- Stick with what I've prepared - Sometimes what you've got will work for the present situation. Sometimes you stick with your prepared sermon and address the tragedy through another aspect of the service, for instance, a special time of prayer.
- Alter what you've prepared - Maybe all your sermon needs is some alteration to be appropriate to the moment.
- Ditch what you've got and go with something totally new - This has its challenges, especially if the tragedy occurs close to Sunday.
How do you decide what to do? I think the decision process involves listening to the Spirit and gauging how close to home this tragedy has hit. Will the people in the congregation be able to think about another topic on this Sunday or will their attention be limited to their own questions concerning this recent event? The closer the tragedy is to home, or the more prominent the tragedy is in the news, helps me determine whether or not I need to alter my sermon for the upcoming Sunday.
I have altered sermons on three occasions that I can remember: The Fort Hood shootings; The Newtown shootings; and the recent tornadoes in Moore. Three sermons out of a decade of preaching is not a lot. So this is not something I do easily. For one thing, I am not an off the cuff kind of preacher. I like to be prepared. But on occasion, I have felt the need to make a change.
In the case of the Newtown shootings I actually re-preached a sermon from the year before acknowledging that that was what I was doing. That took care of the issue of preparation. On the other two occasions, I ditched prepared sermons and preached an entirely new one. In each case, the sermons have been well-received. People are filled with questions during such times and want their pastors to say something. While we may not have any answers to their questions, we can point people towards the God who cares for them in times of great trial.
I'd love to hear from you. When have you made a last minute sermon change? What led you to make that decision? How was that change received? Is there a time you chose to stick with what you had? How did you come to that decision? What are other ways we can acknowledge a tragedy has occurred without altering our sermon?