The Recycled Sermon
I don’t believe there’s a pastor in the United States who does not do this from time to time: Pull out an old sermon from a few years ago, give it a new title, a fresh intro or illustration, and preach it again. I also don’t know of a congregational or lay leader who wouldn’t cringe at this practice. After all, the pastor is paid to study and write an original sermon each and every week, isn’t he? Isn’t recycling old material, well, cheating somehow?
The reality is that re-teaching sermon material is not cheating, or anything else subversive. It’s not only a common practice, but I would like to suggest the circumstances in which it is a wise and helpful practice for the pastor and for his church.
Some things need to be repeated. I served with a pastor who was in his first pastorate. After about 18 months of teaching, he remarked in a staff meeting, “I really wish I could just go back and re-preach about 75% of what I have taught in the last year.” His thinking was that many areas of teaching need to be repeated so that the congregation could dive deeper into the sermon and the application. Many had heard it, but not everyone “got it”. Certainly some repetition is necessary in sermons. I’ve written before about areas where pastors should concentrate refresher-teaching regularly.
It’s crazy to think that once you teach on a topic, you need never approach it again from the same perspective. Or that if you teach through a Bible book, you shouldn’t go back through that book again at some point. Certainly too some areas of Scripture naturally lend themselves to more frequent teaching than other areas. You’ll likely hit Paul’s epistles more often than, say, Leviticus. So some level of repetition is healthy to help the congregation know the Word and obey the Word.
Some people need to hear it for the first time. We simply cannot assume that everyone hears our sermon the first time around. These days if you come every other week you’re considered a “regular attender”—yet you are missing half the sermons. In our church we have many guests each week. They didn’t hear that great series on God’s will that Dr. Merritt preached two months ago, or the one on Jesus’ last 24 hours on earth that he preached three years ago. And though we’d like to think a new church member immediately downloads every podcast going back for 10 years upon joining the congregation, the fact is, new people have heard the new stuff, and that’s it.
Additionally we must remember that not every church member is at the same place spiritually or even maturing at the same rate. The congregation didn’t all start drinking milk one day and once we graduate to steak we need to stay on that course forever in our teaching. Instead we have congregations with people at all spiritual depths, and our various messages and series will connect with different segments of the audience. A member may have heard a message on holiness two years ago, but was unable to understand or apply it then—but when you re-teach it now, two years later, they’ve had enough maturing to be able to grasp it at a different level.
Some sermons are that good. I served with a pastor for a number of years who had a great sermon on procrastination that was entitled “One More Night with the Frogs.” (Exodus 8:1-10). I thought it was among his best sermons ever. Guess what? He taught it several times while I served with him. Every 2-3 years he would pull it out and teach it. And every time the response was phenomenal. It just connected. Every pastor has a few messages like that which I believe are God-given and continue to resonate and connect time after time. A pastor should never be afraid to repeat himself for fear he will not be seen as “original”. If it works, for heaven’s sake, use it again!
There’s a difference between laziness and reteaching. Certainly it’s possible that a pastor may become simply lazy in his sermon preparation and over-recycle. I believe that pastor will clearly see his preaching become disconnected from the congregation. But it is up to the preacher to determine, through prayer, study, observation and leadership, what his congregation needs over time. I’ve never heard a member tell a pastor, “You need to be more shallow in your teaching and give us more sound-bites and easier messages.” Your congregation will always ask you to dive into the deep end of the pool—whether they can actually take it or not.
But the pastor must observe if the congregation is merely listening, or if their listening is leading to obedience. James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” So if people aren’t doing the Word, then we should certainly consider re-teaching the sermon at an appropriate interval.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.