Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?

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The Big Advantage of Shorter Series

I have friends that preach through a Bible book over the course of many months. It seems to work for their churches. I tend to think that there are advantages to shorter series.  Here’s why:

1. Shorter series mean more launch points – if you only start a new series every six months then you only get that launch point twice each year.  If you start a new series every 4-8 weeks then you might have 6-8 launch points per year.  Launching a series is an opportunity to invite people in and to invite people back in who might have drifted from regular attendance.

2. Shorter series naturally allow more schedule flexibility – that is, you can juggle the series to fit the calendar.  So you can do a year-starter leadership series, and then something else before a pre-Easter series.  Shorter series’ also means potentially more “buffer weeks” where there is some wiggle room for when you need to make changes to the schedule.

3. Shorter series avoid monotony – you have to be an amazing preacher to keep people engaged in a six month series in Jeremiah.  You are not Martyn Lloyd-Jones and nor am I.  Both preacher and listener benefit from not getting to the point where a series starts to drag.

4. Shorter series avoid genre overload – some people love Proverbs, others thrive on Psalms, some respond well to historical narratives, others eat up the epistles.  Multiple shorter series allow for a schedule that resonates with more people.  Even the most ardent prophecy fan will appreciate some weeks in another part of the Bible.

Next time I will share some thoughts on how to do bigger books in shorter series.

Remembering Haddon Robinson (1931-2017)

Dr Haddon Robinson went home to be with his God on Saturday 22nd July, 2017.  He was 86 years old.  His legacy is incredible.  Haddon started teaching preaching at Dallas Theological Seminary while still a student.  He went on to teach there for 19 years.  He was president at Denver Seminary where he served for 12 years.  He finished his seminary career at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he led the Doctor of Ministry program and served as Interim President during a difficult season at the school.  He wrote many books and articles, including his classic textbook Biblical Preaching, and he also served with other ministries including Discover the Word, Our Daily Bread, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society.

Haddon was passionate about preaching, of course, but also about education.  Consequently, it is fitting that the final decades of his ministry were spent at Gordon-Conwell equipping people to teach preaching across the world.  I am so thankful that I got to be one Haddon’s students during those years.  My seminary preaching profs had spoken so highly of Haddon that I was thrilled to get the chance to study at Gordon-Conwell from 2005-2007 in the Doctor of Ministry program.

I remember the first Monday morning our cohort were together.  Haddon took three hours to go around the room and hear from all 25 of us.  Men and women from various backgrounds and denominations, but across the board, we all answered one question in the same way.  “Why did you choose to come here?”  To put it simply, we all said, “I want to learn from you, Dr Robinson.”  He probably got that from every group, but there was never a hint that his ego was stroked.  For Haddon “there are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”

On the final day of our last cohort together Haddon went around the room again.  Time and again we all said something like, “Haddon, I came here to learn from you and I leave here counting you as a friend.”  Haddon was humble, he cared, he showed interest, he cheered us on, and throughout the program he educated.

Each year Haddon would bring in a friend to co-teach the cohort. These were men who had learned from him and were now at the top of their field.  They were wonderful teachers and we learned so much from each of them.  However, whenever Haddon spoke, we all grabbed for our pens.  Actually, it was tempting to grab for a pen even when he prayed.  Haddon was a wordsmith.  He could put things into words so effectively, whether he was teaching a class, preaching a sermon, or chatting over coffee and a donut.

Haddon Robinson did not believe there are great preachers, but nevertheless, he was one.  Many times I have marveled at Haddon’s ability to say so much in a way that feels so unhurried to the listener.  I don’t recall hearing a Haddon sermon where the big idea was not clear, concise and accurate.  I never heard him fail to nail a landing – his final sentences crafted like a runway that he would always touchdown on a couple of sentences earlier than you expected.  Listening to a sermon from Haddon felt like going for a walk through a Biblical text with a wise uncle.  I remember finding a sermon on video where Haddon took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and then struggled to put them on one-handed (his other hand held his Bible and he had no lectern to put it down).  His struggle comforted me because it was good to see that even he could get a bit stuck, but his calmness in the situation was still a delight to watch as he dropped in a hilarious comment about having just had his one-a-day cup of coffee … and that cup was for March 14th 2035.

Haddon Robinson was a great preacher because he so understood the world of the Bible and because he thought deeply about his listeners.  More than that, he understood communication profoundly.  And then, on top of that, he was a master educator.  Haddon said, “Education isn’t filling a pail with information; it’s lighting a fire in the spirit of a learner.”  I remember defending my thesis and having Haddon throw questions at me out of left field with a glint in his eye. He was a wonderful teacher of preachers, although he knew he couldn’t get everyone to the same level.  Some struggled to grasp the freedom Haddon espoused in preaching.  They might read his book or hear him lecture and think it was a complex formula to be meticulously followed.  In reality, Haddon wanted to train preachers who were biblically constrained to say what the text said, who were homiletically free to communicate as effectively as possible, and who were spiritually responsive to the God who so masterfully crafted His communication.  I am sure all of us who learned from Haddon are not as effective as we could be inasmuch as we haven’t grasped or consistently implemented all that he offered us.  At the same time, Haddon was so effective as a teacher that I am confident there are hundreds of preachers and teachers of preaching that are making a massive difference because of Haddon’s input in our lives and ministries.

