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.

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.

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!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.5

We have come to the fifth in the series of seven things preachers never say.  So far we have touched on expectations, negative response, family, and temptation.  Here’s one we really can’t talk about: money.  We can preach about it, after all, the Bible has a lot to say.  But it is very awkward to talk about money for preachers.

5. As a preacher, I have bills to pay and the money I receive for preaching makes a difference.

There may be some preachers who are retired with a healthy pension, but the majority are not able to self-fund their life and ministry.  Some receive a salary from their church.  Some rely on honoraria received when preaching.  Almost all have a tale to tell, but no opportunity to tell it.

First and foremost there is a tale to tell of God’s provision and faithfulness.  I cannot put into words my gratitude for God’s care over the years.  When my wife and I were visiting churches to raise support to go into missions we got into the habit of praying to say thanks to God before we opened the envelope we had been given in each church – we wanted to be thankful for whatever it contained!

Sometimes the gifts given are slightly perplexing. I remember hearing from one friend who relied on gifts he received to be able to pay the bills.  He was invited by a church to speak during their church mission.  So every day for three weeks he drove a significant number of miles, preached at the evening event, and drove home.  Day after day he faithfully served this church.  On the final night, an elderly member of the church approached him and said, “thank you for all you have done, this is from us for the fuel,” and gave him £5 (about $7).  Incredible.

Of course, this friend, even though the story was being shared with other preachers, was quick to add that God has always provided even when some churches have been oblivious to the cost of living.  We do rely on God’s provision, whether it is through salary or gifts.  At the same time, I know many preachers who would like to be able to say something.

I remember being in a church business meeting where the subject of how much the church gives to visiting preachers came up.  I appreciated the perspective of one younger man who suggested that the church should be really generous because it is not easy to preach and he is thankful others are doing something for his benefit that he wouldn’t personally want to be doing.  I didn’t appreciate the comment from another that we should err on the side of frugal because “having too much money is not good for preachers, they might start living lavishly.”  I had tried to stay quiet, but this stirred me to point out that if we don’t trust preachers with a slightly generous gift, then why are we trusting them to present matters of life and death to us?

Preachers I know personally would re-invest excessive funds in God’s work.  Preachers I know personally rarely have that problem.

But what do we say when the subject comes up?  Once in a while, someone might ask what we charge for preaching if we were to come to them.  The best answer I’ve heard went along these lines, “If you were a university or business asking me to come and offer a training session for them, then I would charge a professional rate.  It would reflect the investment I made in formal education, my years of experience in this work and the hours of preparation as well as travel for this particular event.  It would reflect the charges made by similar professions in our culture.  But I don’t charge for ministry.  I trust God to provide and will be very grateful for any gift you feel able to give and feel is appropriate for the ministry I offer.”  

The truth is that most preachers don’t say something like this, but perhaps if we did it might help churches and ministries to think more realistically about what they give to preachers.

When it comes to a pastor’s salary, that is another whole set of complex issues.  It is awkward for a pastor to have their salary published and discussed in church finance meetings.  Nobody else has their income scrutinized and discussed in a public meeting of the church.  I suspect every pastor deeply appreciates those who are willing to raise their voices and advocate for the pastor when others are seeking to require the pastor to need miraculous provision to survive another year on out-of-date salary levels.

I was intrigued to see a written answer to the honorarium question.  If you click here and scroll down past the form you will see an example of what a lot of preachers would like churches and event organisers to see.  The truth is, most of us will continue to remain quiet on this issue.  We understand that some may give very little and yet actually giving incredibly generously for their situation.  We understand that we are trusting God to provide.  And we understand that the moment we raise this issue, it can look like we are trying to pursue a lavish lifestyle like some on TV who do not represent the real preachers willing to serve God irrespective of income.

Next time, number 6…

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.4

Here is the fourth in our series of things preachers tend not to say:

4. I feel the force of real temptation, and I am not always victorious.

This is a tricky one, isn’t it?  We are told that people love to hear a preacher being vulnerable and authentic.  At the same time if the preacher simply lays it all out there, then credibility tends to fade through the floor.  One person suggested on this site that it is not good to be vulnerable about sin that is currently still in process.  Work it out and then share appropriately.  That is probably wise.

