by Steve Mathewson
How much life should you get out of a sermon? When is it appropriate to preach it again to the same congregation? How much change should you make when you preach it to another congregation? Iíve thought about these questions during my sermon preparation this week. Iím currently preaching through Ephesians, and I still have my notes and manuscripts from a series I did on this epistle eight years ago in another church. Let me share what Iíve learned about recycling sermons.
First, re-using a sermon or preaching a sermon on a text Iíve preached before takes as much work as preparing a new sermon. Itís a different kind of work, but itís still work! I simply canít Ďheat and serveí an old sermon like I might do with leftovers from the fridge. To make it fresh, I have to cover old exegetical ground, explore new ground I overlooked last time, and wrestle with why this particular congregation at this particular time needs this particular text. For example, the last time I preached Ephesians, I prepared a mechanical layout of the text (something I do when I preach New Testament epistles) in both Greek and English. Iím currently using that work. Having it done already allows me to concentrate on other exegetical issues which I didnít have time to pursue previously.
Second, recycling a sermon forces me to look for new illustrations and images. This is true whether Iím preaching it to people who heard it before or to a new audience. Even though it will be "new" to an audience who has not heard the sermon before, the illustrations and images will likely be dated and suited for a different culture. This is true for me because I tend to use images and illustrations which fit the culture where Iím preaching and which emerge from current events.
Third, as a consequence of these two realities, almost all of the old sermons I re-use have become new sermons by the time I re-use them. I have a handful of sermons which Iíve preached in different settings over the years. The changes Iíve made over time have been slight. But most of the sermons I re-use end up becoming new sermons. New insights, new illustrations, and more mature thinking (I hope!) than I possessed eight
years ago, and the work of Godís Spirit combine to create something new.
Fourth, I typically wait at least four years before preaching the same sermon (or text) to the same congregation, and then I have a good reason for it. I picked up this idea early on in my ministry, although I canít remember where I heard it. But the idea is that a lot changes in four years. People finish high school or college, get married, have grandkids, face new challenges, etc. But if I revisit a sermon or a sermon text, itís not because I ran out of time and had to recycle a Ďgolden oldieí from the past. Itís because the congregation is facing something that requires me to return to a text like Romans 8:31-39 even if I preached it five years ago. Or perhaps an issue that needs repeating (such as giving) is best addressed by one particular text (such as 2 Corinthians 8-9). Sometimes, Iím fired up about preaching a text Iíve used before simply because Godís Spirit has used it to stir something within me.
Itís alright, then, to recycle a sermon. Sometimes, it may be necessary or preferable. But be prepared for some hard work!