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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

2015 Blog Summary

designThis was an intriguing year for BiblicalPreaching.net – thank you for visiting the site! Let me share some highlights and stats with you.

Some of the Series – We began the year with a series of preaching resolutions that stirred some good comments, followed by another provocative series on radars preachers need to develop, and then 10 reasons why your listeners may not be satisfied with the preaching they are hearing. People always seem drawn to Biggest Mistakes series too, since we all make lots! So 10 Listener Fatigues is worth a mention too in a similar vein.

Monthly Opener – At the start of each month I have shared a longer post that has been picked up by the European Leadership Forum.  These included, Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients, Jesus Nudges, Cracks are Serious, one that stirred lots of verbal response at a conference – 7 Ways to Guard Hearts at a Christian Conference (with its follow up regarding Guarding Hearts at Bible School, and also at Guarding Hearts at Church).

Book Launch – The end of the summer was given over to another guest series at the launch of Foundations – click here to find out more. Here’s the series intro, plus a couple of highlights for me?  Glen Scrivener on sin, John Hindley on being human, and Jonathan Carswell on a Passion for Books (have you heard about 10ofthose.com starting in the USA now? Please spread the word!).  Speaking of books, I also shared a chapter from Pleased to Dwell at the start of December (how can I nudge people to ponder the Incarnation during the rest of the year – all ideas welcome!)

There were quite a few other posts that seemed to stir response, such as Who Turned Preaching Into a Solo Sport? And probably the one that deserved the least attention, but somehow got quite a lot – Meaningless Chatter.

Most Popular Posts this Year?  Due to some friendly sharing from friends with big readerships, by far the most popular posts were these (can these posts get traction again on twitter? Feel free to share the links!)

10 Pointers for Young Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for Older Preachers

10 Pointers for Seminary Trained Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers

10 Pointers for Preaching Teams as well as for Preaching Easter, and Special Occasion Preaching, and of course, Evangelistic Preaching.  There was another on Planning a Preaching Calendar, and one on Planning a Series.

There you have it, another year of blogging. So much I didn’t mention, but thanks for reading this far!  What should I write about in 2016?  All suggestions welcome, most suggestions followed!

10 Pointers for Planning Preaching Series

10 target seriesEarlier 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!

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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.

The Power of Telling the Story

ourstory2There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of Scripture.  People are surrounded by the power of narrative every day.  And yet preachers are often tempted to skimp on telling the story.  Why?

Life is lived in multi-layered narratives.  People engage with narratives all week: every film, TV show, sports commentary, most commercials, interactions at the coffee machine at work, catching up with spouse and children at home, chatting with neighbours over the fence – it is one mini-narrative after another.  Then they come to church and we too often leave the stories for children and preach a more “sophisticated” message.  Oops.

God gave us so much narrative in the Bible because of its power in engaging us with the wonder of his self-revelation.

So when you preach a narrative, tell the story.  It will be more effective than offering lists of instructions and points from the same passage (not to say that you shouldn’t clarify the main point and seek to demonstrate the relevance by means of possible applications).

How does telling the story work?

1. Listeners will identify with characters – if a story is told even relatively well, listeners will either be drawn toward a character, or repelled by a character.  We humans are wired to connect or pull back.  Neutrality to people is not a natural reaction (although in a fallen world we will be more neutral than we were intended to be).

2. Listeners will feel the tension of the plot – once the story moves from mere setting to some disequilibrium, listeners will typically feel compelled to listen for resolution.  We can’t help it.

3. Listeners will be marked by the resolution of that tension – that resolution, if the story has been told effectively, will register a mark in our hearts because we have been feeling emotionally engaged by the characters in their situation.

4. Listeners will find their lives superimposing on the image of the story – humans naturally overlay their own situations, struggles, feelings, doubts, hopes, etc., onto the stories of others.  This could be our empathetic relational wiring, or it could be self-absorption, but either way, we tend to be marked by stories not involving us because we connect somehow.

Preaching that tells the story is better than preaching that ignores the story and goes after just presenting propositions.

Foundations Guest Series Introduction

Foundations CoverWhat do you do when you have one opportunity to communicate the life transforming message of the Bible? Where do you go biblically to address the key issues people really need to hear today?

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.