Recently, I had the opportunity and privilege of preaching at four different churches in five weeks. Looking at my personal schedule, I began thinking I should reuse and recycle a sermon. My pastor, mentor, and friend, Joe Thorn "gently" encouraged me and helped me think through the issue. While discussing, I was convicted and started working through why I felt the need to recycle and the heart issues it revealed.
Sermon recycling is any time we rehash content by avoiding personal study and preparation. This can be done in two ways: when we reuse our sermon notes on a text we have previously preached; and when we use sermons others have given and pass them off as our own. Undoubtedly, a sermon text will come around again, especially during key holidays like Christmas and Easter. There is a difference between reviewing your previous notes to see what direction you went and flat out preaching from them. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing where others we respect and admire have gone with a text, but distilling their points and framing "your" sermon around those points may go too far. What does go to far is when we read someone else's sermon manuscript and call it our own.
The temptation to recycle is subtle. I would suggest that there are three reasons whypreachers recycle: laziness, disconnect, and poor time management.
For some, it just comes down to not wanting to put the time in. It is far easier to rip off someone else's content, or rehash their own, then to study, pray, discern, and write. In my opinion, this has to be the most dangerous of these reasons because the pastor has essentially lost their desire to shepherd specific people with specific texts aimed at specific needs
Others recycle because they just do not know what to say to God's people. They are disconnected from others’ experiences, issues, trials, and temptations. One of the most profound lessons Joe Thorn has taught me is to preach to where people are at. As ministers, we invest ourselves into the life of our people and preach in such a way that it encourages, convicts, and corrects. A greater disconnect is when a pastor is not studying the word of God personally. How can one prepare and preach if one is not in communion with God through the word and prayer? One cannot give what they themselves do not have.
Pastors have a lot going on during the week. Not only are they preparing sermons, but counseling, praying, managing, directing, and supporting the mission and vision of the church. It is easy to give in and say "I have lost this week" and rationalize recycling.
The Heart Behind Recycling
Recycling sermons can reveal heart issues that need to be dealt with. Maybe it's just me, but I find when I am tempted to recycle, it is usually because either I am spiritually lazy, lack faith, or desire praise. I am lazy spiritually when I exchange and take what is easy and comfortable for the heart work required to study and prepare. I lack faith that God can use me to edify His people and believe that others are more equipped and gifted when I tell myself that I shouldn't even try. Along with the insecurity that accompanies my doubt, I recycle others sermons because I believe that others will be more impressed by what they have said, then what God is teaching me.
The Benefit Of Not Recycling
There is some crucial work that God does in the heart of those that preach when they go through the process. First, God works on the preacher. Sermons are not just lessons to be taught but convictions to be caught. As a preacher studies and prepares a sermon, the Holy Spirit is first working on them; convicting, encouraging, edifying them. A preacher's heart must first be worked on before a sermon can be preached. Secondly, the act of preaching is an act of faith. One trusts that it is not their own wisdom or cleverness that stirs others to abandon sin and to cling to Christ but the Spirit of God working through the preacher and in the hearts of the hearer. Without fail, before I preach the enemy tempts me to doubt the Spirit. Tempts me to believe that the sermon will be terrible and that I should have spent another fifteen hours on it. It is in those moments I need to be reminded to trust that despite me, God will work.
As mentioned previously, there is nothing wrong or deceitful when one is referring back to their own sermon. One's study notes can still be useful and beneficial. The original meaning of text has not changed, though implications and the various applications may differ based on the needs of the congregation and what the Lord has been teaching the preacher. While this is not an excuse to neglect re-studying a text, don't be afraid to look over your previous notes.
A step in my sermon preparation process is to check on the conclusions that others have made on a text. I look at sermons from other gifted and Gospel-centered preachers. I never start there though. This is usually after I have studied, prayed, sought the Lord's direction, and put together a draft outline. At that point, I want to make sure I am not going off in a direction that is more eisegesis than exegesis.
Personally, if Joe calls me late on a Saturday evening, or even early Sunday morning, I would make the best use of that time. Whatever the Lord has been teaching me that week will be preached. While I have personal convictions, not everyone would agree and that is fine. In fact, you are in great company. Martin Holdt writes:
It was once reported to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who never disappointed his hearers, that one of his students had preached one of his sermons. The student was called in. Spurgeon asked him whether this was true. The student replied in the negative. ‘Then where did you get it from?’ asked Spurgeon. When the student told him his source, Spurgeon chuckled and admitted: ‘Well, as a matter of fact, so did I!’
Not everyone is going to feel the same. Those that have advocated that it is fine to recycle do stipulate that the line is crossed when it is straight up plagiarism and a lack of citation takes place. If you are going to use another sermon, make sure to check out the Holdt's article over at Banner of Truth for some great thoughts and suggestions. His closing words I agree wholeheartedly:
Using another man’s sermon wisely and making it your own must be the absolute exception and not the rule.
In the end, the purpose of any sermon is to encourage us to abandon our sin, increase faith, and to cling to Christ, all to the glory of God. There is an opportunity for preachers as they prepare, the Holy Spirit works on the speakers heart to convict them of their sin and to encourage them. One is robbed when the process is circumvented. The temptation to recycle can be a strong one. If possible, take the time to pray, prepare, study, and process a text and what the Lord is seeking to teach you and your people.