7 Ideas for Creativity in Series Planning

Number7bI 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.

Ministry In The Tough Times

Harvest3bMinistry is usually challenging. Sometimes it can be brutal.  What do we need for ministry in the tough times?

I have found help from an unlikely source – the book of Ruth.  Nestled after the book of Judges, Ruth is a four chapter gem that is intensely relevant for our lives today.  Why? First, because Ruth is not a story of kings, warriors and prophets – it is a story of very normal people, just like us.  Second, because Ruth is set in a time where the culture around was marked by a growing ungodliness, just like ours.  Third, because in Ruth we don’t see God working in spectacular and sensational miracles, and there are times in our lives when we don’t see God being as obvious as we’d like Him to be. Ruth is a story of God quietly at work in the lives of ordinary people during very challenging times, and therefore it is a story for us.

The book of Ruth is really the story of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Naomi suffers extreme devastation in the first verses. Her family moved away from the Promised Land to Moab, and there her husband died, followed by her two sons.  She was left devastated and somehow responsible for her two Moabite daughters-in-law.

The darkness for Naomi was overwhelming. She faced two great problems. One was immediate, the other long-term.  The immediate problem was that without a husband or sons to protect and provide, how would she eat?  The longer-term problem was that of life purpose. In that culture her role was to bear sons and continue the family line. She had borne sons, but now they were dead. An overwhelming sense of shame, failure and hopelessness must have nagged at her.

Naomi’s journey is really the journey of humanity.  In the darkness of life’s circumstances, we live under the cloud resulting from the Fall of Genesis. We have been born into a world that believes the lie that God is not good and He cannot be trusted.  Even as Christian leaders, when life hits us hard we can get to where Naomi was, struggling to trust in the goodness of God.  Her journey is the journey of history, and it is a journey many of us will have to make – a journey of rediscovery of the goodness of God.

In chapter 1 Naomi is so devastated that all she can muster, by way of explanation of her situation, is that the LORD, the Almighty, has brought her back empty, He has dealt bitterly with her. She cannot say that God is good, all she can muster is that God is . . . God.  Maybe you are there right now. Maybe you will be one day.

Praise God that He does not discard us when we struggle to trust in His goodness.  Instead He works, typically quietly and behind the scenes, to tune our hearts to recognize His ongoing steadfast and loyal love for us.  In chapter 1 we see the stunning speech of Ruth.  Sometimes our radar for God’s kindness will be helped by those around us whose commitment to God is a testimony to us in our own struggle.

The rest of the book demonstrates God’s persistent love for Naomi and Ruth in response to the two great needs that overwhelmed Naomi in chapter 1. The immediate need for food is addressed in chapter 2.  At the start of the day Ruth speaks of the possibility of finding favour (receiving grace) from someone that day.  Naomi sat at home with that ringing in her ears until evening.  Then she discovered that God had showered Ruth with grace through Boaz.  Ruth staggered home with a huge amount of barley, and leftovers from her own lunch. And it all began with Ruth “luckily” landing in the field of Boaz.  God was at work, and Naomi started to trust again.

In the next chapters we see Naomi starting to plan for a future legacy via Boaz and Ruth. God had better plans than hers. Boaz turned out to be incredibly godly and he made sure that he followed through with appropriate wedding plans. As the book ends we see a kinsman sitting on the lap of Naomi, provided by God.  The kinsman was Obed, the grandfather of David.

Ruth is the story of Naomi’s journey from ‘God is God,’ to ‘how good is God!?’  It is the story of God persistently and quietly working behind the scenes to help Naomi see His character again. He provided protection and food, and He provided honour in the place of shame, a legacy that would go down through the generations to the great king David . . . and to David’s greater son, Jesus.

Maybe you are facing overwhelming darkness in ministry right now.  Maybe all you can muster is a declaration that God is God.  He’s in charge, but He has dealt bitterly with you.  If that is not the case today, it very well may be one day. How will we come through such times?

The book of Ruth teaches us that in such times God is still at work, even when we don’t see it.  It teaches us that there will be times when it will be the faith of a Ruth, or the godliness of a Boaz, that will preach hope into our hearts.  It teaches us that God will work quietly, but persistently, to not only provide for us, but also to bring about His greater plans of which we are a part.

When the darkness descends we can easily feel like our life and ministry amounts to nothing.  If we are part of God’s great plan at all, then our ministry is just a couple of black threads in a tapestry we cannot see.  But God still has His big picture, and our lives are still part of it.  Naomi could never have guessed that God’s plan in her suffering was really about bringing Ruth from Moab to Bethlehem so she could be in the line of the Messiah.  So we don’t know the bigger picture.