But whether we tell recent stories or not, there is a struggle with temptation that is current and that is real.  Some preachers may be struggling with their fleshly reaction to others.  Some preachers may feel like lust is in full attack mode.  Some preachers may feel like their victory over some private temptation is less than all-conquering.  That is not to say that the preacher is therefore living in sin.  They may be living in victory and yet still feel worn down by the constant temptation.

We tend to focus talk on sin in areas of overt misconduct – lust or theft or whatever.  But what about the more “sanctified” sins … the popular churchy ones.  It is not easy to talk about ongoing struggles with pride, or poor self-worth, or unresolved conflict, or temptation to gossip, or whatever.

The truth is that while there may be no disqualifying disaster sin lingering like a skeleton in your preacher’s closet, there is a daily and weekly battle with temptation that is wearying and real.  We may not be losing control and assaulting others in fits of drunken rage, but there may be some self-protective habits in life, and there may be some tensions in the home or the church that tempt us to lash out, or numb the pain, or escape, or whatever.

Sometimes people treat the preacher in such a way that the preacher is the only person in the church who feels unable to share their struggles.  After all, not only is the preacher potentially not being vulnerable, but in some churches there is nobody else creating hope of grace and love if the preacher were to express their own struggle or failure.

Preachers struggle with temptation too, and preachers sin too, and it would be really helpful to get some real conversations going.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.3

What do preachers feel unable to say?  We’ve mentioned the burden of expectation, and the pain that can come from responses of criticism and apathy.  Here’s another to throw into the discussion:

3.  My family is not the picture perfect family you think it is or wish it were.

Real families have real struggles.  Preachers have real families.  Therefore our families struggle.  That means that sometimes there are real challenges in a preacher’s marriage.  I am not talking about the petty disputes over toilet seats that are easy to reference in the pulpit.  I am talking about the incredibly tense interchanges that you don’t mention in a sermon.  Husbands and wives can really clash, or really drift, or really struggle, and that is really true for preachers too.  It is easy to assume that a preacher’s marriage is healthy and easy, but healthy marriages are not usually easy.  If there is a healthy marriage then that is the fruit of God’s grace to overcome lots of sin, and it is the result of lots of difficult decisions along the way, including lots of forgiveness in both directions.  Only the most naïve can say, “you’re lucky, you have a good marriage.”  And sometimes they will say it.

And then there is parenting, another great arena for luck!  “You are lucky, you have easy children.”  Guess again.  Some children may be more compliant than others, but every child needs parenting.  And parenting involves heartache.  The preacher’s children throw tantrums, sin foolishly, and sometimes rebel along the way.  I think there are times when a preacher would do well to pull back from preaching ministry to give their energy to parenting ministry, but there is never a time when a preacher has an easy life as a parent.  Parenting includes heartache, and real fear, disappointments, concern, sleepless nights, and so on.

And it needs saying that the “problem” is not always with the non-preaching spouse or the children.  It could be, but it could also be the other way around too.  Sometimes a preacher may not be a good spouse or a good parent.  There may be times when the preacher vulnerably acknowledges their personal weakness or the challenges at home, but no congregation wants a weekly update on the preacher’s family soap opera.  And typically no preacher wants to expose their family so that everyone knows the struggles they face at home.

Am I saying that all you see is false?  Not at all.  What I am saying is that the preacher’s family is a real family, with real sin, real tension, real disagreements, real weaknesses, real discussions, real disciplining, real parenting and real inadequacy.  If the fruit that is visible is good, then praise God, not luck.  (If the fruit is obviously not good, maybe the preacher needs releasing from some burdens to be able to prioritise their ministry at home.  I can never fathom churches watching helplessly as their pastor’s marriage collapses or their child goes off the rails!)

The preacher’s family life is real, whether you get to see the inner workings or not!