- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Earlier this year we looked at 10 pointers for planning a preaching calendar. Let’s zero in and think about planning a series.
1. Keep track of your series. Having a record of what you have preached through as a church in the last years is very helpful in determining what to preach in the coming year. If you have a record then you can see parts of the Bible that have lacked attention, for instance.
2. Make Bible books your default go to for a series. There will be reasons to go to something different than a Bible book, but defaulting to a book is good practice for generating a healthy diet. When I say book, I don’t mean necessarily exhausting a book – you could take a chunk in one series, and then return for another series at another time.
3. Be aware of the church calendar. A great series in Ezekiel will not feel so great the week before Christmas. Be aware of Christmas and Easter, as well as other significant seasons in your context. Plan series accordingly.
4. Seek to offer variety in biblical genre. A series in a Gospel will feel different than a series in an Epistle. Old Testament history will be different again, as would a series in the Psalms or a Prophet. Try to vary the genre throughout the year so that you are not overloading the diet with one part of the Scriptures only.
5. Plan values-based series periodically. With a steady diet of Bible book exposition, you then have the luxury of sometimes taking two or three weeks to zero in on a specific value the church has, or to address a specific need in the church. This series may be topically selected, as in, pick the best passages to achieve your goal (but then be sure to actually preach those passages!)
6. Schedule buffer weeks. When one series is followed immediately by another, there is no margin in the church calendar. Plan a spare week between series because things will come up. Sometimes you will have to shift the series back a week, or maybe extend it to adjust from your original plans. Buffers reduce stress in preaching schedules.
7. Plan your series with sensitivity to evangelistic events or guest Sundays. If you know you will get guests at Easter, make the new series that starts the next week an attractive one to draw them back to church. That is much better than continuing an interrupted series that doesn’t sound appealing to newcomers.
8. Vary the length of your series. Make some of them 4-6 weeks, and maybe some 8-10 weeks. Typically don’t go longer than that as they will inevitably get interrupted and start to feel protracted. It does not matter how long Lloyd-Jones took to preach through Romans – it is not a competition and you are not him.
9. Vary the length of chunks within a series. Don’t make a series monotonous by making every chunk the same length. Why not include an overview at the mid-point, the beginning and/or at the end? Why not sometimes cover a larger section and sometime dwell longer in a couple of verses? Andy Stanley rightly says that a lot of sermons would make a great series. Don’t rush, but instead plan with enough room to linger in passages and benefit.
10. Be creative. As well as mixing the genre, varying the length of series and chunks within a series, you can also be creative on type of series: sometimes track a character (eg. Abraham’s faith journey in Genesis), or a theme (eg. the glory theme in John). Be creative in presentation – think about visual “theme branding” to give a sense of cohesion to the series. Be creative in what goes on around the series – perhaps a Q&A session would be helpful, or maybe an associated small group study, or maybe watching a movie based on that Bible book, or whatever. Build a great series, and build great things around the series.
Well planned and well preached series can drive the life-changing impact of Bible books deep into the DNA of a local church!
Other 10 Pointers posts to check out: Evangelistic Preaching, Special Occasion Preaching, Preaching Easter, Untrained Preachers, Seminary Trained Preachers, Preaching Teams, Older Preachers and Younger Preachers.
I had one series of just four sermons and desperately wanted my hearers to hear the critical building blocks of belief. I could have gone to Ephesians or another epistle. I could have gone to the Gospels. I decided to go to Acts.
Preaching from Acts is an exciting challenge because you are entering into other peoples’ sermons as well as their situations. The first apostles were communicating the timeless gospel to the first hearers as the message spread. Perhaps what they preached then would be ideal for expressing the life transforming message today? It is.
Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t is forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications. It is a little book that I hope will pack a big punch. In Foundations we see how the Apostles addressed the very questions that we should be asking, but typically we don’t.
Acts contains messages preached under the glare of imminent threat, thus making every word count. Acts contains messages preached to staunch Jews ready to defend the honour of their heritage, a couple of purely pagan crowds who did not know Othniel from Oprah, some brand new believers in Christ, and every other possible combination of listeners. In Foundations we hear Paul addressing the sophisticated philosophers in Athens, over-zealous pagans in Turkey, and some of the judges brought in to put him on trial. We see how the apostles united when the gospel faced its first major attack, and how they made it so clear how the foundational questions must be answered by all.
