Friday, July 07, 2006

Seminary sermons

"I'm preaching tomorrow. Yeah, I've never been to this church before, so I'll just recycle one of my sermons from class."

If you are, or have been, in seminary, you may have heard a classmate say this. Perhaps you have said it yourself.

Now, there is nothing wrong with "recycling" a sermon. I don't happen to be among those who advocate pastors throwing out their sermons after they finish a series (though some are, and I understand their arguments). God can, and does, use sermons preached multiple times in various contexts, and if a sermon has been well-prepared (and sometimes even if not) then it should have a message that is timeless and applicable to all of His people anywhere.

But seminary students should be careful not to over-use the "recycling" opportunity as they pursue pulpit supply experience. Not because their sermons aren't that good (though I'll admit that, for good reason, I don't reach back to my "elementary homiletics" material when I get a preaching invitation) but because they need to pursue as much real experience as they can while in seminary.

And let's face it: when you've preached a sermon before, it isn't half the learning experience that a fresh sermon is.

I've mentioned before how important I think it is to pursue preaching opportunities while in seminary. How many sermons should a seminary student write while in seminary?
I've preached in pulpit supply opportunities a lot-- far more than the average seminarian (or recent graduate). Since beginning seminary, I've preached over 80 times in area churches, many of them multiple times. Of those, I've probably prepared nearly 50 sermons (yes, the rest have been "recycled").

On the other hand, some seminary students emerge from graduation with six sermons in their file cabinets. How do you go from 6 to 50?

Start with your exegetical papers. (You are electing to do exegetical papers some of the time, right? You're not taking the alternative assignment every time, are you?)

In theory, at least, once the exegetical paper is done, the sermon is half-finished. This is because a well-taught homiletician will be instructed to do good exegesis first. (In actuality, the sermon is probably more than half-finished because the assignment inevitably included some instruction regarding application.)

So starting with your exegetical papers means that you may already have a handful of sermons half-written. During my seminary career, I wrote exegetical papers every chance I got-- resulting in no less than 10 papers.

From there, start working on developing sermons out of a sense of preparation. Maybe outline a book or a topical series that you want to preach early in your first ministry call, and then start preparing those sermons. Here's why: your first six months of ministry after seminary will be months of transition, and you will not likely have the time to put to sermons as you will want. Having a stock of sermons to be ahead with will fill the gap during this time.

Here's why else: as John R. W. Stott mentions in Between Two Worlds, the more sermons we prepare, the more familiar we are with the Word. Over time, our preparation time grows to be less and less because of this. Thus, if you spend more time preparing sermons while in seminary, you'll be closer to that point than if you don't.

Two more reasons why: one preacher suggested that it took about 100 sermons to "find your preaching voice". He didn't mean 100 times preaching, but 100 sermons prepared. So the more sermons you prepare, the more you will know yourself as a preacher (and the more likely the church that calls you will know you as a preacher).

Finally, to answer the most frequent rebuttal I've received when suggesting this to others: it's true that there's hardly time during seminary to be writing sermons you haven't been assigned. But in reality, there won't be a lot of time available for most pastors, either. Unfortunately, there will always be other things that are legitimate, good ministry that can, and will, demand your time if you will give it. So if you don't learn to carve out time for sermon preparation now, when do you plan to learn it?

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