When They Start Hearing It: Repetition and Preaching

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I get tired of hearing the same things over and over, especially from the pulpit. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve said it once and you’ve said it clearly enough, I should be able to understand what you’ve said and the implications thereof. I get particularly annoyed when I feel like preachers are too repetitive, when they tell me what they’re going to tell me, then tell me, and then tell me what they’ve told me. Why do you have to tell me three times? Just tell me one time, make it clear, and we should be good.

One day a number of years ago I was ranting on precisely this matter to a friend. I was a seminary student, as was he, but he’d spent a number of years working in a church before coming to seminary. After I finished my rant about repetitiveness, my buddy looked at me and, with all the patience and wisdom he’s displayed throughout our entire friendship, said, “People need repetition. About the time you get tired of saying it, they’re starting to hear it.”

I didn’t believe him at the time. I thought he was pandering to the lowest common denominator – those people who are playing on their phones while you’re preaching, so they miss most of what you’re saying. It turns out, however, he was right.

In the last six years, as I’ve been preaching every week, I’ve realized my the wisdom of my friend’s axiom: About the time you get tired of saying it, they’re just starting to hear it. However, at the same time, I still remain incredibly annoyed by preachers who repeat themselves, both within an individual sermon and across numerous sermons.

So how do we navigate this? How do we repeat ourselves without repeating ourselves? Here are a few tips that have been helpful for me.

1. Find a particular, pregnant phrase that can transcend an individual sermon and use that as often as possible.

A phrase I repeat over and over across sermons of all kinds is “holy love for God, holy love for neighbor, and holy love for self.” Almost every sermon we preach can be categorized under one or more of these headings. This repeated phrase embeds itself like a splinter in the minds of the congregation, but it’s not obnoxious. It’s short, pregnant, to the point, and encapsulates the fullness of the gospel.

John Piper, of whom I’m not always a fan, has done this same thing with his saying, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” If he said that in every sermon, people would not roll their eyes and act as if he’s just merely repeating himself. No, they understand that this is the big theme John sees running throughout the gospels and he is merely reminding them of its transcendence and beauty.

The idea behind this phrase is that it transcends the individual sermon. It’s about the big idea to which an individual sermon should be pointing.

2. Repeat without being repetitive

People don’t hate it when we repeatedly make a point. People hate it when we’re repetitive. In order to repeat without being repetitive, we must build in multiple ways of communicating the one idea of the sermon.

I have found that finding four or five different ways of saying the same thing is helpful:

  • No one should have excess until everyone has access
  • Holy love for neighbor requires that we care about the needs of others more than our own comfort
  • Anything you cannot share you may as well regard as stolen

Of course, the first of these phrasings can be repeated more frequently, but the other three or four help supplement and give relief to the hearer’s ear. It helps them see the same truth from different angles.

Of course, this is the purpose of good metaphors and illustrations, as well. These should serve the purpose of repeating an idea without being repetitive.

3. Realize that what’s old hat to you is probably new hat to most of your audience

Let’s be honest, a lot of what you say in a Sunday morning service is something you’ve been thinking about or something you’ve known since seminary. At the very least, the things you say in a sermon are things you’ve been thinking about all week.

However, you need to keep in mind that your congregation has not had that much time to think about these things. They don’t have theological degrees that forced them to consider the implications of the resurrection for new creation. They don’t have a job that affords them the opportunity to read commentaries before church on Sunday.

Quite often when I sit down to write a sermon, I tell my wife, “I feel like I’m not saying anything that people don’t already know.” When she asks me to recount the essence of my sermon, she often says, “Tom, just because you’ve been thinking about it for so long doesn’t mean your congregation has ever thought about some of this.”

I don’t think our goals in sermon writing is to be unique and profound every week. But I do think there’s value in finding creative, non-repetitive ways to repeat the deep and old truths of the gospel to ears that have grown numb with the same canned sermons each week.

When They Start to Hear It…

This leads me back to my friend’s wonderful axiom: About the time you get tired of saying it, they’re starting to hear it. Maybe we do need to hear the same things over and over, but what we don’t need is to hear the same things the same ways point after point, sermon after sermon, year after year. That old, wonderful story of the gospel is so penetrating precisely because it slowly works itself into our hearts through repeated scriptures, liturgies, and homilies. Don’t grow weary just yet in proclaiming that news; right now your congregation might just be starting to hear it.

Image attribution: abluecup / Thinkstock

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Tom Fuerst is Associate Teaching Pastor and Associate Director of Community Life at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Tom is married to Cassie and they have three children. Tom blogs at http://tom1st.com/

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