A Random Series of One-Off Appearances

I recently wrote about preaching series that work their way through a Bible book, or a section of a Bible book. A comment, from Anthony Douglas, made an excellent point. He wrote, “They also normalise what used to be an uncontested idea – that God’s people are meant to turn up week after week, rather than in a random series of one-off appearances.”

This puts a finger on a very clear cultural shift that has taken place over the years.

Is it because the rhythms of society have changed? Sunday used to be a noticeably different day when I was growing up. But then, once it became a seventh shopping day, it quickly became the pre-eminent shopping day. Going to church was dethroned as the primary activity of the day. Add in sports, split families doing child transfers, etc. and Sunday is not what it used to be.

Is it because the variety of alternatives has grown? It is not just shopping and sport that offer an invitation to people on a Sunday. More TV channels, more entertainment options, greater local travel, and until Covid and cost of living challenges, even quick foreign travel became a much more common option.

Is it because family traditions have shifted? I grew up in what was a more traditional set of family values. Going to church on Sunday was not top of the list of things we might do. Rather, it was first on the list of things we always do, along with going to bed at night, and going to school or work each day. Most people today do not live life with that rhythm instilled.

Whatever the reason, we are living in an age where diligent church attendance is not normal. A good percentage of church folks are prone to what Anthony described as “a random series of one-off appearances.” It does feel like a good number of people come to church on Sundays when they have nothing else planned.

The challenge for us, as church leaders, is to think carefully about how we respond to this. It is always tempting to simply dial up the pressure. We can put attendance in church membership covenants, we can declare the importance of diligent attendance, we can chase people when they are absent, etc. Let’s be careful of an outside-to-in approach that pressures without stirring motivation. It is easy to slip over the line into creating a legalistic culture that contradicts the gospel we preach.

What does an inside-to-out approach look like? In one sense, we can aim for making church on a Sunday, or a midweek home group, or youth group, so good that people don’t want to miss it. Whether it is the quality of the preaching and worship, or the warmth of the fellowship, why wouldn’t we want to make church as good as it can possibly be – both for believers and guests?

Then there are other details. It is totally appropriate to pastorally care for people. Their absence is an indicator of concern, so checking in is not wrong (but the tone can convey more legalism than care). Teaching the benefits of full participation in the church community, and involving people on the various teams to help ministry happen is appropriate (but always being careful not to fall foul of the outside-to-in evaluation ourselves – just because someone is present is not automatically a positive indicator of spiritual health).

This is where Anthony’s point comes in – sermon series helpfully support the idea of attendance. Preaching in series normalises the idea that church is not a random collection of one-off sermons for a random set of one-off appearances. Now, that does not mean we can make each sermon fully dependent on full attendance at the series – remember that guests always begin by being first-time attendees. They need to be able to fully engage the message, even if it is part 7 in a 10-part series. Even so, a well-crafted series subtly communicates the expectation of regular attendance, and if done well, will motivate it too.

As Anthony put it in his comment, “series preaching better accords with God’s not-so-subtle decision to supply his word to us in rather large chunks sometimes.” We need the whole of John, and Acts, and Romans, and Habakkuk, and Isaiah, and Genesis, etc. The Christian life is not covered by a one-day seminar, it is a lifelong journey of preparation for eternity to come. So just preaching our favourite fifteen passages simply won’t suffice!

Preaching Series: Six Suggestions

Last time I shared a few reasons why I think sermon series should be a key part of the preaching schedule in a church. Here are some suggestions to help them work well:

1. Spirit – Does a series quench the Holy Spirit?  Does preparing a sermon quench the Spirit?  It is amazing how a series can be scheduled many months ahead of time, then when a particular Sunday comes, the text and its application fit as if the Spirit Himself had made the plan.  Nevertheless, we still need to allow flexibility in our schedules.

2. Scheduling – It is unhelpful to pack the schedule so tight that the preacher feels under pressure from the schedule.  Consider leaving “buffer weeks” in the schedule between series.  You will have no problem filling them when the time arrives, either with a visiting missionary, a one-off message on a text you’re dying to preach, or addressing an issue that comes up, or a one-off for one of the preachers you are mentoring in the church.  You might also need to extend a series by a week. Buffer weeks are never a problem. No buffer weeks can create a headache.

3. Variety – A long series in the same book can get old.  There are several ways to avoid this.  Vary the message structure (include a first-person sermon, a more narrative sermon, a more interactive sermon, etc.)  Vary the text length (some weeks you may choose to cover only a few verses, but other weeks it would be possible to cover a chapter or two).  Perhaps sameness can be avoided by having another speaker involved (see below).  And, of course, a long series in the same book can get old, so . . .