Haddon grew up surrounded by the gangs of Harlem.  There was always a steely determination and a look in his eyes that showed he knew exactly what was going on around him. Sometimes people who do great things in ministry seem to get a pass from those around them for where their character fails to show the fruit of the Spirit.  In my experience and observation, this is not so much the case with Haddon.  He was gracious, humble, caring and godly.  To use words from his definition of preaching, it was my experience that the Holy Spirit had first applied biblical truth to the personality and experience of Haddon, then through Haddon, he also applied the Bible to the hearers.

Haddon was great fun to be around.  He took the Bible seriously, he took preaching seriously, and he took education seriously.  But he didn’t take himself too seriously.  He was alive in coffee breaks, laughing and probing with a big smile and bright eyes.  He was alive when he would gather the cohort in the center of the classroom to sing some hymns together.  He was alive when Bonnie, his wife, was able to join us for a meal or another sing-along at a piano.  And now he is alive in the presence of the God that he served so faithfully throughout his life.

I thank God for the life and ministry of Haddon Robinson.  I am just one of many who learned from him as a preacher, an educator, a writer, a mentor, and even as a friend.  Haddon loved the Bible, the God of the Bible, preaching, his wife Bonnie, his children … he seemed to love life.  May that legacy be multiplied in the years to come.

Not Every Exhortation is Necessary

Haddon Robinson uses an illustration to make this point. He imagines a friend borrowing his car and then finding they have a flat tire. They call for advice. So over the phone he tells them where the spare is, where the tools are, how to release the spare wheel from its cage, and so on. At the end of the explanation he suggests it is not necessary to finish with the exhortation, “Now I exhort you: change the tire!”

That friend is already motivated to put the instruction into practice, they just need the instruction to be clear. In the same way there are some things that are preached with great life impact simply through clarity of explanation. The listeners are already stirred and motivated to implement the teaching in their lives as soon as they understand it. If that is the case, the added exhortation may do more harm than good.

This is something for us to ponder not only in respect to the practical applications for believers, but also in respect to the offer of the Gospel. We should be persuasive and there will be times when an exhortation is exactly what is needed. But there will be others times when bringing clarity to the message will be all the motivation that is needed to bring about life change.

Let’s learn to sense when our exhortation is helpful and when it might only antagonize or patronize our listeners. Let’s also make sure that our explanation is so clear that people are really understanding what is being said. Let’s pray for sensitivity to people and to God so that we know when to exhort, when to invite, and when to let clarity do its deep work in souls.

Exegesis and Exposition

What is the difference between exegesis and exposition? Haddon Robinson put it this way, “Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give your people what they need to understand the passage.” This implies that the preacher will have a lot more material after the exegesis than they are able to present in the sermon.

Here are three implications for us to ponder:

1. Passage Study Before Message Formation – When you move too quickly from studying a passage to preparing the message you will not have much left over from the exegesis phase. This will result in preaching that lacks authority, that is biblically thin, and that is more an imposition of your ideas onto a passage than the message God intended from that passage.

2. Sermon Preparation Takes Time – If you start the sermon preparation on the Saturday, then Sunday is already looming and you are already looking for the sermon. You have to work your schedule so that the pressure of preaching is not squeezing out time for exegesis and meditation. It takes hours to prepare a message, over many days, built on top of many years. The years of biblical soaking feed into the times of biblical study that bubble up into sermons worth preaching.

3. You Have to Know Better Than You Preach – When you are grasping for a sermon you will be preaching a passage that you have not grasped and that has not grasped you. Aim to know a passage so well that an informed listener can engage you in an extended conversation about the nuances of the passage after they’ve heard your sermon. You may or may not choose to create a venue for that further exegetical presentation, but being able to do that means you are preaching within your range of study, not beyond it.

Hungry People Pay Attention to Food

I read an article Jeffrey Arthurs wrote about getting and keeping listeners’ attention. He built his article around the point that hungry people pay attention to food. It is so true. Recently I sat in a home where I was being hosted for a meal, waiting for the final guest to arrive so that we could sit down and eat. I was hungry. Consequently every waft from the kitchen, every comment about final touches to the meal, every hint about what was to come had my full attention.

The same is true of preaching. Listeners can ignore Bible passages for years, but when a preacher helps them to see that this passage is relevant to their deepest needs, they will give it their full attention. But this is not easy to do. Too easily we settle for an introduction that is interesting, but doesn’t surface a need. It is not enough to introduce the context for the text back then, we need to show the context for its relevance today.

