I get six ‘away’ preaching Sundays per year, and these are a welcome opportunity to help sister churches during periods of vacancy and enjoy fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ more widely. Over the years in ministry my approach to these engagements has been changing a little.
For a long while I would take some material with me to other churches which I had preached before in Millisle Baptist. There is a double advantage to this – it means that I can select a sermon which I know has been of help in the past, and it also allows me a little extra time to visit or catch up on administration in lieu of the extended hours that sermon preparation usually requires. Tweaking and editing what has been preached before is a lighter task than working from scratch with a new text. A fellow student at Bible college called these a ‘Blue Peter’ message – one I prepared earlier.
This worked for me and I know that it works for many other pastors. Increasingly, though, my own comfort levels with this method have diminished quite a bit. Part of this is temperamental and individual to me. I prepare all the time when I know Sunday is coming (and it always comes), so I’m reading next week’s text on Monday morning; I’m listening to it on my phone while walking the dog or cutting the grass; I’m mulling it over while driving; I’m listening for resonances of the passage in pastoral visitation and counselling etc. In short I’m living and breathing the text to the extent that when it comes to concerted time at the study desk much of the groundwork has been laid. This has a follow-on effect in the pulpit as I sense that the passage of Scripture and my thinking have become integrated, and so I am speaking, feeling, and ministering from sustained meditation.
The ‘Blue Peter’ messages, even if revised or repeatedly reread always feel to me that they are lacking punch and bite. They feel a little like the charcoal in the barbecue after a few hours – warm enough to gently toast marshmallows, but some way off being able to grill a steak! I’m not sure that my listeners would note much difference, but my feeling it is enough to reduce my sense of ‘expository exultation’, as John Piper has termed it.
My alternative approach over the past couple of years has felt like a better fit. I’ve decided to work on developing new sermons on a book of Scripture that I’ve never preached through before – in my case, Hebrews. My ‘away’ engagements are evenly spaced out, so I have considerable time to meditate on the text, and to engage with a wider range of commentaries than normal weekly preaching allows. The benefit of this is chiefly personal, in that I am deepening my own understanding of a new area of Scripture away from my normal preaching and I’m getting to visit and revisit the text with the passage of time. If I feel that a particular sermon on Hebrews hasn’t preached well, I then try to reverse engineer it prior to preaching again – bringing a new or drastically revised message on the same passage at my next engagement. There is also a benefit to my home church, as my prayer would be that over time I might work through a significant section of Hebrews in terms of commentaries, so that if I choose to preach it in Millisle I will have years of engagement with the book behind me before preaching it to the people under my direct pastoral care.
So, I’m leaving Blue Peter behind. I’m not making an absolute rule of this for myself, nor an absolute recommendation of this to others. There will be engagements where I will simply need to re-preach a previous sermon, and there will be brothers in the work for whom this is a much enjoyed firebreak in the incessant work of pastoral ministry. But for me it is proving a refreshing and vivifying experience in my own soul, and hopefully to the soul of others.