Preaching Series: Six Strengths

Some churches always preach sermons in a series. Some churches never do. Here are six strengths of well-planned series:

1. Greater Leverage. By reinforcing and reviewing a Bible book, the series allows for the teaching to sink in and be applied more effectively than a stand-alone sermon. We often expect too much from a single sermon but underestimate what can be achieved over time with cumulative preaching.

2. Greater Coverage. When a church is preaching through a Bible book for a season, it allows other access points for people to benefit from immersion into that Bible book. For instance, people can be encouraged to read and study it at home. Midweek groups can probe the application of the passage preached on Sunday. Maybe even youth and other age groups can be in the book to encourage family conversations at home. Visual presentation does not require weekly creative energy (series title, series image, social media visuals, etc.)

3. Greater Momentum. The preacher can look back and build on what has gone before, but the listeners can also look forward and anticipate what is coming. With some encouragement, they might even read ahead and be more prepared for what is coming.

4. Greater Balance. If a message stands alone, then its distinctive thrusts will often need to be balanced within the message. This can sometimes reduce the applicational impact of a message. When you know (and if helpful, state) that a future sermon will present another side of this particular issue, this present message can be preached without too much energy for balancing it. Also, when a message has been preached and weaknesses were noted, coming weeks allow for easy correction of those weaknesses.

5. Greater Preparation. Knowing what is coming several weeks from now allows the preacher to prepare for more than just this coming Sunday’s message. This means that a book can be working in the preacher before the preacher comes to work through each passage of that book.

6. Greater Depth. When you are preaching through a book, you can overlap some exegetical work and go deeper in each passage as you prepare. For example, this week, I am preaching from Colossians 1:24-2:7. If it was a stand-alone, I would also need to get to grips with the hymn of 1:15-23, thus using up study time. Since I’ve been there already, I can build on that and focus on the preaching passage for this Sunday’s message.

There is a place for stand-alone messages in the preaching schedule – they have a definite strategic purpose. And just because you have a series, that does not mean it is effective or that the strengths are maximised. But I do recommend using carefully planned single-Bible-book series as a significant ingredient in your preaching planning.

Space: Dreaming and Planning

This week I’ve been pondering space, which seems to be increasingly hard to find.  Our world seems to be getting noisier and busier, but also ministry demands tend to increase over time for preachers too (presumably demand drops off eventually!)  In the midst of the busy schedule of the immediate, we need to get time to dream and to plan.

1. Planning future preaching.  Somewhere in the schedule it is worth making time to think through ideas for preaching beyond the present series or preferred sections.  It is easy to get repetitive, or even stuck, when there is no space to pull back, look up and look ahead.  Some preachers take a week out each year and sketch out a rough plan for a year’s worth of preaching.  For others it might not be so organised, but there is still benefit to thinking through where you might do well to go in your preaching.  Obviously circumstances change, the needs of the church change, there has to be room for change.  But it isn’t good leadership to always be in a purely reactive mode.  What sections of the canon have you not touched for a while, or ever?  What types of preaching have you not used in a while, or ever?  What subjects would stretch you, and others?

2. Planning future ministry.  There is more to ministry than preaching.  But if we live in the cycle of deadlines, we can easily fall into just preaching.  But what about training others?  That doesn’t happen accidentally.  You won’t mentor and launch others, or mentor to replace yourself, if you don’t put some planning into it.  What about writing?  Some should stop trying.  Others should create time to make it happen.  What about training I should be getting now for ministry in the future?  That could be as informal as reading on a subject, or as formal as pursuing a degree in an area.  None of this happens by accident.

3. Dreaming future ministry.  Somehow planning isn’t enough.  God is able to do abundantly more than we ask or even imagine.  Do we dare to dream?  For some of us, God doesn’t have much to do to surpass our imaginations!  We need to create space to dream of what could be, what should be, what might be.  I know this seems crazy, but imagine if . . . and if God would . . . then maybe . . .   It is hard to quantify what might happen if we all took time to pray and dream, chasing the desires of our hearts with a God who delights to give in line with the yearning He has birthed in us.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 5

This week I have been getting my head and heart in gear to prepare messages from the book of Ruth.  I’ve pondered issues of contextual unawareness, perceived irrelevance and the challenges of application.  I am not saying any of this should come before issues of study and interpretation, but before the messages can be prepared, these issues have to be faced.  I’d like to raise one more issue:

What is my strategy for preaching through the book?I have four sessions to preach through Ruth.  Slam dunk, decision made, right?  Four weeks, four chapters.  Voila!  Perhaps.  But I’m not a fan of instant obvious decisions.  I want to think through it first.

1. Preaching a narrative means preaching multiple scenes, not multiple chapters.  It may be that there are four scenes in four chapters, but I need to check that first.  Going with chapter breaks is lazy and sometimes naive.

2. How do I keep the unity in mind?  Ruth wasn’t written to be read over four sittings in four weeks.  It was written to be heard in one sweep.  I have to ponder that.  Should I preach the whole narrative in one go?  I could do that week 1, but then what?  I could take three weeks to revisit the text and zero in on specific aspects of the story.  Or I could review the whole narrative at the end.  Or I could let it build week by week, as if people don’t know what is coming.

3. And what about other options given by four weeks?  Maybe I need to take a week on the opening verses and engage the complexity of divine providence, suffering and life as experienced by most people.  Perhaps there are a couple of chapters that could flow together.  Perhaps the ending that points forward to David is worthy of a wrap-up message on its own.  So many options.

Simply splitting it into four roughly equal chunks with a big number at the start does seem a bit too hasty at this point.  I need to spend some more time in the text of Ruth, and be prayerfully considering what would be most helpful to our congregation.

Clusters and Journeys

Influencers are leaders.  So preachers are leaders.  But how much do we lead in our preaching?  Take the issue of preaching calendars, for example.  At one extreme we have churches that have no calendar planned, or only preachers planned (but no subjects/texts).  I suppose the ultimate example might be  church that relies fully on visiting speakers who all choose their own message for each service.  At the other extreme we have churches who carefully map out the entire year of preaching, so that you can know now what text will be preached the second Sunday of next October.

Some would hold that only the Holy Spirit should lead the church, and thus the random outside preacher approach is fine since God can work through whoever is preaching.  I suppose we could all agree to that in principle, but at the same time, I want to graciously ask a question of that approach.  Is there not the risk of simply presenting biblical truths without any sense of deliberately leading the church forward on its journey?  How much opportunity is missed by “simply preaching” without really tapping into the broader reality of the growth of the local church?

Now for those who have a well-planned preaching calendar.  Is it merely constructed by the gathering of series in some attempt to give a balanced diet?  That’s a good start, but again, are we failing to lead as well as the opportunity affords?  Do we fall into preaching collections of random messages strung together by the unity of a Bible book, or a series title, but fail to prayerfully plot the journey of the church?  Or are we plotting a journey 16 months in advance and failing to take stock of where we actually have travelled several months into the year?

One further thought.  Do we rely on one-hit messages to achieve change when really we would be far better with a cluster of messages approach? One-hit messages can be stand alone, or they can be a series that moves from one thing to the next, without the clustering power intended by a series.

Wherever our church sits on the scale of pre-planned preaching schedules, all of us are in danger of missing out on the opportunity to really lead the church as we preach.  Let’s prayerfully consider how God would have us carry the burden of leadership, every time we plan a preaching schedule, and every time we preach.