Underneath our beliefs there is a foundation, and often it sits there unchallenged. The most important issues for life and eternity are regularly engaged in the Bible, but we often ignore this foundation. We too easily think it is all so obvious that we would be wasting our energy to linger longer than it takes to give a momentary tip of the hat to these issues.
Foundations is a fast read, but I hope it will help preachers and listeners, young believers and those established in the faith. It might even be used to clarify the wonder of the gospel to those who are still looking in from the outside. This guest post series is going to run over the next weeks to help mark the launch of Foundations.
Thanks to everyone who will contribute to this guest series. And thank you to everyone who helps spread the word about Foundations – by encouraging others to follow on Twitter (@4BigQs) or Facebook (Facebook.com/4BigQs), pointing people to FourBigQuestions.com, or buying several copies to pass on to friends and pastors so that in a small way, the great wonder of the Gospel can grip the hearts of as many as possible.
Sincerely, thank you.
Topical sermons and topical series are not the same thing. A topical sermon typically uses multiple texts to make the overall point intended by the preacher. This is not wrong and can be very effective. A topical series could use a single text each week, but not sequentially through a book. This is not wrong and can be very effective.
I am much more wary of topical sermons, however. Why? Because it is much easier to abuse texts when you need to get through three or more of them in the same sermon. You don’t have the time to explain context, develop content, linger over the passage and its impact, etc. The danger is that the text becomes a proof text and a servant to the preacher.
It is possible to preach an expository-topical sermon. This takes significant time to work with each passage and let it be the boss of that section of the message.
It is easier to preach an expository-topical series. It still takes more time than preaching through a book, but working with a focus text each week will allow you to let the text be the boss more easily than when you have multiple texts.
Some readers are in churches where expository-topical series would be a dream (because as things stand every message is non-expository). Other readers are in churches where it takes the annual Nativity season to break the pattern of preaching through books. Here are a couple of nudges for both:
Preach Through A Book: This is how God gave us the Bible – in books. People in our churches need to be people of the books in order to be people of The Book. Working through books means that we will not bypass the awkward or challenging sections. Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from time in a single book as they will hopefully get to know it as a whole and the impact can be reinforced.
Preach Expository-Topical Series (where each message is an exposition of a key text): People in our churches need to grasp the key texts and see how the Bible addresses key issues, or how the values of the church are biblically rooted. Working some series this way means that we will help people see what the Bible is saying without having to remember multiple threads over multiple months. Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from multiple genres and key texts from multiple books that will hopefully motivate them to pursue more for themselves in those places. It may be that a good single message from Jeremiah will motivate people to get into the book, whereas a long series in Jeremiah may put people off returning to it for a while (obviously this works both ways and depends on both the preacher and the listeners!)
I think preaching through books or sections of books is the best staple for a church diet. But I am not convinced we should avoid expository-topical series – judicious use of this approach can be highly effective if used appropriately. Whatever we do, let’s avoid non-expository preaching where the text is not the boss of what is said. That is a move we can’t afford to make.
5. Master the whole. Don’t just preach chunk by chunk through the epistle without getting to grips with the flow of the whole. You cannot accurately preach a portion of an epistle without a good grasp of how the whole is working together.
6. Get the author’s logic. Don’t read a section and look for three preachable parallel points. Instead wrestle with what the author is trying to do in this particular section. Sermon outlines can always adjust to fit the text, and they should do so. Don’t adjust the text to fit your outline.
7. Preach to today. Don’t just present a set of commentary labels and then try to apply “back then” truths to today. Instead, preach the text to today, and go “back then” to substantiate what you are saying. Wrestle with how that audience is similar to, and different from, your audience today.
8. Let truth be felt. Epistles can lull us into a false sense of abstraction. Don’t give theological theory, preach the gospel applied to real life (both then and now). Preach tangibly, use implicit imagery, be vivid, help images to form on the heart-screens of your listeners.
The final four tomorrow.