4. Length – Think through the length of the series.  The old days of seven years verse-by-verse through one book really are the old days.  Today some advocate that a series should not go longer than 8 weeks.  Others say  4 or 5.  I say you have to think through the situation – who is preaching, to whom, what are they used to, what is the preacher capable of doing effectively, what is the subject matter, etc.  No hard and fast rules, but several months will probably get old for some.  Cover ground more quickly, or break the series and then return to it. Remember that a new series is a moment for new energy, new invitations to guests, etc.

5. Preachers – A series with more than one preacher can work well, but it takes some coordination. Make sure you are on the same page about the book’s structure, main idea, relevance to your church, etc. Probably don’t go higher than 2 or 3 preachers in a single series. If you are blessed with more, save them for the next series. Be sure to communicate and take advantage of the team ethos.

6. Series – Remember to balance your series too. If you have just been in Colossians, probably don’t follow up with a series from Ephesians (or any epistle, for that matter). Mix up sections or whole books across the whole canon, always prayerfully considering what book or section should leave its mark on your congregation.

What else do you find helpful as you plan series?

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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.

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.

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.

Natural Born Series

Some preachers plan series in a relatively simple manner.  They select a book of the Bible and then preach, unit by unit, through the book, or through a section.  Others select a topic and select appropriate passages to organize a topical series.  I am not critiquing either approach, but want to offer another option too.

Just as we are in danger of reading the Bible to look for a message, so we can fall into reading the Bible to look for a series.  One way this manifests itself is in the sections we dismiss, as much as those we select.  For instance, what if we were looking in the Psalms and were drawn to a section like the Psalms of Ascent?  Well, fifteen weeks might be too long for a series, so we are tempted to look elsewhere.

As often as possible we should simply soak in the text.  Like taking a leisurely bath rather than a quick shower, we should take every opportunity to be saturated by a section.  Something happens once it gets into you.  Let’s push the analogy and say that the skin of our soul becomes wrinkly . . . even when you step out the evidence remains.

So for example, I was preparing a synopsis of a longer study on Psalms 107-118 (the section before the Ascent Psalms).  A dozen psalms that present a unified and powerful message.  If I had been looking for a series, I would have gone elsewhere because 12 weeks is probably too long.  (Or settled for the more obvious Egyptian Hallel of 113-118, missing the blessing of the first part of the sequence.)  But after soaking in this text for a while, I can’t help but find myself thinking of creative ways to present the message of this section.  Combining psalms, summarizing a block of three with a focus on one, perhaps even preaching a message that traces the flow through all twelve.

I soaked and now the wrinkly skin of my soul is looking for an opportunity to preach the section . . . in one message, in three, in five.  I suppose, like a leisurely bath, there is probably a fragrance that lingers from this kind of study, too.

Sometimes we have to plan very pragmatically.  Let’s be sure we also create space for soaking, slow, text-saturated, natural born series.

Planning a Selective Series

What criteria can you use when planning a series in a longer book that you don’t want to last for years?  Obviously we’re not obligated to cover complete books in a series, but how might you do that selectively rather than comprehensively?  Here are some pointers:

Foundation – Know the message, flow and structure of the book.  In order to plan a series that selectively represents the whole, you need a good awareness of the whole.  Without this you are likely to end up with a plan that doesn’t represent the book, or you’ll start into the series and end up preaching every passage (which might be appreciated . . . but only “might be” – your church may not want you to try to be Martyn Lloyd-Jones!)

1. Select key moments in the book. In every book there are key moments of transition or anchor points for the flow of the book.  For example, a selective series in Mark’s gospel would need to be touching heavily on the transition that occurs at 8:27-30 and the following couple of paragraphs.  Equally, Mark 10:45 is fairly critical, perhaps with the following story which is somewhat transitional as the final step before Jerusalem.

2. Select key examples in the book. There are some passages that may not be at a transition point, but are just very typical of the style and message of the book.  For instance, Mark 4:35-41 as an example of Mark’s pattern of following teaching with testing.

3. Select an example in a sequence, but show the whole progression. Often a book will string together a series of stories making a similar point, such as in Mark 2-3.  So you might select an example in the sequence demonstrating Jesus’ authority, but also show briefly how many such stories there are in the section.  This covers a lot of ground, but can make quite an impression as people feel the weight of the authority demonstrated by the whole sequence.

4. Select passages you want to preach. As long as you have the other three types of message included, there is nothing wrong with selecting based on personal motivation – the fruit will probably show in your preaching if you are motivated!

