How do you choose what to preach on any given Sunday?
Are you a…
Lectionary Preacher? Occasional use of the lectionary, select seasonal use of the lectionary, or full-throttle every Sunday and any mid-week service in-between lectionary?
Walk-Through-The-Bible Preacher? A John Calvin-esque, lectio continua, verse-by-verse Genesis to Revelation preacher?
Hodge-Podge-Weaver-Preacher? A little New Testament here, a dash of Old Testament there, and an occasional topical message woven throughout to spice things up?
Topical Preacher? What’s the rage of the day or the crisis of the moment and what does the Bible have to say about it (race, wealth, suffering, anger, sex, the debt ceiling limit)?
Whatever flavor you favor, the good news for us all is that there is nothing particularly sacred about the manner in which we land on what to preach, but there should be some shared practices that get us to the text for a given Sunday whatever type of preacher we might be.
We, at TPW, are big fans of sermon series that coalesce a set of scriptures together in a coherent block and often around a specific theme. Topical Preachers usually have a ready grasp of the benefit of the sermon series. A series on the topic of “suffering” for example could easily lend itself to a survey on the suffering of individuals throughout the entirety of scripture, a look specifically at the Book of Job, a walk through the Psalms, or a moment-by-moment lens on Jesus’ Passion and its implications for us.
We also see the Hodge-Podge-Weaver and Walk-Through-The-Bible Preachers engaging in sermon series that are book specific. I once did a series on the Book of James entitled “Faith by Numbers.” It was a relatively short sermon series at around eight weeks. There are, of course, examples of book based sermon series such as those of James Boice and John Piper covering the books of Genesis and Romans, respectively, that lasted nearly a decade. Those are the sermon series of “lore” from a standpoint of length and I trust that God anchored them in that place for the benefit of the body. Kudos to them! I would have grown weary of wading in the waters of the Nile and the dryness of the Negev and sparring with the law and justification for too long, but God calls each of us individually to preach not only the whole counsel of God, but to proclaim Christ, and we can do it in a number of ways, even through an eight-year series in Romans.
How about Lectionary Preachers? Maybe you want to venture outside of your comfort zone and try a sermon series. Heck, you could even stay in your comfort zone and organize a series from the Lectionary around a group of texts. The Revised Common Lectionary highlights a different gospel each year. Take RCL, Year A, for example, one could preach a series in the Gospel of Matthew on discipleship or the Beatitudes, or even the kingdom of heaven and still stay in the lectionary “zone.”
In TPW’s effort to provide guides to the Revised Common Lectionary over its three year cycle, we have utilized the lectionary texts for Advent and Lent to organize thematic sermon series around these significant events in the liturgical calendar. Sermon series can be done, even if you are a lectionary preacher. To be fair, though, the lectionary, itself, is in a sense a continuous sermon series around the “top hits” of the Christian story.
The Benefit of a Planned Sermon Series
A planned sermon series is another opportunity to illustrate the scripture and practically connect the community to its lessons and themes over a particular (hopefully not protracted) period of time. TPW’s eight-week summer sermon series, “Summer Settings,” by Pastor Allen Thompson, is a great example of this. People vacation each summer near some of nature’s finest features: mountains, lakes, oceans, and rivers; families take road trips in which the journey is a large part of the fun. The Bible has its share of individuals who’ve experienced God on the mountain, by the lake, at sea, or in the river; those who have taken road trips that led to transformation. So, what a fitting opportunity to connect those scriptural stories to the outdoor holiday adventures of our congregations and point them to God’s larger story.
But, when we plan sermon series, we need to recognize their limits.
Don’t Fall for the Beautiful Packaging
When I was a boy in suburban Chicago, my family would make a yearly trek during the Christmas holiday to Marshall Field & Company on State Street in the Loop to dine in its iconic Walnut Room Restaurant around the 45-ft Great tree bedecked with all sorts of glittering silver and gold baubles and tinsel. It was a spectacular spectacle for a little kid and even though the wait for a table next to the tree was excruciatingly long (probably more so for my parents than for me and my little sister), it was worth it. But, the tree was a fake and the presents, if there were any that rested on or below the tree—albeit to the naked eye “tear-open-immediately inviting”—were simply beautiful packaging with nothing in them.
