First of all, let me be clear that I am what some old Baptists used to refer to as a ‘Spurgeon’s man’. I have twice graduated from the college which bears his name, and as such what I am about to do probably comes close to heresy. The following statement is attributed to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and I am not at all sure I agree with him:
I am inclined to say that if a sermon is so devoid of local colour and local reference that it can be preached ten times it should not even be preached once. A sermon is not like an old recorded tune, which you can simply play again and again, regardless of setting. Rather, it is a piece of music played live – in different settings, at different volumes and in different ways.
Having said that, I write this in an office where a collection of A4 binders is slowly creeping round the walls as they fill up with my sermons. These days they are all stored digitally as well, but when I start the process of preaching on a passage, my first port of call is those bulging ring binders. If I have preached on the relevant passage before then I stack the commentary notes and the preaching notes right there on my desk. Right after I have read the passage, they are the first thing I read. Sometimes I wince at the foolish things I have said in the past, sometimes I gaze wistfully across the years to the place and time where they were preached, and just occasionally I am blessed or challenged by them!
The real question, though, is whether I ever preach the same sermon all over again? Do I ever unclip the ring binder, slip the old notes in my Bible, and go off to preach them? On very rare occasions I have done exactly that. I have felt such a weight of conviction and prophetic burden about a particular sermon that it has travelled with me from church to church on every visiting preach. A few years ago I did this with a sermon entitled ‘the elder brother syndrome’ all about the church’s attitude to accommodating new Christians in their midst. Every time I received an invitation to preach, I felt that this was the message I should take with me – even to a ‘preach-with-a-view’. It felt odd to preach those exact same words over and over again, and ran counter to almost all of my preacher’s instincts. At the time, though, I knew it was the right thing to do.
Asking other preachers about whether or not they reuse old sermons has proved to be an eye-opening experience. The reactions have ranged from mild surprise at the question to the prickly suggestion that the questioner ought to rely a little more upon the Holy Spirit! Amongst most of them it provokes a reaction not unlike that from a home baker when asked if they were using readymade pastry. This is followed by a brief flurry of those who admit they might reuse illustrations or commentary notes. Few, though, seem willing to admit to full-scale recycling. It seems to smack of cheating and hint at laziness. In all honesty, I do reuse some sermons from my ‘back catalogue’, but only in particular ways.
You know the kind of thing I mean. Years ago somebody printed a magazine on thick paper with gorgeous full-colour illustrated plates. Like any other magazine, it was never meant to be anything more than ephemeral. Having said that, the quality and charm of the illustrations means that somebody has chosen to cut the illustration out and ennoble it through framing. I do the same with parts of old sermons. I ponder long and hard over the words I choose – like a poet selecting his metaphors or a coach-builder choosing his veneers. If I feel they have a particular resonance or beauty then I will use them again.
Here is an old wing-back chair. The people who built it really knew what they were doing, which is why it is still here. The timber of its frame is tempered and formed just so to make it last. Despite that, the original owners would scarcely recognise it now. On top of the original sturdy frame the upholstery has been chosen and re-chosen again to suit changing fashions and contexts. I do this with old sermons, especially when preaching thematically. If a particular structure has helped me to frame the discussion of a challenging topic such as suffering, free will, or obstacles to prayer – I will reuse it. The covering is different, of course, but the structure remains the same.
Stop! Before you throw out those last few slices of stale bread, why not do something with them? The judicious application of a little butter, a generous scattering of some plump sultanas, a baptism of fresh egg custard and a few hours to spare – and you could have the makings of a tasty and warming dessert. No one would recognise the loaf once it was served up, of course, but it is still there. In this way, I sometimes reuse an old sermon. It has been broken up, rearranged, had other ingredients added, and been allowed to marinade over time. In essence it is still there though – same research, same biblical emphasis and same challenge – but oh so different.
The rules of recycling
- My own research suggests that few like to admit to recycling their sermons. It feels a little bit lazy – as if they can’t be bothered to start afresh. To others it feels lacking in faith – like the Israelites of old eating yesterday’s manna instead of waiting for today’s to fall. I believe it need not be either of those things if some simple rules are obeyed:
- Preaching should always be fresh, no matter what ingredients are used. Only reuse a sermon, either in part or in whole, if you do so as an act of love towards those who will hear it. You wouldn’t serve cold leftovers to a guest, now would you? By all means use those old words, insights and illustrations – but only because you believe they have an enduring quality which makes them applicable here and now.
- Preaching should always be local – an expression of eternal theological truth in a specific temporal context. If you are going to preach the same local sermon in more than one locale, it should always be subtly different. In my previous church, I used to preach the same sermon at two morning services – 9.30 and 11.15am. Since the congregations were different, the sermon ended up being different too.
- If we are going to recycle, it should not be because it offers a short-cut but because it provides a better result. Sometimes the reason people recycle a raw material like timber or steel is that it has a quality to it which is too good to miss. Can you say, hand on heart, that you are using that old sermon (or parts of it) today because it has an enduring quality to it which will bless those who hear it? If so, then go right ahead and use it. If not, then you may have to think again.
- Smooth the joins. If you are going to recycle a sermon in part, make sure that you smooth the joins. If you don’t, then the whole thing may end up looking like one of those cars where it has been repaired by bolting on an old wing whose paint is a different colour to the rest! Your ideas, your insights, and the very cadence of your writing and speech may have been different when you wrote that first version. This is not a reason not do it. Just be careful that you create a unified whole in the finished product.
- The work must be new, even if the materials are old. Few people would talk about a beautiful wooden table as a recycled tree, or a diamond as recycled carbon. They are new creations made from the old. Whatever your sources, each sermon must be a finely crafted new creation.
Sitting on my desk in front of me as I write is an old artillery shell. It has been tooled, polished and reshaped into an elegant drinking cup. If you turn it over and see the serial markings on the bottom you can still tell its origins – but that is part of its charm. The cup has a greater beauty precisely because of its former ugliness. A tool of war has become an object of peace, and I love it. You may have an old sermon right now, just itching to be transformed into something new and lovely. Why not take a look?
Richard Littledale is the minister of Newbury Baptist Church, and has always had a lively interest in innovative communication. He has written several books on preaching, as well as two children’s stories. He is a radio broadcaster and runs a busy blog at richardlittledale.me.uk.