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.

Creative Series

It’s easy to fall into a rut with planning a series.  Either a whole book, or a whole section, divided equally into chunks.  But there can be variety in a series.

How about a survey message to start and/or finish? Giving people a sense of the whole will help with the parts.

Why not linger longer in key sections? Most of us typically feel like we could go again with the content we omitted after a message.  Most listeners fail to really take onboard a message after one shot.  Why not linger longer in a key section for a couple or three messages?  I’m listening to a series with three messages from John 1:14-18, followed by a couple of messages that reach out into the rest of John.

Why not pause for fuller context? That is, sometimes a New Testament book will lean heavily on Old Testament content, why not take a message from back there?  For example, I can imagine a series through Hebrews that includes three messages on the key Old Testament passages – Psalm 2, Psalm 95, etc., followed by the Hebrews section that builds on them.

How about tasting the themes from other writers? In a series on a book or section of a book, why not take a message and see how other writers handle the same theme and how they nuance it?

How about a mid-series pause for applicational underlining? We tend to march on, passage on passage.  But why not pause mid-series to review and underline the applications that have become evident thus far?

Then there is the benefit of changing perspective too. Perhaps you’ve preached a book from Paul’s perspective, why not try a message engaging with the letter from the perspective of the recipients.  It could work with anything from Romans to Philemon.  Changing perspective can really underline the reality in which the text was written and its relevance for us today – it’s not just a timeless religious text, it’s a relevant application of the gospel to real people in real situations.

Plenty more that could spice up a series too . . . any thoughts?

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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.