5. Keep the big idea of the book clear throughout. Consistently, even if subtly, reinforce the big idea of the whole book to cohere the series.

The Challenge of Introducing a Series

When you start a new series of messages from a book, the first message is a challenge.  Not just because you want people to be motivated for the series, but because the first message has to stand in its own right.  Simply presenting the background information like the notes in a study Bible is not expository preaching.  But if you give the background and then preach the first section, you may end up with two messages or too little time to really preach that first section.  What to do?

Option 1 – Don’t give any more than brief background awareness and concentrate on the first section.  This keeps you earthed in the text rather than the historical study notes.  It may fall short on giving people awareness of the book as a whole, but if that first section is preached well, people should be motivated to hear more (background information can and should be given throughout the series).  Often the first section serves as a very effective introduction to the themes and issues that will follow in the book.

Option 2 – Give background (author, date, occasion, etc.) and overview of the book’s structure, highlighting the main idea of the book and it’s initial application for the listeners.  The important thing in an overview introduction like this is to make sure you have a main idea that comes from studying the text and make sure it is applied, otherwise you don’t have an expository sermon.

Option 3 – Genuinely preach the whole book.  Obviously with most books it is not feasible to read the whole text.  However, it is possible to preach the flow of thought through the whole book, highlighting and applying the main idea, just as you will with the individual sections later in the series.  Historical background may be only briefly mentioned, but preaching the book can be a powerful introduction to the series.  Again, as with the similar option 2 above, it is critical to have both main idea and application of that idea.  You will need to selectively read verses from the book in order to underscore the biblical authority for your explanation.

How to Preach Error in a Series

Perhaps you are preaching a series of messages on a book of the Bible.  Perhaps you are one of several preachers preaching such a series.  So naturally you take the first passage of the text and study it to the best of your ability, Sunday comes and you preach it.  Next week you give your efforts to the next passage in the book.  This is how to preach error in a series.

It seems obvious, but in the busy schedule of ministry, it is so easy to forget.  A passage has to be studied in its context.  You may misrepresent the author’s intent in chapter 1 if you have not studied chapter 1 in its relation to the other three chapters.

Practically this means finding ways to do as much of the exegetical work as possible, in the whole book, before you preach message one.  If you are only preaching one message in the series, then necessarily your broader study will not be to the same level as the passage you are preaching (but perhaps this should push us in the direction of some study in teams whenever possible in multi-preacher series?)  If you are preaching the whole series, this macro view of the whole will benefit every individual message and be a blessing to your soul.

If the passages are connected to each other, as each series in a book surely is, then you cannot afford to prepare only one message and then preach it.  That’s how to preach error.

Passage Selection – Stage 1

A little milestone was reached yesterday as the hit counter passed 100k. So I thought I’d take some days to offer a brief summary of the 8 steps of sermon preparation, suggesting some links back to posts that are particularly relevant to each step. Remember, you can see all the posts related to stage 1 by clicking on the “Stage 1 – Passage Selection” button in the menu. Thanks for visiting this site!

Step 1 – Passage Selection

Before you can design a message, you need to have studied at least one passage on which to base the message. Before you can study, you have to select the passage. There are two issues to bear in mind at this step:

Issue 1 – Which passage will you preach? If you are mid-series, then the next passage is already chosen. If you are preaching a stand-alone message, then you have to pick a passage to preach on (perhaps influenced by the occasion, the needs of the congregation or even your personal motivation). So sometimes selecting a passage is not an issue at all, but issue 2 always matters . . .

Issue 2 – Are you studying a complete unit of thought? This is always important to double check. Once you have you passage, you need to make sure it is a complete unit of thought. It is often possible to study and preach two or more units of thought that stand together (for example, two gospel stories presented together, or multiple paragraphs in an epistle), but it is very risky to try and study or preach half a unit (half a psalm, half a proverb, half a speech, half a story, half a paragraph . . . half a thought!) So for each passage you decide to study and preach, be sure to give thought to the true beginning and end of the unit of thought.

Previously – Concerning the first issue, selecting a passage, here’s some advice on how to select a passage, and another one. This post suggests preaching series, and in some churches there’s the practical issue of multi-speaker series, see also part 2.

Now concerning issue 2, the complete unit of thought. Here’s a post in which I point out that we can’t simply rely on the chapter and verse divisions, we have to select our passage personally. There is some helpful advice here in a post on longer narratives. And the issue of preaching several passage is addressed in this post on topical preaching. Finally, two posts on why I suggest generally sticking in one passage: A low fence and part 2.