As a young pastor, I couldn’t 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. Then 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 friends’ members hadn’t heard my stories or sermons. Anything I did would be new to them.
Those early attempts to preach repeats were fairly pathetic, I think. 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 couldn’t reproduce it verbatim. 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 will find something of benefit here.
Don’t expect it to be an exact copy of 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. After all, a lot has changed since you preached it:
- 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 Illustrations get outdated, and language changes.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 even 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, and your congregation has changed (physically and spiritually) since you last preached the message.
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.
Go to the Lord to see what He wants updated.
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 new to add. In fact, on the second time around, the pastor is ready to receive more from the Spirit than he was when he first produced the 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.
Ask any schoolteacher. The first year a teacher covers a subject, he or she labors every night trying to assemble the material for the next day’s class. It’s an ordeal. The second year improves, since the teacher has been through the jungle before. He 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 is typically 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 he can keep learning on the subject and trying to perfect his methods.
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.
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 wonder why the people in the pews never grew. The number one reason people in the pews are not growing is that the man in the pulpit has long since ceased to grow.
Always be working to improve your best sermons.
A good preacher 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 these into his files so it will be there waiting the next time he preaches that sermon 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 searches for those gems I had hoped to use the next time I preached a certain sermon!
Experience the sermon anew with the congregation.
This little insight came straight from the lips of Professor James Taylor, teacher of preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid-1960s. This is also 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, a masterful art) that comes from loving people and devoting oneself to one’s craft.
Revisit the material you couldn’t use the first time.
You can’t preach every insight you have found, can’t use every good story you have uncovered on a 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.
Young pastors have to learn the hard way not to toss in every insight, every story, or 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; he’s trying to convey the Lord’s message on that subject.
Don’t hesitate to preach repeats to your own people.
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 I sometimes wonder why they do it.
However, if the sermon was preached more than a couple of years earlier, calling attention to its being a rerun is completely unnecessary. After all, as we’ve seen, the sermon will not be the same as it was before (or it shouldn’t be!).
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 preach on this 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. What a privilege to be a co-laborer with the Lord in preaching this Word!