Reflections on microwaving old sermon notes
For Semester 1 we are preaching through the second half of John’s gospel. I had preached through this section previously when the pastor of the church plant Crossroads Presbyterian Church back in 2003. We did two series back to back ‘Conversations in the Departure Lounge (John 13–17) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (John 18–21)… and so I thought I’d dig the wretched handwritten scribbles out of the garage to see what they’re like.
I’d previously used some stuff from 2005, and that’s still a long time ago when I was very young. And there was a lot of content that I could use there, too.
This sparked off a whole string of thoughts about learning, training, preaching, Scripture and much else. I thought I’d share.
1 It’s ok to re-use sermon material. Re-using, I think, has a bit of a bad name in the tradition of UK/Australian reformed evangelical Christianity. There’s an assumption that it’s healthy and normal for a pastor to be constantly composing new sermon material. There’s lots that’s good about that: it keeps you working hard at the text, questioning your past exegetical assumptions, preparing a message for the people you are ministering to today. By contrast it can be quite disappointing when someone comes and just delivers their Ikea flat-pack sermon to a conference or church, that does’t really connect especially well.
However, a general principle is not the same as a rule. A friend of mine who has moved from working in pentecostal churches to reformed evangelical churches observed how amazing the difference is in the number of work hours reformed evangelical pastors spend on Bible teaching preparation. On the one hand that is to our credit and expresses our convictions. On the other hand, we need to be careful we don’t baptise quite inefficient work practices.
It actually makes sense to re-use sermon material. If it was true, it is still true. Time can be spent perhaps on reviewing some theological/exegetical conclusions and perhaps adjusting application and illustration. But much time can be won back to devote to other duties in training, evangelism, leadership, personal care and so on, if that time is not spent writing new sermons from scratch 45 weeks out of the year.
In fact, our sermons might actually be better if we revise and enrich existing material.
2 It’s possible for young leaders to be effective preachers
The older you get, the easier it is to become dismissive of young men and women. You see the gaps in their knowledge, wisdom, skill, maturity, holiness even… and you can raise the bar of age and experience slowly higher and higher. But while I realise there were many foolish and clumsy and wrong things I did in my ministry — including my preaching ministry — there was a lot I did well at a young age… at the age of some my Christian union graduates and MTS apprentices.
This is a real 1Timothy 4:12 moment: the young leader can, through their godliness and truth-telling commend themselves. And it’s a reminder to me as a leader and a trainer and a network-influencer: to keep making space to lift up young leaders.
Our student president recently preached a sermon on Esther 6–8 and it was thoughtful and rich and more sophisticated at reflecting on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility than much of the chatter around ministry outcomes that I hear/read in theologically trained circles 😛
3. Some of the building blocks of the gift of preaching are evident early on
Especially in our egalitarian Australian context, we like to thing that anyone has what it takes to do anything. We fancy that we can take any godly, faithful, zealous Christian and make them a really good preacher. But whereas learning something like ‘the Chappo model’ might give, as John Chapman promised, ‘Better than average results’, it doesn’t anyone into a great preacher.
We can’t blame the theological colleges or the MTS trainer or something else we imagine is to blame for the ordinariness of some preaching. There is an element in preaching, as in sport, art, personal mentoring, leadership, small business entrepreneurialism, pastoral sensitivity that can’t be taught. It can be developed, but there is an extent to which some people ‘have it’ and some don’t. And this is often (not always) evident fairly early on.
4. English speakers today are so rich in theological books to support the work of the preacher-teacher
I originally prepared these sermons with the help of Don Carson’s Pillar Commentary and Bruce Milne’s BST Commentary and a few others. The wealth of excellent English language theological material available is like an amazing exo-skeleton that the young pastor can put on to help them in their work.
This is not a substitute for growing in one’s skill in exegesis and knowledge of original languages… although a good commentary is really a written version of a good theological college lecture on these topics. It’s not as if it’s ‘more education’ if it’s done in a lecture room rather than in a book, necessarily.
Praise God for the wealth of resources we have! And give generously (or go willingly) to support making these tools available to other pastors, who speak other languages, around the world.
5. The difference between exegesis, composition, illustration, application and delivery
In re-using a sermon, I don’t preach it word for word. And that’s part of what saves it. A lazy reheat, a mentioned in point 1, above, can miss the mark. Its lukewarmness can lead to sermon salmonella: boring, confusing and frustrating your congregation. But a lazy reheat should not lead us to dismissing all reheats!
Much of the illustration, application and delivery should be revised before re-using the content. Or it could be be adjusted on the spot (I’m pretty comfortable doing that anyway, there are very few illustrations I write into my sermon notes in advance).
For behind these things are the ‘skeleton’ as Martyn Lloyd-Jones called it. The exegesis and structure that, if on the mark, provides the shape of the sermon, that can guide a fresh sermon. In re-suing, this is often what I do, preach at points, almost extempore, putting flesh on the skeleton that I exhumed and revived.
6. Expository preaching in particular is more ageless and timeless
I doubt my topical sermons from 2003 would be anywhere near as re-usable. But because I was converted and raised and trained on a diet of expository preaching, I have a backlog of expository sermon notes. And these age much better I think. The burden of the message is God’s word itself, and although that can be obscured by an immature teacher, it can also shine through in spite of that. Moreover, they also age better as the context around them shifts. Because the concern is not addressing a particular cultural or social trend or concern, but the message of the text of Scripture itself.
As the hymn goes:
God yet speaks by His own Spirit
Speaking to the hearts of men,
In the age-long Word expounding
God’s own message, now as then;
Through the rise and fall of nations
One sure faith yet standing fast,
God is King, His Word unchanging,
God the first, and God the last.