Re-Working Sermons

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For some, it is plagiarism; for others, it is common sense. For some, it is laziness; for others it is wisdom. For some, it is unconscionable; for others, it is strategic. If you are a preacher, chances are you have your own thoughts on the subject: Preaching another preacher’s sermon. Let me confess right up front: I think preaching another preacher’s sermon is common sense, wisdom, and strategic. It has saved my hide, fed my church, and advanced the Kingdom.

There are a few points of order in this practice, of course: I do not publish re-written sermons as my own without giving appropriate credit (or at all); I do not tell the personal illustrations of another preacher as though they were my experience; I do not quote verbatim in the sermon without giving credit to the initial author. I also do not simply read another’s manuscript. My preaching style of very few notes rather than a manuscript lends itself to “making the sermon my own” in this regard. In the end, what comes out of my mouth in the preaching event is my sermon because it is not the initial sermon that was preached. Instead, it has been crafted and contextualized for the Lord’s purpose in my church at this time. Here are four steps that I use to form and fit the other preacher’s sermon for my flock.

1. Read, read, read…the manuscript.

Read the manuscript multiple times (or listen to the audio/watch the video multiple times). Let the preacher preach to you first. How are you inspired? What questions did you have? What insights did the Lord provide through his proclaimed word? Where did you disagree with the sermon? Enjoy the opportunity of experiencing the proclaimed word with the Spirit. Remember: God is first interested in preaching to you before preaching through you. Whether his Spirit preaches Jesus through the written word or through the proclaimed word is up to him.

2. Read, read, read…the Bible.

Don’t take another preacher’s exegesis for granted. Go to the texts referenced and examine the context, the co-text, and the other preacher’s theological exegesis. Did they get the cultural context right when describing a city? Did they consider how other Scripture writers used the key words? This is not to tear another preacher down; it is to strengthen the proclaimed word—which you have already taken to yourself as the reader/listener/viewer.

When I disagree with another preacher, I do not announce this disagreement by outing the other preacher, but I do use this contrast to obtain insight into how other people are reading the passage in my church. If I’m going to disagree with another’s exegesis, I want to disagree while validating the other’s point of view. Use disagreements to draw people further into the passage rather than to establish a platform for your own thoughts.

After reading the manuscript and reading the word, the sermon being re-worked has become, essentially, a homiletical commentary on a passage. By this time I have developed critiques, insights, contrasts, clarifications, etc. because of another’s hard work (I hope this essay has the same effect for you!). This critical reading is applauded in research and, in my opinion, it is valid in homiletical preparation, as well. (Again, if you are publishing the re-written sermon, it requires further documentation that would be distracting in the preached sermon.)

3. Read, read, read…your church.

This step helps you to contextualize the sermon for your people. Where is your church? How does the sermon you have encountered challenge your people? The best compliment I can give to a preacher is to think, “My people must hear that!” But why do they need to hear it? And when do they need to hear it?

These are important questions when encountering a solitary sermon that just needs to be fit into the preaching calendar. If you are preaching special days (like Good Friday, Pentecost, etc.), then they are more easily addressed. If you are using a series from another church, ask what God is doing in your church in the midst of this series or in its lead up. Also ask what has been happening in your community. How does this word speak to your church and through your church.

Finally, what illustrations fit the church? If you are using another church’s graphic illustrations, do they fit your context? Recently the church where I serve on staff began doing a series that utilized graphics that fit a southern California context—surfing, oceans, etc. Skilled graphics people in our church saw these and realized they weren’t “us.” So, they developed another set of images that fit the theme for our context. Illustrations—whether visual or verbal—require contextualization. Some can fit your context; others cannot.

4. Write your own sermon

To use another person’s sermon properly is hard work. It requires lots of reading and it finally requires writing. Another’s re-working another sermon still requires you to write. Here are ways to engage in writing as part of re-working a sermon:

  1. Use the outline and write the rest of the manuscript (or major parts of the manuscript).
  2. Make your own outline and use parts of the other preacher’s manuscript. (More on this in D. below.)
  3. Use the “big idea” of the other preacher’s sermon and make the content stronger.
  4. Use a paragraph or two or several. When I use unique insights or powerful portions from another preacher’s sermon, I always give credit in the sermon by saying, “Here’s how _____ says it…” or “I really like how _______ phrased this….”
  5. Write the personal illustrations. Never use another person’s personal illustrations as your own. If the story didn’t happen to you, don’t tell it like it did. If you didn’t visit Disneyland and lose your child and got a sense of the heart of God for lost people, don’t tell the story. It is very easy to say, “_____ tells how she felt when…” to maintain honesty and integrity in preaching the sermon.

In re-working another person’s sermon, you don’t have to start from scratch, but you must re-write enough of it that it is the sermon God has for your church through your preaching. Determining when this has happened is subjective. When in doubt, err on the side of humility. Let your people know that a sermon has been inspired by another preacher. The point of preaching is not to appear unique, original, and insightful, nor is re-working a sermon meant to shortcut one’s own preparation time. Re-working sermons is to help the Word of God continue to be proclaimed in ever clearer, winsome, and effective ways in different contexts for God’s people.

Image attribution: Comstock Images / Thinkstock

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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