I was preaching at a church recently and had been given the passage I was to speak on. Happily, I had preached on this book, and therefore this passage, before. I had absolutely no hesitation in taking that original sermon – preached many years ago now to my own congregation – and tweaking it so it would be helpful to a different congregation in another context.
I know I’m not the only one who does this either. I had been at a conference and was staying over to preach on Sunday, as were others who were also at the conference. At breakfast, someone I had met the day before asked if I was going to the church. I said I was and that I was speaking. Almost immediately afterwards she asked, ‘are you recycling a sermon?’ I don’t know if I just had a look of someone who would probably do that – which I assume is a slightly lazy, he probably takes shortcuts look – but she volunteered, my husband often does that too! Frankly, I think that is wise.
Before I go on to say why, not only is it okay to do this but it is an actively good thing to do, let me add one caveat. I do not generally think it is a good idea to take a sermon you prepared and preached in one place and simply turn up with the exact same script and preach it in another place. The whole point of preaching is that it is for people. Specifically, for the people in front of you. If you can take all the same applications and illustrations and just deliver them anywhere, I’m going to suggest they aren’t that pointed and therefore probably not very well applied. So, if you are going to recycle a sermon – and I think you should – the key word here is recycle, not recite word-for-word.
A recycled sermon may well use the same exegesis and happily assume the understanding of the passage you worked hard over last time is still the meaning of the passage today. But it should change its illustrations and applications so that it is suitable for the place you are going to preach. Recycling a sermon shouldn’t mean no work, but it does mean less work.
So, why do I think recycling sermons is a good thing? I remember my dad saying years ago, ‘if a sermon is worth hearing once, it’s probably worth hearing again.’ I think that is broadly true. If the people you are going to serve have not heard that particular sermon, if it was any good the first time, it should be useful and helpful a second time in a place nobody has heard it. Obviously, if you think your previous sermon on that passage was rubbish, you probably want to start over. But if it was any good the first time, any help to the people you preached to before, there’s every reason to believe it will be helpful to a new group of people who have never heard it.
Second, if you are a pastor of a local church, you really should recycle your sermons. Your first calling and duty is to your own church. I labour hard over what I will teach my church. We tend to systematically preach through books of the Bible and are aiming to teach the whole counsel of God, which means we want to preach all of the Bible. That means I have to write my sermons from scratch because we are often working through books of the Bible I have not preached through before. But even if I was preaching on a passage I have done before, I would start again and not recycle anything. My first duty is to my church.
When I preach out – though I am very pleased to support another church and serve their ministry – I am conscious my first duty is to my own congregation. It is, ultimately, on my church’s time that I am going to prepare. Part of the sacrifice for the church is not having their pastor around one Sunday and accepting that some of the time he would spend on church matters will be given up so he can prepare a sermon for the sake of another church. I am conscious that my first duty is to my own church. So, I necessarily want to spend less time on sermons preached away than I do on work for my own church. If I can recycle a sermon, and just need to tweak applications and maybe the odd illustration, that is one way I can limit the impact on my church whilst still helpfully serving another congregation.
When I first started preaching, I took one sermon out around a bunch of different churches. Some would argue I shouldn’t have done that. But what it did was allow me to work on style and delivery. Preaching a good sermon is much more than just presenting your exegesis and flatly applying it. There is proper communication involved. You need to think about eye-contact, connecting with the people in front of you, pacing, how long to pause for breath and dozens of other little things that all make a big difference to how well your sermon is heard. Taking the same sermon out from place to place, particularly whilst you are learning that skill, can really help you develop these softer skills. You will be familiar with the passage and with the content of the sermon, and become more familiar with it over time. That will help you learn how to engage more helpfully in your delivery.
Of course, a time comes when you also need to develop the skill of putting sermons together. You do need to do good exegesis, work out how to write a sermon, how to properly and pointedly apply a passage, how to structure your sermon, and all that. But that will necessarily come. Not every church you preach in will give you free rein to preach whatever you want. So, that recycled sermon only works in a place that either doesn’t mind what you preach or that coincidentally happens to give you the same passage. Inevitably, you will be asked to preach on a new passage that you haven’t preached before at some point. But I think it is good training for a new preacher – once they have written up one sermon that was reasonably well received – to spend time learning the soft skills that even many seasoned preachers aren’t very good at! Skills like making eye-contact, pacing your sermon helpfully, not just reading off a script and a ream of other communication skills. Recycling a sermon with which you are familiar is a great way to learn those skills early. And when learnt early, they are much less likely to leave you later on.
So, for those reasons, I think it is not only acceptable but actively good to recycle your sermons. If it blessed the first people you delivered it to, there is no reason to assume it won’t bless another set of people. It provides opportunity for you to use familiar material giving you the freedom to develop crucial soft communication skills that many people simply overlook. Finally, if you are a pastor, you need to take seriously that your time really belongs to the church that called you. Whilst I think it is good and right to support other churches and their ministry, it is equally right for you to prioritise your own church and not devote too much time to your sermon for another place. In the usual run of things, I think you should be spending more time on sermons to your own people than for those outside. Recycling your sermon can help you in this regard too.