what others do or say, etc.
In fact, this is the very essence of faith, to do God’s will against all obstacles. Every time the 11th chapter of Hebrews lauds someone for their faith, we see that that person obeyed the Lord in spite of difficulties or discouragement. They served God regardless.
The first half-dozen times I preached that sermon, my points were something like:
1. Rejoice in the Lord regardless. Texts: Habakkuk 3:17-19; Luke 10:20.
2. Pray regardless. Text: The story of Bartimaeus in Luke 18.
3. Give regardless. Text: The story of the widow who gave her small offering in Mark 12.
And so forth. Obviously, any command God gives us for living the Christian life–to confess Christ, to love one another, to forgive, to go into the world with the gospel–any command! will need to be done regardless of circumstances or emotions or fears or the response of others.
So, here’s what happened Wednesday night of this week. I sat on the front row of the church during the 25 minutes of hymns and choruses prior to the sermon time. That’s when the Lord sent me a message about this sermon.
The sermon needs to be in two parts: the first part to believers, based on the Habakkuk text, and the second half to unbelievers, based on the Bartimaeus story in Luke 18. Throughout both, however, the message is the same: obey the Lord regardless.
To believers, I pointed out that we are to rejoice regardless of what we have or what our circumstances are; we are to bring our offerings (like my friend in the story or the widow in Mark 12) regardless of how little we have to give; and we are to pray regardless of whether we see an answer or not.
To unbelievers (I probably called them “outsiders” or “those of you who have not yet committed your lives to Christ”), I told the story of Bartimaeus coming to Christ in spite of the discouragement he received from others. I like to call him the smartest man in Jericho for two reasons: 1) By listening to others talk, he had heard reports of Jesus’ previous trips through Jericho and had picked up on the conversations of who He was, and had come to the conclusion that Jesus was the Messiah. We know this by the Messianic term in his call: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 2) Bartimaeus had decided the very next time Jesus came through Jericho, he was going to meet Him and give Him an opportunity to touch him. What he did not know, however, was that he next opportunity would be his last.
Jesus was on His final trip through Jericho. He was heading for Jerusalem and the cross.
Now, had Bartimaeus been foolish, he would have reasoned that Jesus is a young man. Why, He’s barely in his 30’s. He’s been through here many times before, and I’m sure he will be back again. One of these days, I plan to call on him. But not today. There’s plenty of time.
We never know when will be our last opportunity to meet Jesus and give Him our lives. That’s why the smartest thing we can ever do is to take the first chance we have to turn to Him in faith and be saved.
I was happy to see that during the invitation which followed a woman and two teenage girls stepped forward to receive Christ as Savior.
This sermon, I am assuming, is still a work in progress and perhaps is a far cry from what it will eventually be. I hope the Holy Spirit continues to lead me to develop it and to sharpen it.
What a sad thing it would have been had I stayed with the original incarnation of this message. As it is, however, watching it grow into something far superior to what it was at first, something far more effective, is as exciting as anything that can happen to a preacher of the Word.
What a privilege to be a co-laborer with the Lord in preaching this Word!
Refreshing word, Joe. Thank you again. In the words of J. Vernon McGee, “If the sermon is not worth preaching again, it was likely not worth preaching the first time.”
B R Lakin preached mostly in Bible conferences and Pastor fellowships in his retired years. He preached a sermon and one of the preachers came up to him and reminded him that he preached that sermon last year, word for word. Dr. Lakin replied to the man…I heard you preach last year and can’t remember a word you said.
Joe, I’m continually amazed at the insight and wisdom you are able to convey as you share the wonderful things God has taught you. My experience is much the same as yours–I’m so glad you can put it in words that will help countless others in their journey. I love you and thank God for you.
Your time could not be more perfect. Last week I simply ran out of time and decided to pull a message I gave about seven years ago. I was amazed. I didn’t think the message went anything like it did the first time, but (and this proves that some people do pay attention) one lady asked, “Didn’t you give that message a few years ago? I still like it.”
Maybe we will both be around to hear it again in seven years. Joe, thanks for all you do. God bless.