I believe in preaching series through books of the Bible. I do it. I teach others to do it. But I think we could all do with some extra creativity when it comes to planning a series.
Andy Stanley makes the helpful point that many messages should in fact be series. That is, we can try to cram too much into a single message. This is only compounded when we try to preach a series through a whole book. After all, we will typically end up with substantial length texts each week. For the listener this can be both overwhelming and potentially repetitive.
But there are other potential issues too. Think of preaching through Habakkuk for an example. It naturally falls into three parts – a question with God’s answer, followed by another question with God’s answer, and then Habakkuk’s final declaration of trust. But there is a possible problem here. The first question and its answer is frighteningly negative. It prompted Habakkuk to respond. It will prompt us to respond as we hear it. So do we then sit and stew on this for a week before part two of the series?
Keeping with Habakkuk as a focus, how might we do a series with some creativity?
1. Preach the whole in one. This can make a good introduction or conclusion to a series. Help people to see the whole picture and not just the parts.
2. Dwell in a specific section. In Habakkuk you could take the woes of chapter 2 and see them play out in several messages, always rooted in Habakkuk, but letting them probe our world as well as his with more penetration.
3. Chase the use. Habakkuk is used in some key moments later in the canon of Scripture – not least the quotes of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. Why not take a message or two to chase how Habakkuk influenced the rest of the Bible?
4. Dig into the sources. What earlier Old Testament texts form the “informing theology” of Habakkuk’s book? Perhaps it is worth digging a bit and seeing what could be done with a chase upstream through the Bible to see what fed into his thinking?
5. Place the book in a broader biblical theology. Habakkuk raises issues about suffering and divine providence. Perhaps it is worth seeing where his contribution fits with the other key building blocks – the story of Joseph, Job, Romans 8, etc. This could help listeners place the book in a larger framework.
6. Preach in first person. Sometimes this is the best way to demonstrate how alive a text is. Maybe take the audience back there to his world, or bring him to today to make careful commentary on ours. First person preaching is not easy, but when done well it is also not easily forgotten.
7. Trace a theme or two. As well as working through a book chunk by chunk, it may be helpful to trace a key theme through the book, and then another week trace another key theme. Help people to see the beauty of single grains as in a plank, as well multiple grains in the cross-cut text.
With a prayed-through blend of creativity and traditional single passage exposition, Habakkuk could become a more compelling and effective 6 or 8-week series than it might have been as a traditional 3-week walk through.