Back in May, John Tucker talked about sub-Christian Sermons. This was his opening shot:
Do you ever go to your sermon file looking for an old message to rework and preach again? My experience is that it can be a little depressing. Invariably, I come across some old manuscript and think to myself, ‘Did I really write this? Did I really preach that?!’
I know the experience, and I know the feeling. But what I want to suggest to you is that these moments fall into those very rare and precious occasions that should warm your heart and inspire you on in your preaching ministry.
My pattern is to preach from a full text (all power to those with the ability for note-less sermons!). Perhaps a few scribbled changes, certainly some moments of off-piste preaching, but the notes are generally a faithful record of what was delivered. Each week I drop it in one of the appropriate 66 folders in the filing cabinet, with topical series finding their own folder. File and forget.
Perhaps it is work on a parallel passage in another gospel, the invitation to preach in another church, a perennial theme or topic that needs another hearing in the congregation, or just the passing of years and the pressing need to go back and preach some things all over again to new ears or people who now listen from a new place in their lives. And so as part of your new preparation you go back to the filing cabinet (apparently filing is not about making a mess of the floor, but retrieval – who knew!) and you read what you preached back then.
It is an opportunity to experience what I think is one of the most encouraging and motivating moments in your Christian ministry. And you need this sort of encouragement because it is by and large a rare commodity. My personality type doesn’t get too excited about those “good sermon” comments, however sincerely meant they no doubt are. But reading one of my old sermons does fuel the fire. If I read it and I don’t like what I preached back then, I get to see my own progress. It is a tangible measure that I am not the preacher I used to be. I have grown and improved. The old sermon might look like the work of a novice to me today, but it takes the eye of someone mastering preaching to recognise it.
Perhaps it is my style that has altered. I see the clunky words, the poor phrasing, the weak structure or the rough transitions. It may be that my biblical knowledge has developed and I see a change in my theology or that a more nuanced explanation is required. The difference could be because pastoral care for the congregation has softened the hardness of my youthful words or conversely it might strengthen my resolve to speak with sharper clarity about critical issues.
Of course, the old sermon might actually read quite well. I might preach it essentially the same way next Sunday. However that demonstrates a consistency in my practice and maturing convictions that the passing of time and more reading and thinking have not changed but rather reinforced.
So if you find it hard to see whether you are making progress week by week, perhaps go back a few years, read an old sermon (or listen to an old mp3) and see if the message you preached back then can still do you some spiritual good today.
* * *
Paul Davison has been the pastor of Hastings Baptist Church longer than anyone else. He tries hard to be effective through all kinds of ministry of the Word, including preaching.