An email appeared in my box the other day with a question bursting with relevance: “I’m brand new to the game of weekly preaching and I would love to hear how you plan your sermon calendars for the year and the breakdown of each book you teach…”. He was a church planter, now developing into a conscientious pastor. Here’s some of what I told him.
Remember, the goal for each service is not merely to preach, but to deliver ‘pastoral preaching’. This means God’s word is not merely exposited, but delivered to a specific congregation at a specific time. Some ways to discover the timeliness of a particular series include:
- Prayer. This isn’t the obligatory action step offered and dispatched so we can get to the important stuff of leadership and logistics! Series selection is first a holy task where we engage the Savior for help in discerning what will best serve His people. Subjective impressions are neither determinative nor evil. You’re asking for help because you need answers. Pray for specific direction and pay attention to how you feel guided after the request.
- Since the elders are responsible to exercise oversight in the church (1 Peter 5: 2), interview them to hear their sense of what the sheep need right now.
- Considering recent counseling sessions and private conversations with members for what they may reveal about what areas of the church need attention.
- Consider the rhythm of OT and NT to ensure you are preaching “the whole counsel of God”. (Acts 20:27)
- Consider the theological “thickness” of the books you are preaching through. Preaching through the entirety of Romans, followed by exploring each chapter of Ezekiel may not serve your congregation most effectively. It can help to rotate between books that are more theological and books that are more narrative or “practical”.
- Consider how God has been speaking to you personally through your own communion with him. As a pastor, part of your job is to dispense to the people, through preaching, what God has been pouring into you.
- Consider the maturity level of the congregation. Are they used to expositional preaching? If not, doing an expositional series on a long book, like Luke, may not be wise to launch the church. Leading the people into a hunger for expositional preaching sometimes starts with smaller bites.
- When preaching a particular series, explain to the congregation the purpose behind the series. You are preaching through Romans because you want to grow in understanding the gospel. You are preaching through the Psalms because you want to learn to commune with God through the ups and downs of life. Your explanations will probably be more robust, but my point is that knowing the heart behind a series can help the congregation own the series.
When determining the length of a teaching series, I would encourage you to ask:
- After several readings of this Bible book, how does it appear to group naturally for me?
- How did the translators of your Bible break up each section of the book you want to exposit?
- How do other preachers you respect (both dead and alive) divide the book when teaching through it?
- How do the best, most theologically grounded commentaries break up the book division?
Since you asked about the wisdom of going long and deep on shorter sections, let me encourage you to consider:
- The book’s genre. Generally, narratives can be done in larger chunks than epistles.
- Your people. Your friend may be impressed by your ability to take 3 years to go through Philemon, but the goal is service not bragging rights. What pace serves your people right now? Remember, you are seeking to serve the people in your church. Take care that you don’t get overly bogged down in the minutiae of a passage (Greek tenses, historical background, etc.), to the point where you miss the main overall point of the text.
- Your level of gifting. If you’re Piper-esque in your preaching (and by the way, that can’t be a self-assessment….it’s gotta come from others!), feel free to take two years to go through Romans. The rest of us mortals need to consider our abilities and aim for more reasonable goals.
- Oh and if you’re a newer preacher, seek to identify a proposition, or main overarching point, for each sermon. It will help orient your mind towards identifying the heart of a passage and crystallizing it into one sentence. It trains the mind to think more clearly.
I would also encourage you to get regular feedback on the messages you preach. If possible, ask two or three seasoned, experienced pastors to listen to your sermons and give you honest, no-holds-barred feedback. Also ask the leaders in your church to give you honest feedback. Are you clear? Are you preaching for too long (are you a 30 minute preacher attempting to fill a 50 minute slot?)? And are you effectively applying the passage of Scripture to real life struggles? Questions like these can help you become a more effective preacher. The truth is, you won’t grow in preaching without the honest feedback of others.
In a discussion like this, it should be noted that this is an area where we have freedom and flexibility. The Bible doesn’t spell out a step by step plan for how to plan a sermon series. For some pastors, the whole idea of planning out a lengthy preaching series may present a significant temptation to fear. What if I mess it up? What if I preach the wrong series? What if I need to change the series? Rest easy. The Bible assumes you will be preaching the word in season and out of season. It doesn’t spell it out any further than that. You can trust that God will use your efforts, no matter how feeble.
Yet in all of this please remember, your primary goal is to feed your folks. You don’t need to do what Spurgeon, Piper or Chandler did. They were preaching for their specific congregation. You need to preach in such a way that will feed those put under your care. God will be pleased, the church will be built and your soul will be deeply satisfied.