It’s summer. The time of year when pastors and church members go on vacation. Most churches slump a bit in attendance. Most pastors try to catch their breath. So what to preach? A lot of pastors I know who come up with a good sermon series idea for the year, don’t look to preach that series in the summer. They want maximum hearing and maximum impact. Even in the days of live-streaming, it’s hard to get that in the summer. So it begs the question: is it okay to preach a sermon you’ve preached before?
I’ve been preaching every Sunday since 1981, and I admit that I don’t re-preach much from those early years of preaching. That’s when I was still trying to find my voice. But by the same token, I have preached sermons several times from the shell of a handful of my earliest preaching even though I’m not sure some of my earliest preaching was worth preaching the first time. God, who makes something out of nothing, used it then; God can still make something of it now even if it bears little resemblance to the original. But is it okay to do this? Does it break some kind of preacher-code of ethics? Does God roll his eyes and think, “Oh no, not that again. It’s a good thing I never sleep or slumber, or that sermon would put me in a coma.”
So far as I know, God doesn’t weigh in on re-preaching sermons. But others do, and some think it’s anathema: “God isn’t stuck in the past. He has a new word for the church. Listen for that word and preach it!” True. But that doesn’t mean a pastor can’t re-preach a sermon from the past. Isn’t God the one who can make all things new? Can’t a word that God used in the past, be a word he can use in the present? It seems to me the Bible is a word like that. Why would God give a preacher a sermon that only has a 30-minute shelf life? It is not anathema to preach a sermon you’ve preached before. It could be wisdom.
Sometimes pastors are hesitant to re-preach sermons because we overestimate the power of our sermons. We assume people remember it. I hate to bust your bubble, but they probably don’t. When I’m sorting through older sermon titles, I can’t even remember what most of the sermons were about, and I spent hours preparing it. The folks won’t either. They tend to remember novelty sermons and transforming stories but not the meat and potatoes of our Sunday to Sunday preaching. I know this from experience. I’ve had a man say to me, “You’re preaching just seems to keep getting stronger and stronger.” I hate to disappoint him and tell him that I preached that same sermon or that same series in 2009. I’ve had a woman say to me, “That may be the best sermon I’ve ever heard you preach.” I hate to disappoint her and tell her that she heard me preach that sermon in 2006. People hear sermons through the lens of their current experience and needs. We read that Bible that way, finding things in old texts we never noticed the 37 times we’d read it previously. People hear sermons the same way. Oh, and every church has a few members who record next to your text in their Bible the date you preached a sermon on that text, right? I’ve had one man in particular who will approach me after the service, smile, and say, “You preached that sermon on May 3, 2005.” I smile and reply, “Did you remember it?” He smiles and says, “No.”
I have re-preached numerous sermons and some series over the years. I’ve only served two churches in 37 years: one for about 14 years and one for 23 years. If you serve a church for only 3-5 years, re-preaching a sermon has different challenges. But I want to advocate the re-preaching of sermons from time to time—especially in the summer time or on holiday weekends. And if you serve in one place long enough, even some repetition in Advent or Lenten/Easter preaching can be a helpful thing for pastor and church.
In my view, it’s okay to re-preach some of your sermons now and then. If you’re thinking of re-preaching a sermon or a series, here are a few tips:
Be prayerful about the process. Don’t just pull a sugar-stick; think: what does God want to say to the church?
Keep good records of past sermons. I always record date and place preached on every sermon manuscript and in my sermon file.
If it doesn’t light a fire in you, it won’t light a fire in your people. Leave it on the shelf.
Make necessary tweaks and changes: Do you think a bit differently about the text than you did when you preached the sermon the first time? (If you’ve got a new commentary on that text, check it out.) Are the illustrations (stories, stats, figures of speech) out of date? Do applications need to change to fit the current situation in your church and community? Necessary tweaks will make the sermon feel new to you and to one or two in the congregation who remember it. (By the way, if you’re re-preaching a sermon you preached in your previous congregation, make sure you adapt it to your current situation.)
How could I make more of Jesus in the sermon? Is there a different or better gospel connection you can make this time around?
Don’t be afraid to use compelling sermons from a series as stand-alone sermons when you need them.
Early in my pastoral ministry, I heard Calvin Miller (a great preacher, longtime pastor, and preaching author/professor) say, “I never preach a new sermon in the summer. I go back at least five years, find something relevant for the current day, rework it a bit, and serve it as fresh as I did the first time around.” Miller went on to say that the hours he saves on sermon prep in the summer he uses to plan his future preaching schedule and do some more reading and learning. Miller was a wise pastor and preacher. I want to be one too.
What do you think, pastor? And for you folks who listen to sermons rather than preach them, what do you think about a pastor re-preaching a sermon?