The book of Ruth lifts our hearts to believe that one day, when God reveals the great tapestry of human history, we will see how it all fit.  We will see how our few threads, even the darkest ones, were part of a glorious picture that only God’s goodness could have achieved.

Pray for God to stir your heart to trust His goodness.  Maybe through the faith and godliness of others.  Maybe through the “lucky” circumstances of life.  Maybe through suffering that doesn’t make sense.  One day it will.  And for now prayerfully look to see where God is quietly at work in your life, in your family, in your ministry.  God does not have to be sensational and spectacular to convince us of His goodness, but He is persistently good!

Mishandling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls3Yesterday we saw three big mistakes that are common in explaining OT material in the NT (click here to go there).  Here are some more to ponder:

4. Obliviousness to New Covenant allusions.  This is a huge problem in Christian preaching today.  Too many people read the New Testament and seem to miss the multiple New Covenant allusions that permeate practically every section of the New Testament. The work of the Spirit, intimacy with God, transformed hearts, life, and so on . . . there is so much more to the New Covenant than simply the forgiveness of sins.  Sadly, too many in our churches seem to think that Christianity is an offer of forgiveness combined with a repackaging of Old Covenant guidelines for living.  I suspect Paul would get sharp with some contemporary preaching!

5. Obliviousness to Old Testament portrayal of God.  Too easily we make a similar mistake with the Old Testament.  We can easily view it as largely a presentation of life under the rule of an angry and distant God.  When we read the New Testament as the arrival of gentle Jesus to rescue us from a hard-to-please God, then naturally we will fail to grasp the richness of the Old Testament background to the New.  It was not Law back then, but grace and truth now only.  John 1:14-18 is speaking of the LORD who pitches His tent near the people and whose glory can be beheld, whose character is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (grace and truth).  The Jesus of the New Testament is not absent from the Old Testament – it was about Him, and He was there.  They did not simply trust in a good promise, but they also encountered the Promiser Himself . . . and now we can meet Him fully!  There are discontinuities between the Old and New Testament, but the character of God the Father revealed in God the Son is not one of them.

How else have you heard OT quotes and allusions mishandled in preaching the NT?


Mishandling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls3Last week we thought about how to handle a New Testament passage that quotes from, or alludes to, an Old Testament passage.  Here are some examples of where mishandling the Old Testament quote or allusion can cause trouble:

1. The Son of Man quotes.  From our perspective it can seem like the references to Jesus as the Son of God are stronger claims than references to Jesus as the Son of Man. Not necessarily. The king of Israel is referred to as “son of God,” but typically the “Son of Man” language points to a very lofty title.  So while there may be occasions where “Son of Man” is referencing humility or lowliness of Jesus, often it points to Daniel 7 and the one standing next to the Ancient of Days who is given authority over everything. Recognising the weight of this title helps, for example, when Jesus uses the title of himself before the Sanhedrin in his trial.  Why does the High Priest react so strongly and assume their work is done? Because he felt the force of Daniel 7.

2. Hardened hearts quotes. There are various passages that quote from the end of Isaiah 6.  It can feel very harsh, even arbitrary.  After all, God was determining that the people would not respond to Isaiah’s ministry?  Before we dump in any theological assumptions and defend such a view, let’s be sure to read the passage in context.  Unusually the call of Isaiah has a five chapter prelude that lays out the state of the nation. They were rebellious and resistant to God.  By the time we get to chapter 6 it is clear that God does not want a “cheap responsiveness” from a people determined to be against Him.  Hence the hardening.  Earlier Pharoah’s heart was also hardened . . . after the three plagues where he hardened his heart against God.  God wants genuinely responsive hearts, and where that is not present, He may bake the rebellious determination to avoid false turns to God (as we see repeatedly in Judges).  Be sure to get the context before imposing a harsh theological overlay on these passages.

3. Where we sit in judgment on “inspired mishandling” of Scripture.  This is a dangerous short cut. It may appear that the New Testament writer is not handling the Old Testament passage appropriately in its context.  Don’t jump to that conclusion though. It is more likely that you haven’t understood the richness of that OT context quite as fully as you could yet.  Saying that the writers are inspired and so can make exegetical errors is a head in the sand option that causes more problems than it solves.  Keep working, it may become clearer in time.  (A classic example might be “out of Egypt I have called my Son…” in Hosea 11:1 which is obviously a backwards look to Israel, not an anticipation of Jesus’ travel as an infant…so Matthew didn’t handle Hosea well?  Or maybe Matthew traced the thematic richness of Hosea and brought that over to Matthew?  It is worth doing the work to find out!)

I will list some more tomorrow. Any OT mishandles that come to mind for you?

