Sermons and Series

After listening to a couple of Andy Stanley series recently, I have been pondering a point he makes in his book, Communicating for a Change.  He says that what most people try to achieve in a single sermon should really be developed over a whole series.  This allows for each message to genuinely have a single point, rather than a collection of points (and reduced impact).  It allows for the whole series to reinforce rather than confuse.

I have to say, after listening to a couple of his series, I tend to agree.  Perhaps we bite off too much in a series.  Perhaps we try to cover whole sections of a book, or a whole book, when maybe we would do better to drive home one passage more effectively. Perhaps we are too quick to move on and assume listeners have understood the point and applied it in their lives.

I suppose this creates a difficulty if we are committed to trying to preach every bit of the Bible over some self-determined priod of time.  I suppose it also puts a burden on the preacher – if you’re going to stay in the same passage for more than one sermon, you’d better not be boring!  But ultimately I suppose it asks the key question: not are we trying to cover ground, or are we trying to entertain, but are we trying to see lives transformed?  If that is the question, perhaps more focused series is part of the solution?

A Tired Feast

Sunday morning I preached the last of the messages.  I’d taught class for four days, but then things got busier.  Between Thursday evening and Sunday morning (60 hours) I spoke six times, taught two sessions, and travelled many miles by car, train and aeroplane.  Not the busiest few days, but among the tightest in terms of the travel schedule.  So Sunday afternoon I got on the train to start the journey home.

I was tired and knew that attempting to read or write would be borderline futile.  So instead I chose to enjoy a tired feast.  Stopping only to hand over my passport or order food, I basically spent the next hours listening to about a dozen messages from about seven different speakers.  Subjects were varied.  Speakers truly diverse – from Stan Toussaint and Ron Allen to a series from Andy Stanley and even a few minutes of Ken Davis.  I drifted a couple of times from eyes closed to actually asleep, so I moved back and listened again to those minutes.

I didn’t listen to make observations on preaching technique.  I didn’t listen to gain ideas for illustrations or preaching strategies.  I listened because I knew I needed to be fed.  I was fed.  Actually, I feasted.  A stunning illustration of Isaiah 53:10 from an elderly scholar.  A moving introduction to a message on life’s pivotal circumstances from a contemporary communicator.  An inspiring series on growing in faith.  A great example of traditional preaching on the tabernacle.  A well-shaped presentation of the raising of Lazarus.  A non-traditional survey of a theme in John’s gospel.

Sometimes we need to stop giving out and take the time to be fed.  Hungry?

First Priority

Just to mix up the content on this site, I am dipping into a book by Andy Stanley and Ed Young, Can We Do That? I’d like to share one of their suggestions.  “We make the message the first priority of the service – and of the pastor.”

In the busy and complex life of church ministry, not to mention the complex relationships between different interest groups, it is important to remember how important the Sunday morning message is.  It is probably the only ministry of the church that has the potential to reach the whole church.  It is probably the ministry of the church most likely to reach visitors and guests (and online listeners if you are into MP3 ministry).

Yet how easy for it to slip down the list when it comes to planning the service, or planning your own weekly schedule for preparation.  Do we need to take stock and make sure the preaching of the Word is getting the priority attention that it needs to be done well?  Are there tasks to be offloaded so that the preacher can be free to preach?  As preachers do we need to be more deliberately inaccessible at certain times to prepare properly?

Acts 6:4 comes to mind.

The Danger of Disengagement

Yesterday I enjoyed a couple of very encouraging, although too brief, conversations on preaching.  One thought that was bounced around was one I have addressed on here before – the fact that shortening attention spans is a myth.  People will listen as long as they are engaged.  For some preachers, that means an hour long sermon is entirely possible, while for others, twenty minutes is beyond what they can manage.

This issue of attention brings two thoughts from two very different “homiletics” voices to mind.  First, David Buttrick is among those who suggest that really people can only concentrate in short blocks of time, perhaps up to five minutes.  So the preacher should plan their message in order to recreate attention in these blocks.  I won’t go into detail on that here, just that simple thought may be helpful.

Second, Andy Stanley has helpfully pointed out the danger of disengagement.  What happens once people disengage from our message?  Stanley suggests that once someone disengages, they start to process the preached information in a different way: “this is irrelevant; church is irrelevant; God is irrelevant; the Bible is irrelevant.”  For Stanley the key is to keep listeners travelling with you on a journey.  (For a teaser of Andy’s book, here’s an interview on communication with Ed Stetzer – Andy Stanley interview)

How do we engage our listeners?  How do we keep them engaged?  Do we really recognize the danger when they disengage?

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 3

We’ve considered unhelpful “pseudo-feedback,” and lack of the best feedback of all (life change).  Here are a couple more categories to consider:

6. Ministry drain. This can sneak up on a preacher.  Preaching takes a lot out of you.  It uses up stores of energy.  Not only physically, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally and relationally too.  Many preachers point to the post-preaching lethargy they experience.  Most non-preachers are unaware of this phenomenon.  The danger is that we forget it and then misread the drained feeling for discouragement through failure or whatever.  Answers are as common as paperbacks in a bookstore – rest more, exercise more, eat better, drink water, pray longer, pray earlier, have dates with God, have dates with your spouse, wrestle with your children, take Mondays off, etc.  No easy answer, but don’t misread the source of the discouragement.

7. Unhelpful Comparison. Number 1 was comparing your preaching to what you imagined it would be like ahead of time.  This time it is comparing your preaching to others.  It’s good to learn from others.  But don’t beat yourself up because you are not Robinson, MacArthur, Piper, Stanley, Miller, Craddock, Swindoll, Kaiser or whoever your personal favorite might be.  Super-preachers are a blessing to many, perhaps even to us as we listen to them on the radio or at mega-events.  But the people that hear you on Sunday morning need you on Sunday morning.  You may not be super-smooth or super-polished or super-funny or even a super-scholar, but you are a super-blessing as you faithfully preach the Word out of love for God and for them!  Be careful not to get down through unhelpful comparison.

I don’t want to make a post too long, so instead I’ll extend the series.  Another post to follow.