A pastor friend of mine told me that once after a Sunday morning worship service a couple of his deacons approached him. They mentioned a particular story he’d told that morning, and then chided him by saying, “You’ve used that illustration before.” As if they were the modern equivalent of the Apostle Paul’s Athenian audience: “For all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21)
I was in disbelief. This pastor had faithfully served that congregation for nearly ten years. In all that time you’re bound to repeat something. The Lord Jesus only ministered publicly for about three years, but there is plenty of evidence in the Gospels to show that He repeated Himself often.
When I was in Bible College the president of our school was Dr. W. E. Dowell. He was a godly and greatly-used preacher. He once told our pastoral theology class, “It’s been said that you could preach the same exact sermon two weeks in a row and change nothing but the illustrations, and nobody would notice.” Then he added: “But I’ve never had the guts to try it.”
It is true that people tend to remember your illustrations more than the Biblical truth you’re trying to illustrate. Many a preacher has labored mightily to make some great truth from the Bible clear to his congregation, only to have someone come up to him at the close of the service and say, “I loved that story about the dog!” If they remember the illustration but not what you’re illustrating, then the preacher has failed in his purpose. It’s a lot like remembering a TV commercial, but not what product it was advertising. Only it’s a whole lot more serious if they don’t get God’s truth.
I’ve noticed something in the last few of years as I have perused old sermon notes. I’ve found that sometimes I’ve used a story or an illustration in more than one sermon. I’ve made a mental note of this, and I am endeavoring to avoid over-using illustrations in the future.
Why would a preacher use an illustration more than once? There are several reasons.
First, it might be because he is preaching a sermon he’s preached before. I heard an older pastor once say, “Any preacher who only preaches old sermons is lazy. Any preacher who won’t preach an old sermon is probably a coward.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that he believed a preacher was only capable of preaching one new message a week, if he was going to prepare for it as he should. So he routinely preached a one new sermon and one old sermon every Sunday.
That will work just fine if you’ve been in the ministry for some years, and you’ve made good notes and kept good files. But when you’re starting out, you don’t have a file full of older sermon outlines and notes. In those early days, you have to resign yourself to the same attitude as the preacher who said, “My preaching is like bologna: no matter where you cut it off, it’s all the same.” Or the pastor who said, “Some of my sermons are better than others, but none of them are worse.”
Sometimes, depending on the circumstances and the demands of a particular week, you can be awfully thankful for your sermon file. Other times, you look at old notes, and you’re reminded of English pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who advised his young preacher-boys: “Keep your sermon notes, that you might weep over them.” Only a preacher knows the embarrassment of looking over old notes and thinking, “I actually preached this?”
There are a handful of people in any congregation who take notes of what the pastor preaches, including the dates. My wife is one of those people. She says making notes helps her to pay attention. So sometimes after a service she or someone else will come up to me and say, “You’ve preached that one before.” Often they want me to know that they’re paying attention. Every now and then they have a confrontational tone (not my wife, thankfully), as if to say, “Hey! What are you trying to pull?”
And sometimes someone will come up to me and say, “I’ve never heard a message like that before!” And I’ll think, “Yeah, you did, five years ago.”
I have two rules of thumb about repeating sermons. First, if it’s been longer than some of my pastorates (2-3 years), I figure it’s probably safe to repeat a message, if I feel so led. And second, even if I suspect some will remember it, if there are people who need to hear this message who weren’t in our congregation when I preached it before, or who were perhaps too young to understand it then but who very much need to hear it now, then I will repeat it for them. And to those who remember it from before, I can only quote what Paul told Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:6 of the King James Version: “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ…”
In the Bible, whenever God wants to get our attention and emphasize something, He repeats it. Psalm 14 and Psalm 53 were both Psalms of David and are almost word-for-word the same. (And you can bet when they read Psalm 53, somebody said, “Hey! He’s used that one before!”) The New Testament begins with four different accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Each of the Gospels brings a different perspective and even additional information, but they all cover essentially the same events, especially Matthew, Mark and Luke.
And much of the New Testament is composed of hundreds of quotations and allusions from the Old Testament. It’s been said that you can’t truly understand the book of Revelation without being familiar with the Old Testament, because it contains so many quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Sometimes you use an illustration more than once because the story so perfectly illustrates the Biblical truth you’re trying to explain. Spurgeon called illustrations “windows on the truth.”
Sometimes it’s because you forgot you used it before.
And sometimes it’s because you’ve been in one church a long time. I don’t just mean re-using a story you’ve used before. I mean that if the preacher stays in one place for a while, there are a whole lot of stories he really can’t use. Let me explain.
You can buy books full of thousands of illustrations. I have several, I’ve used them before, and I’ll use them again. (The preacher has to be careful, though, about telling someone else’s story as if it happened to them. That’s called lying.) But the best illustrations come from your own life experiences, from things you’ve gone through with people, and from things people tell you (unless they tell you something in confidence).
The problem, though, is you can’t use most of those stories if the people involved are sitting in your congregation. Every time a preacher moves to a new church, it opens up a whole new trove of sermon illustrations for him. The names are changed or left out to protect the innocent (or to show mercy on the guilty), but often something that happened to someone else in another place will be immensely helpful to people in your current church, and will perfectly illustrate a Bible truth. Even then, if you’re close enough to the area you pastored in before, you still can’t tell those stories out of sensitivity to the people involved.
That means if the preacher stays in one church ten or twenty years, there’s a whole lot of new stories he can’t tell, because even if you change or leave out the names, people will know. And if a congregation is sitting there thinking, “Hey! He’s talking about so-and-so!”, then they’re not thinking about the truth you’re trying to illustrate, and you will have failed in your task. Because they are supposed to remember what God said in His Word more than the story you tell.
I don’t suppose there is a time when preachers wrestle with repetition like Christmas-time. (And Easter, too.) You need to tell the Old, Old Story, but you need to try to do it in ways that are new and refreshing to people. A hot topic among ministers this time of year is “What are you preaching on for Christmas?” And the fact that it seems like a silly question—of course you’re preaching on the birth of Christ—only emphasizes the problem.
One Christmas I was hurried, harried and frazzled. I don’t remember the circumstances, but it was probably too many people in the hospital (one is too many), maybe a funeral or two, people needing to talk to me (always welcome, if we can figure out a time to sit down together), and the extra family and church stuff that always goes along with the season. It seemed like I had hardly any time at all to prepare my Christmas message. So I prayed about it, chose a sermon I’d preached a few years before, and got up and did the best I could on that Sunday in that particular week. And after the service, a teenager came up and said, “Dave: ya gotta get new
stories.” And I confess that though I laughed it off, I wasn’t really full of Christmas cheer at that moment. In fact, I wanted to put a piece of coal in his stocking.
Sometimes we need repetition. At my mother’s funeral, I wept like a child until about halfway through the service. I listened to Pastor Glen Lockwood say the same things to me and my family that I’ve said to grieving families over and over again. And I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, that’s right!” But because of my grief, I needed reminding of the things I already knew. I needed to hear it again.
One more quote from Spurgeon. He said two men were talking about their pastors, and one said, “We get the same thing from our pastor every week, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong!” And the other man said, “At least you get some variety. All we get from our pastor is ding-ding-ding!”
(And someone is thinking, “You’ve used that illustration before.” Yeah, I have, but it fit so good here!)
Anyway, Merry Christmas! May God give us all the grace to hear the Old, Old Story of Jesus’ birth again with new eyes and ears.
And maybe give the preacher some new stories, too.
Soli Deo Gloria!