Beautiful packaging and great marketing can sell a sermon series, but it can’t substitute for its content. Cute, clever, ironic, and provocative teasers aren’t necessarily bad packaging for a sermon series, but only the scripture and the Spirit can deliver. I’ve heard my fair share of clever sermon teasers and charismatic preachers who presented a beautifully packaged box which was unfortunately filled with spiritual packing peanuts or moralistic bubble wrap. To mix analogies, as the 1984 Wendy’s commercial asks, “Where’s the beef?” The hard work of sermon series planning, depending upon what angle towards preaching one takes (topical or expository), may begin with a general idea (topical preachers—maybe suffering or joy; expository preachers—maybe a walk through Amos or James) but it always must wrestle with the Scripture and its implication for those to whom we preach. Anything short of that is an oversized bun, cotton candy, and empty presents.
I’ve always thought that it is important to have a great measure of humility when it comes to preaching and to planning sermon series. A sermon, regardless of how well it is crafted or delivered, is like a meal. It provides spiritual nourishment for the day and as in the physical process of consuming food it will be digested, the good spiritual nutrients absorbed, and the waste eliminated. Like planning for a week of meals, planning a sermon series should serve the spiritual needs of those who will consume it which makes knowing your people a necessity.
The Gospel Always Rubs Shoulders with People and So Should Our Preaching
Do you know your congregation? When you scan the pews/seats, are there faces you see that are connected with names and names connected with stories which you know? Some of you minister in small communities where you are well aware of the details of Bob’s divorce, Maggie’s cancer diagnosis, and Karl’s struggle to find meaningful work after another year of being unemployed. Others of you, don’t have the luxury of missing someone’s presence in Sunday service or knowing their story. If your community is too big to know and recognize from the stage, do you at least have some real-life people that you’ve walked with, whose stories you’ve heard, whose pleasure, pain, joy, and sorrow with which you are familiar?
Why is that necessary, you ask? How is this important for the planning of a sermon or sermon series? The Gospel, both lived and proclaimed, always rubs shoulders with human experience. In fact, it is given birth in the mud and manure of the dairy farm and the dusty and dry grain bin. It is voiced on the floor of the bustling stock exchange and lived out in the cubicles of the cramped IT firm. The Gospel lies next to the emaciated body in the hospital gurney, shares in the lonely hours of the homebound widower, and shouts from the stands under the lights of a Friday night game. It goes where humans suffer and rejoice, where families falter and fail. I’m all for sermon series planned on retreat in the mountains or at the beach and in the sweet silence of a personal study, but only if we’ve already walked the places where the Gospel has walked and now find the solitude to sort out its implications for our people.
So, how do we go about it?
Some Practical Tips for Planning a Sermon Series
- Trace Your People: Begin with a sketch of your community and what they face on a day-to-day basis. Make a list of their stories and needs. This all assumes that you are spending quality and quantity time with them.
- Talk to God: Take the list to prayer and ask God to lead you to the scripture and its themes that will connect and resonate with your community or those themes that your community desperately needs to hear. (I assume that all of scripture has benefits, but sometimes it is a matter of finding the best timing for its benefit).
- Tackle the Text: Jump feet first into the text that God leads you to or take the overarching theme that he impresses upon your heart and search the scripture for truth on that theme. Look for the stories and lessons to be drawn out and how they relate to the lives and stories of your people. Read widely on the texts and their themes.
- Track a Timeline: Map out the timeline for the series. When will you begin, when will you end, how many Sundays will you stay fixed on the theme or scripture? Is there a good, better, or best time of the year to do this series? What other calendar considerations do you need to be aware of? Special holidays, communion days, baptisms?
- Talk through Together: Find a trusted pastoral colleague, elder, or friend to process the movement of the series with you. If you are part of a multi-staff church, what a great gift to be able to envision the series together and even share in the proclamation. If you are a solo guy or gal, maybe find a ministerial peer from a neighboring church that would be willing to tackle a similar series with you. You could meet weekly and strategize what you are going to preach and on Monday do the post-game analysis on how it went.
- Title and Tell: Promote the preaching series with a title that can connect to your people and tell them what they can anticipate in the upcoming series; again, giving teasers is alright, if you are prepared to deliver the scriptural goods.
- Planning: If you can, plan ahead. Sermon series don’t happen overnight. I know that some of you are brilliant and as young bucks could burn the all-nighter and pump out that “A” grade comparative literature term paper, but that isn’t sustainable, is it? How about planning at least a quarter ahead in your preaching? Six-months would be even better. A year, a dream that maybe only teaching pastors, mega-church, and tall steeple preachers can access? If you carve out the time, though, you can do that as well. Whatever rhythm works best for you. Maybe you need to get away for a weekend by yourself or take a study leave. “Do you” with sermon planning, but “do you” ahead of schedule and I guarantee that it will benefit you and your people greatly.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
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