How can we do that? One key skill is to incorporate awareness of what Haddon Robinson calls the Depravity Factor into our passage study. What is the impact of Genesis 3 on this passage? How does fallenness in this passage mirror brokenness in our contemporary world? It is not always sin that presents itself, sometimes it is hurt, it is need, it is fear, it is inadequacy … but always the fallenness of this world shows in the passage you are studying.

A study of the passage and of our listeners should yield complementary facets of fallenness. Help people to taste their need for security, for hope, for forgiveness, for life, for whatever this passage will address, and then watch them care about the passage like never before.

“Welcome to today’s sermon, turn with me to Bible Book chapter 4, verse 1…” Stop. Start that sermon again. Not just with a joke or an anecdote, but with a real taste for the goodness to come. Help the listeners sense their inner craving for that goodness and your sermon will be off to a much better start!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.7

Alright, we have come to the end of the list.  We have looked at the burden of expectation, the effect of negative responses, family realities, battles with temptation, financial struggles, weariness and now:

7. Preachers can go beyond weary to places of personal coldness, doubt, and depression.

I was at a conference recently where I spoke with several people who had all suffered various forms of burnout in the past months.  For some, the manifestation was physical: symptoms like chest pains and sleeplessness.  For some, the manifestation was emotional with a sudden inability to function as they had before.  For some, the struggle became much more spiritual, with even the smallest aspect of Christian living becoming a big ordeal.

While the manifestations of burnout, breakdown or depression were different, the stories were similar in regards to the lead-up.  A very heavy emotional load.  Perhaps complex church discipline issues.  Perhaps heavy relational meltdown.  Perhaps unrelenting criticism.  Perhaps lies being spread about them. Then came the interrupted sleep, the feeling of being overwhelmed and the eventual inability to function.

Irrespective of whether a preacher suffers from clinical depression, burnout, or whatever we might call a specific case, the reality we have to face is that we are not immune to such struggles.  We can go through seasons of spiritual dryness, even coldness.  We can struggle with a sudden onslaught of doubt.  And it is more than possible for a preacher to suffer from some kind of depression at some point or other, perhaps for years on end.

We simply cannot pretend that all is well when it isn’t.  We need to be honest with someone we trust and we need to get the help that we would advise anyone else to be getting.  Going it alone is not an option.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.6

We are coming to the end of this series of 7 things preachers never say.  Last time we mentioned money, but here is number 6, which will set up number 7.

6. I am weary.

Those in leadership in the church know that it can be a very wearying task.  There is a reason that good churches give their pastors periodic sabbaticals.  While that may seem like a luxury other professions don’t offer, many pastors know that if it weren’t for a sabbatical at a key time they might have burned out and needed to step into a different line of work.

This is really a follow-on from number one in the list – that we can feel overwhelmed by expectation.  And maybe a follow-on from number four – that temptation and spiritual attack can wear us down.  Sometimes the cumulative effect of relentless ministry demands and life can really drain the tanks.

In church ministry, the leaders feel the weight of pastoral responsibility.  We feel burdened by those who are struggling with health difficulties, financial difficulties, and marital difficulties.  We feel burdened by those who are heading for a crash because of foolish decisions they are making in life.  We feel the weight of a relentless ministry schedule that means the next meeting is never too far away and we always have to be present, let alone prepared to lead or speak.  We feel it when our own family is a real family and things come up that require extra time that we don’t really have.  We too tend to have car trouble or washing machine trouble at inopportune moments.  We also may be struggling personally from an onslaught of temptation, doubt, criticism, or whatever.  And so sometimes we are weary.

This is both good and bad.  It is good for us to feel the pressures of life and to be pushed up against God so that we aren’t preaching his sufficiency from the safety of an easy life.  It is bad because in some churches those “in ministry” are expected to have it all together…so there may be nobody to talk to, and thus the weariness can start to feel inescapable and lonely.

This raises an important point.  There are some things preachers never say publicly, but it is important that we do speak somewhere.  We need to be honest with God, and we need safe friends with whom we can be honest too.  Maybe someone else in ministry but outside your church?  I know how vital this has been for me at various times.  Safe and confidential friends to go to for advice or just a listening ear.  Some people vent indiscriminately and do immeasurable damage.  We have to be wise, but we must not go it alone.  Do you have people you can go to in order to share struggle?  Do you have friends that will bring you to Jesus when going to him alone is not lifting you?  If you can’t name them, you probably don’t have them.  Think it through now before the heavy cloud becomes too much and you can’t think straight.

John’s Letters

John’s Letters: Living in the Light of God’s Love (10Publishing, 2017) is now available from 10ofThose.com. I was privileged to contribute Galatians: The Life I Now Live to this Undated Devotions series in 2015 and am thankful that I could contribute this volume on John’s Letters.

The book is available in paper or e-book format from the site, and from some other booksellers too.  Each day traces the flow of thought in the section, highlights the main idea and leaves the reader with a reflection question to ponder.  I hope it can be a blessing to some!