I did something recently that I haven’t done too often in my preaching career. I used the same sermon in three different congregations. Normally, I try to match the sermon to the needs of the congregation, something which requires different approaches even with the same Scriptures and themes.
But recently, well, using one sermon is three different places just sort of evolved. The sermon began as part of a preaching plan for the year round pastorate that I serve. But since the other pastorate has closed down for three months, I have been doing some fill in preaching for another local congregation. Rather than put together a whole new sermon, I wrote the original sermon with them in mind as well as the regular congregation.
And then, after getting back from vacation and picking up all the pieces and getting back into things, I realized it was also the week to prepare for the monthly worship service we have at the pastorate that has closed for the winter. When we made this plan last November, I had visions of preparing a special message that would fit there and help us celebrate being back together after several weeks.
But the time just wasn’t there—nor was the energy or creatively necessary to pull things together. I expect that playing with grandchildren may have depleted my creativity storehouse, although a sleepless night on the flight back home probably didn’t help. Given the situation, the special sermon became the already written sermon. I felt a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to force myself to write a whole new sermon.
There were certainly some minor differences in the delivered sermons. In one congregation, I was more tied to the manuscript because one of the worshippers is quite deaf and follows the sermon with the aid of a printed copy of the sermon so I can’t ad lib as much as I might like. In the other two, I could wander a bit. But in the end, all three congregations got the same basic message, with the same illustrations and even the same hand gestures.
Because my mind generally works in a structured and questioning way, I began to look at this as an experiment: I was going to see how one sermon played out in three different congregations. I would look for differences in response—how well people listened, what they said, how many slept and so on. Mind you, the experiment would be quite limited in scope since the process of leading worship and preaching takes most of my energy and focus. Couple that with the fact that data recording isn’t really possible in that context and I had a very unscientific experiment. If it had been offered as a project in one of the classes I have taught on research methodology, I would have rejected it.
But over the course of two Sundays, I preached basically the same sermon three times. My biased and unscientific observation is that it went over fairly well. People seemed to respond to the basic theme; they responded well to the humour I used to drive the point home and a significant portion of each congregation made positive comments about the message.
It probably helped that all three congregations have a lot in common coming out of the fact that they are all small, struggling congregations wondering about their future. My sermon writing mind was probably thinking about all three on some levels when I was writing the message. And the theme touched on an issue that is pretty common to most Christian congregations and which has been an issue for all three at some point in their recent history.
I think, though, that in the end, the sermon worked not because of my unconscious mind pulling all three congregations together; not because I had great illustrations; not because I am such a great orator—in the end, the sermon worked in all three places because I did my best in the circumstances and the Holy Spirit did the rest.
I have discovered that this is an important faith reality: I am responsible before God for doing the best I can in any given situation. But in the end, the results are the work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does take both my best and my worst and accomplish God’s will. It is better for all though, when I give God my best than when I give him less than my best.
May the peace of God be with you.