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!

Pulpit Humour: Five Pointers

Some churches get very upset if the preacher uses any humour in the pulpit. I suspect heaven will be a shock to their system!  Other churches esteem humour above all else that comes from the pulpit.  This is also a problem position.  But what of the rest of us somewhere in the middle?  We know that humour is neither inherently sinful, nor the point of preaching, but it can be a minefield.

Here are some pointers:

1. Be authentic in your humour.  That is, don’t pretend to be something you are not.  If you are not a joke-teller in conversation, then don’t tell jokes in the pulpit (it won’t work).  As long as it is appropriate, go with your natural style of humour.

2. Be joyful rather than silly.  We have so much to celebrate and should be a people marked by “Easter joy.”  However, the dynamics of a responsive crowd can stir our flesh into looking for laughs.  Don’t make that your pursuit, you will be selling out on the great goals of preaching!

3. Be loving to all.  Don’t use humour that is critical, destructive, racist, sexist, etc.  Don’t use restrictive humour, that is, humour that only those on the “inside” will understand.  It can be okay to say something that some will find amusing, but it is not okay for those who don’t to feel like they are being left out.

4. Be selective.  Don’t always use the same kind of material.  For instance, it may be the cutest thing you ever heard, but not everyone in your congregation wants to hear what your child said this week at bedtime.  For some a continual diet of those comments can be like rubbing salt in an open wound.

5. Be humble. If it goes wrong, don’t hesitate to apologise.  I inadvertently mixed up two brands when giving an illustration and managed to reference something highly inappropriate … it certainly got a laugh, but I needed to both apologise and explain how I ended up saying what I did!

What would you add?  Any pointers you’ve found helpful?

Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

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This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 3

connections2We have thought about the personal life of the preacher and the pastoral ministry of the preacher. Let’s think about the actual content of the message.  Is it designed to connect?

9.    Really get to know the Bible and your text better. Preaching is not like a relaxed conversation between friends. It is a presentation. One person is presenting both truth and application to others. In every situation where one person is expected to speak with authority, they need to convey credibility. It is true in a sales transaction, in a doctor explaining a treatment plan to a patient, in an educational setting, and it is no less true in preaching. Not only do you need to know what you are talking about, but your listeners need to be able to sense that you know what you are talking about. As Bert Decker’s book title put it, you need to be believed to be heard. Do not try to shortcut to this by showing off knowledge. You need to carry knowledge with humility. The only way to achieve this is to genuinely know the Bible and your text as well as possible.

10.    Internalize your message. If you met someone for the first time and were making conversation, you would feel nervous if they had to check their notes for what their job was, or where they met their spouse. It is hard to trust truth that is not fully owned. So in preaching you need to get the content of your message into you before it can convincingly come out. We will come back to this one tomorrow.

11.    Reflect on personal response and application before preaching. It is not enough to know the content of your message. That content needs to have been filtered through your own life in some way so that you speak not only the truth, but you also speak from the impact of that truth.  This means we would do well to …

12.    Extend lead time before preaching a message. It is difficult if you are preaching at least once per week to have anything more than five days of lead time before preaching a message. Some of us end up with just a couple of days to prepare messages, which is far from ideal. The ideal plan would be to extend the lead time by bringing preliminary study forward before your previous message. If you cannot do a good chunk of initial study well ahead of time, then at least try to give some thought and prayer to forthcoming messages in advance so they can percolate in the background. Unless the speaker has fallen ill and you are stepping in at the last minute, it is not good to start from scratch the day before you preach.

13.    Connection between humans is a heart to heart phenomena. It is easy to present information to inform. It can also be easy to pressure your listeners to perform. But good preaching will always present Christ in such a way that listeners might be drawn to him, stirred by him, motivated to love and trust him. Preaching to the heart is primarily about content, not manner. Evaluate whether your content is offering a God that listeners may find delightful, and whether it is proclaiming a present tense invitation to that God rather than merely giving a historical lecture.

We need listeners to connect with the message, not just the messenger. That is why the content is important. Tomorrow we will think about the delivery.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 2

connections2What can you do to build the connection with listeners? Let’s think about the wider pastoral ministry of the preacher.

8.    Pray for the listeners.  Never forget Acts 6:4. It was when the apostles determined not to be distracted by the business of running the church organization so that they could focus on two things: the word of God and prayer. Many of us today short change both. We can easily think that instant communication means we are the first generation to face the temptation to short change our two primary responsibilities. And how easy it is to focus only on one of them – typically that is not prayer. Our prayer matters. The enemy knows that. We need to believe it. Our churches need to want it (not just tolerate it as they wait patiently for us to be available and leading meetings, but they need to actually want it). It is not easy to promote the value of your own prayer life since there is a need for some secrecy, but I suspect if you just go for it, people will somehow sense it.

9.    Connect with the listeners. I don’t have the stats to prove this, but my sense is that the slight majority of preachers are introverts. Most would expect the opposite to be true, but introverts are able to gain energy in the long hours of solitary preparation, and they are typically more comfortable in a controlled environment (i.e. preaching) than an uncontrolled one (i.e. a party). Anyway, all that to say that you need to connect with your listeners. Model the increasingly rare skill of generating conversation by asking questions, be the leader in not turning every conversation back to yourself, and pray for ways to connect with people. You will be tempted to pull back, especially once people have bruised you a few times. It is hard, but it is important, connect anyway.

10.    Lovingly study the lives of the listeners. As a preacher you have some level of skill in studying the Bible and understanding the culture. Be sure to put in some effort to study your congregation too. If you are a visiting preacher then you have only very limited opportunities to learn about the people who will be listening. But if it is your own church, then by all means make it a goal to understand their lives, their struggles, their fears, their work situations, their family situations, etc. People will feel loved when they feel known – as long as you actually love them.

So much more could be said about the pastoral ministry of the preacher.  What would you add? Tomorrow we will focus on another factor in building preacher-listener connection.

Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

Flock Feeding

sheepeating2One of the primary responsibilities of pastoral ministry is the feeding of the flock.  Here are a few quick thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Seek to give a consistent diet – it is not good to vary meals between a few scraps one time and gorging on overly rich fare another.  Seek to preach so that listeners have a consistency in their diet.
  2. Seek to give a cumulative diet – it is not possible to give everything that is needed in every meal, or in every message.  Seek to preach so that listeners experience a cumulative growth in their biblical awareness and their relational knowledge of God.
  3. Seek to give a healthy diet – no normal parent balances vegetables with poison.  Do not accept heretical content, even if it is wrapped up in the salad leaves of Gospel truth.  Don’t blend curving your listeners inward with drawing them out to Christ.  Preach Christ and him crucified.  Don’t preach Christ and effort intensified.
  4. Seek to give a timely diet – some fare fits in certain seasons and when it is missing something does not seem right.  In my culture we tend to expect Turkey and mince pies in December, and more salads in the summer.  Whether or not your church follows the church calendar, at least in some basic points, your listeners do.  Christmas and Easter at least deserve some appropriate messages, perhaps harvest or mother’s day is a must too?  Don’t disappoint, there’s nothing to be gained.