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 3

Two scrolls2So far we have thought about the need to read the Old Testament and to go back to study the source of a quotation. We looked at a specific example (Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34).  What do we do when we have limited time in the sermon?

1. Do the study yourself, even if you don’t plan to preach about it.  Taking the time to study an OT quote, reference, allusion or whatever will always benefit you. You need to be studying the Bible at a deeper level than you are communicating it to others. Too many preachers try to sound more informed than they are – that is dangerously thin ice to skate on.  Study deeper than you preach.

2. Evaluate how significant a full explanation of the quote will be in communicating the main idea of your preaching passage.  Perhaps you have a passage that is built on a single Old Testament quote and it would be worth taking the listeners back to the quote (you could project it so they don’t get lost flipping pages). It may be worth taking them through a simplified process of pondering the context, the meaning back there, how that carries over and informs the NT passage, etc.  It may be appropriate to be interactive in this process, inviting them to think out loud with you.  There are lots of possibilities, however, this will not be possible or helpful with every OT quote you preach.

3. Recognize that there are multiple levels of explanation.  Sometimes it is possible and helpful to go back and look at the quote in its context. Sometimes that would take too much time, or it would take away too much focus from the passage you are preaching.  It is possible to explain an Old Testament quote verbally in 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or two minutes, etc.  It is possible to give the bottom line of your study, such as, “if we were to take the time to go back and look at that quote, we would see that the whole section in Ezekiel is a rebuke of Israel’s failed leadership . . . which is what Jesus is critiquing here as he points to himself as the Good Shepherd, etc.”  (This is thinking more of early John 10 and the Ezekiel 34 background.)  You have lots of options, from not even noticing it is a quote or allusion, to doing the full process with your listeners.  Choose appropriately.

4. Remember that your listeners need encouragement to enjoy the Bible for themselves.  While you may not have the time to go back and look, it doesn’t hurt to suggest that people do that themselves. Too often listeners feel the Bible is out of their reach and only the preacher can dispense the goods.  Too often listeners feel there is some kind of subjectivity and magic worked when preachers explain passages.  Encourage your listeners to go digging.  Encouragement combined with some good examples may motivate them to go back into the Old Testament for themselves!

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 2

Two scrolls2So when you find an OT quote or reference in your passage, what do you do? Yesterday we started with two basic, but important, points – read the Old Testament a lot, and go back to check the source of the quote (don’t just assume you get what is going on).  Let’s build on that with some exegetical thoughts for our benefit, then next time we can ponder how to preach these passages . . .

3. When you look at the source of the quote, take in the context.  For example, when Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 to support his own claim to equality with the Father and the use of the term “Son of God” (see John 10:34), what is he doing?  A superficial look might suggest he is just being tricky with words. That is, since there is one obscure reference to humans being called “gods” by God, therefore Jesus could also get away with it.  Not very convincing.  But his argument made their poised throwing arms lower and the stones didn’t fly, so something about his use of this quote was more compelling than such an apparently weak argument might superficially suggest.  Check the whole Psalm.

4. Be aware of the wider Old Testament context, not just the specific section. Here is where Kaiser’s concept of “Informing Theology” is so helpful. What informed the writer of the original passage. That is, what was Asaph aware of that fed into his writing of Psalm 82?  For instance, is it obscure and unique to reference human kings as “sons of God”?  Not really, this is found elsewhere.

5. Grasp the meaning of the Old Testament passage in its context.  It is worth taking the time to understand the OT passage as well as you can. For example, Psalm 82 is a rebuke of unworthy leadership that culminates in anticipation of God himself stepping in to deal with the sin of the earth (specifically the failure of the human leaders).

6. Carry a sense of the whole passage forward to the New Testament quote and see how that fits.  Suddenly John 10:34-36 doesn’t seem like a random verse plucked and used poorly. Instead, it fits as part of the extended argument that has carried over from the end of chapter 9 (and really since the conflict of chapter 5). Jesus is not making a desperate loophole defence of his claim to divinity. He is undermining the leadership of the nation and making a claim to be God who has come to judge and claim the nations as his own!  They would likely have heard the force of the whole Psalm, rather than zeroing in on the short quote Jesus used – that was the link, but it was not full weight of his argument.

Bottom line: It is always worth taking time to study the Old Testament source of later quotations and references.  Always. 

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls2Almost every passage you preach in the New Testament will have Old Testament quotes or allusions present. What should we be noticing, and what should we do with them?

A. OT Quotes – these are usually very obvious. They are typically marked in quotes, and often have a quotation formula introducing them, such as “This was to fulfil what was written by the prophet Isaiah,” (then the quote), or “As Isaiah wrote,” . . .

