Recycling is good, right? I mean, if we can reuse a container, or repurpose materials for another use, that’s conserving resources and avoiding waste. By the same token, when you have labored to prepare a lesson or a sermon, it would be a shame to never use it again, right?
I think the answer is yes and no. I believe it depends on the circumstances and the reasons. Let’s start with the no‘s.
You Shouldn’t Recycle a Sermon When…
- you are a pastor of a church and the sermon may still be fresh in the church’s memory.
- you are a guest speaker and you’ve preached the same sermon at the same church you are scheduled to speak at again.
- the sermon was terrible (and you know it). There are some sermons that I have preached that can make me cringe when brought to mind… better to scrap them and take a completely fresh look at the passage, if I’m preaching on the same passage. (I certainly haven’t attained to John Wesley’s description of his own sermon preparation abilities described in his journal. He indicated there that he could not improve on sermons he had preached thirty years before!)
- you’re too lazy to prepare. (In this case, tell them you’re not prepared to speak on that date and that they will need to secure a different preacher; that’s much better than going ahead when you don’t care enough to prepare.)
- it’s been a long time since you’ve preached it and you’re not really familiar with it and it’s just something from the file.
It Makes Sense to Recycle When…
- you are preaching to a different audience, especially if the sermon is still fresh on your heart.
- you had a real emergency or essential interruptions that made you so busy that you didn’t have time to thoroughly prepare for a fresh message without having to sacrifice other things, like most of your sleep.
- you are a pastor, had one of those weeks, and it has been years since you preached the message.
- you need to write a blog post, article, or book. If your sermon was worth preaching, it’s probably worth turning into some kind of written form, and may justifiably become the basis for a larger work. I’m thankful that many preachers from the past “recycled” their sermons into written form so I can “hear” them across the decades and centuries (otherwise, it would be impossible, as audio recording hasn’t even been available widely for a century yet).
- you’re speaking at a conference or special event (especially if you’re a pastor; if you have the option, use what you think is one of your better sermons, if you think it would fit the occasion).
- you are speaking at a special event, and a sermon you preached in the past has been requested.
If You Recycle, Freshen It Up
If you decide to recycle, give some thought to how you do it. If you were to recycle aluminum cans, you’d pour out the stale soda first, right?
If you have preached the sermon once or twice before, you probably can shake a few things out of it that weren’t all that helpful, or rework some parts of it to the audience you’ll be speaking to. You may be able to use better illustrations, tighten up your introduction, or clarify your explanations. If you’re not able to preach an absolutely fresh message, the least you can try to do is pray through the recycled message and improve it by tweaking, adding to, or reducing what is there.
Minimize the Need to Recycle
Recycling sermons could be problematic if regular. It can stunt the preacher’s personal growth and make him stale to his audience, neither of which are good things. So, what steps can you take to minimize the need to recycle?
- Evaluate your own walk with God, and your own time in the Word. Be careful that you don’t read the Bible daily just for the purpose of sermon preparation, but don’t be afraid or ashamed to let your sermon preparation flow from what God is teaching you personally from His Word. For me, these are sweet sermons, because they have been processed in my own soul, sometimes chewed on for weeks, and the preparation time is easier for having digested the passage from devotional attention to it. If you are constantly studying God’s Word without a definite preaching appointment in mind, you may be able to preach a new sermon without much trouble, even when called on with short notice.
- Evaluate your use of time. Are there some non-essential things you can give up to prepare a fresh message?
- Evaluate your sermon preparation efficiency. There may be some ways you can streamline (for example, consulting too many commentaries might be counterproductive, and definitely less helpful to you than directly meditating on and wrestling with a passage).
- Consider how “on fire” and passionate you are the first time you preach a sermon, if that is your experience. Many preachers lose that after the initial preaching event of a sermon (not necessarily in all situations, but probably enough to warrant pausing before automatically recycling).
- Keep a sermon log so you know what you preached when and where.
- Evaluate your abilities and consider how you can improve your skills. Sometimes preachers feel at an impasse because they’ve not really learned how to study and communicate the Bible. Get help from books, other preachers, etc.
- Study the Bible together with someone else. This can open a whole vista of ideas about topics and passages for preaching. Read through and discuss a book of the Bible with your wife, a friend, or a small group of men.
- If you recycle for the same audience, such as a church that you have preached the same sermon to in the past, it’s good to admit this to them at the beginning of the message. This keeps you honest, accountable, and should shame you into avoiding this as much as possible.
Some Considerations to Remember about Recycling
Truth is truth and the Holy Spirit can use a message whether it is being given by that messenger for the first time or it is a reuse of the sermon. The Bible itself contains much repetition, including some parallel passages. Some famous preachers from the past have recycled sermons. One example is R. G. Lee. He preached “Payday Someday” over 1,000 times!
Nonetheless, generally speaking, it is probably best, even for supply preachers, to keep a fresh supply of messages coming, for the nourishment of their own souls and for the body of Christ. Seek God through reading His Word and prayer. If you have to recycle, recycle those messages that most spoke to you and that you think would help others look to God. On the one hand, if it was good enough to preach once, it’s probably good enough to preach again, but, on the other hand, there are 66 whole books in God’s inexhaustible Word, and you could preach through each one in a lifetime and still never have to recycle a sermon.