B. OT Reference – this is where the New Testament writer refers to an Old Testament incident. For instance, Jesus referred to Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6-9) while speaking with Nicodemus. It is not a quote, but it might as well be, it is a direct and overt reference.

C. OT Allusion – this is more subtle, it is where the New Testament writer is implying Old Testament wording but without making it a quote.  Peter’s use of language like “royal priesthood, holy nation,” etc (1Peter 2:9) is an example of allusion rather than direct quote.

D. OT Informing Theology – to us Walter Kaiser’s label, informing theology is that previously written material that was readily available to the writer and probably the original hearer/reader, but may take some digging for us to grasp. Sometimes this will be overt, such as Jesus’ speech about being a good shepherd is built on a shared awareness of Ezekiel 34 with his hearers. Sometimes this will be more hidden, such as Jesus’ resistance to Nicodemus’ conversation opener based on an awareness of Genesis 3 that Nicodemus didn’t get (and most commentators seem to miss too . . . is he really saying we are dead if we are without the Spirit?)

What should we be doing with this Old Testament colour in the New Testament text?  Let’s start with two basic but important points before we continue with more suggestions next time:

Important Point 1 – read the Old Testament. The only way to gain familiarity with the literature that the NT writers knew and often assumed knowledge of is to spend time in it. The more you read it, the more the New Testament use of it will jump off the page. Know the whole, and start to recognise the major passages that get quoted or referenced, or alluded to a lot.

Important Point 2 – when studying the New Testament, always go back and look at the Old Testament source for quotes and references. Sometimes do so for recognised allusions and informing theology too. If you don’t do that digging, you won’t fully grasp passages that you intend to preach.

Next time we will ponder further how to study this and then preach in light of it . . .

A Fresh Approach

FreshAir2It is very easy to let past sermons influence your next sermon. The way a passage is traditionally handled can easily become the default way we feel it should be handled again.

Now there is a positive side to this. If a passage is traditionally handled accurately and appropriately, then being fresh for the sake of it is not a good idea. Let’s be traditional all day long if that means handling the Word well.

However, sometimes a good traditional approach can overpower an equally appropriate approach to a passage. For instance, recently I preached from Acts 8 and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch. As I studied the passage I felt some subconscious pressure to do what I have always heard from that narrative – namely, a brief telling of the story and then a lengthy engagement with a longer section of Isaiah 53. After all, it is a great opportunity to make clear to our listeners what was shared with the Ethiopian Eunuch.

But is there another legitimate approach? I felt there was. Specifically, I wanted to engage with what occurred in this particular narrative. By keeping my focus on the passage in Acts 8 more, I was able to look at God’s sovereign initiative in preparing an individual for an encounter with God’s Word, and how that Word may not be immediately clear, but God is able to bring clarity to it, and when He does, that reader discovers that clarity in God’s Word is more about the Who? revealed than some sense of What-To-Do? that we might anticipate.  Furthermore, seeing Christ clearly is what leads to life transformation. This sense of God’s dealing with individuals and leading them into His Word to find Christ was a rich and unique subject to ponder.

When we come to a passage, let’s remember that this particular passage is unique.  Let’s be aware of how we traditionally hear it presented and be sure that this is the way to go before committing ourselves to it. Recognise that while each passage is saying one thing, it is possible to engage each passage in various ways, several of which may be completely legitimate.

Let Christmas Improve Your Preaching

designI just wrote a brief devotional post stirred by the quote from Pleased to Dwell in the image. You can click here to go to that post. This quote stirs a preaching thought:

How can Christmas improve our preaching?

Think about Moses for a moment. Moses was a great prophet. Not because he was eloquent (he was not). Not because he was confident (again, he was often not). If you boil it down, Moses was a great prophet because we read of how he, time and again, met with God face-to-face. Moses could speak of the God he was representing because he knew that God. It wasn’t just a knowledge of Scriptures or theology, it was a personal repeated encounter with God himself.

Most of us have probably never had the experience Moses enjoyed. But that does not mean we should preach as purveyors of facts. We are called into God’s presence in a way that was not possible in Moses’ day. We are called to know God in a way that was not possible back then.

Christmas has changed things. The greater prophet than Moses, one who has spent far more time watching the Father and hearing his words, the ultimate prophet has come into our world. Jesus not only brings us the ultimate revelation, he has also created the ultimate access. Because we can be united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can boldly approach the heavenly throne at any time. Because we are united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can know the heart of God more clearly than ever before.

Christmas is critical to understanding the ministry we now have. We don’t speak facts only about a distant God. We speak of a God we can know personally. We speak of a God we can meet with day by day and speak with as a man speaks with his friend. And when Christmas so saturates our understanding of everything that we dwell closely with the God who wants to dwell with us, then when we preach we will be able to represent him better than ever before.