The Case for a Topical Sermon Series
An interview with Bert Crabbe
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Preaching Today: Bert, we know you've preached some pretty cool topical series. Tell us about your top two or three sermon series that you've ever done.
Bert Crabbe: We just got done with a series on "Submarines" that I really enjoyed. I had a lot of fun researching that one. I'd say my two other favorite series were called "Heist," which was a series of messages based on famous robberies, and "Firestarter," which was inspired by historically significant fires.
Where do you come up with these ideas?
The inner workings of my mind are often a mystery even to me, but these types of series always seem to begin with me hearing a story or learning about an event that powerfully illustrates a biblical truth. Preachers sometimes refer to this as a "That'll Preach" feeling. It's the sense that something here could be leveraged to teach something significant.
For example, the impetus for that "Firestarter" series came a few years ago when I learned about a mine fire in the town of Centralia, PA that's been burning for 60 years. Not a raging, roaring inferno, but a slow, creeping, smoldering fire that's swallowed up the community one home at a time. This town of roughly two thousand people is effectively gone now. The government revoked their zip code, route I-61 has been re-routed around the town, and every building in Centralia has been reclaimed via imminent domain. There are maybe ten people left.
Why? Because 60 years ago on Memorial Day weekend, some people dumped a bunch of garbage down a mine shaft. An underground seam of coal caught fire and slowly worked its way underneath the land while the residents above figured it would never affect them. This true story is a vivid, real life example of what happens in our hearts when we refuse to forgive others. It was all started because someone didn't want to deal with their garbage. Now that'll preach! From there, I wondered if there were other significant fire-related events that illustrated Biblical truth, and as it turns out, there were several. It turned into a really great little series.
There must be some "pastoral madness" behind all of this. So walk us through how you work with the Lord praying and thinking through what your congregation needs next in terms of a sermon series.
Yeah, "pastoral madness" is a good description. The beginning of being an effective preacher is having a quiet heart. Walking slowly, honoring the Sabbath, and operating from a peaceful, non-anxious place. If I'm stressed and hurried, I possess a stunning proclivity toward cluelessness. I become oblivious to the world around me. I'll walk right past an amazing illustration and never see it. I shudder to think of how many nudges from the Lord I've completely missed because I was pre-occupied with my cell phone or worried about how many emails are in my inbox.
That doesn't mean that whenever I quiet down a perfect illustration falls into my lap. But I can say, without exception, that every time I've come across something like that—a historically compelling story that vividly illustrates a biblical truth—it's happened when my soul was at peace and I was walking slowly through life, not hurriedly.
As far as the needs of our congregation, True North is a diverse enough church that it's pretty difficult to say on any given Sunday "The church needs _______." What I try to do is serve up a healthy balance of topical and exegetical preaching, which sometimes demands that I put a message series on hold for a while until the timing is right. Sometimes that holding pattern can be years.
How do you do the mind research and the soul preparation to prep these series?
I think the soul preparation part is the stillness piece that I mentioned in that last question. But the mind part? For me, that's where the fun is.
My pattern for learning is that from time to time, when something interests me, I really geek out and learn all I can about it. At that stage in the game, I'm not technically researching for a sermon—I'm just reading a non-fiction book for pleasure.
So for example, when I heard the story of the Centralia mine fire, I ordered a documentary DVD about it from Amazon, and I wasn't even half way through it before I knew this was going to become a sermon. I read books and I even visited the town and physically saw the smoke rising from the ground on Silent Hill. It was compelling.
From there, I started wondering if there were other significant fires that could help people understand the Word of God. I ordered a book on the Great Chicago Fire, not knowing if there was a message there, but just because it caught my interest. It wasn't long before a huge illustration on gossip and taming the tongue emerged. The more fires I read about, the more these connections would rise to the surface.
Tell us about a sermon series that bombed or didn't go as well as you planned and what you learned from it.
There have definitely been some individual Sundays when I've stunk the place up, but I don't ever remember feeling like an entire series was a bomb. I guess what comes to mind here is a series we did on stewardship a few years ago.
Our church draws a lot of non-believers and on Long Island, people tend to be pretty cynical from the get-go. So when it comes to teaching on finances, I tend to back pedal a lot and work super hard to contextualize what we're saying, so our newcomers don't think I'm one more preacher trying to get into their wallet.
In this particular message series, I spent so much time explaining context for the newbies, I left some pretty important things unsaid when it comes to teaching our more mature believers.
Some preachers might argue that you should only do expository preaching series. What's your case for topical series? What are you trying to accomplish and how have you seen the Lord use these series?
Yeah, I understand that and respect it. Personally, I've found that a mix of the two is most effective. If I was preaching to a room filled exclusively with believers, that's exactly what I'd do. But our church is intentional about reaching people who are very un-churched, and they don't particularly care what Paul says in 1 Corinthians. So if I begin by saying "OK everyone, open your Bibles to chapter 4, verse 10 … " I've already lost people.
But I'd say, as respectfully as possible, that even exclusively expository preachers would agree that application is pretty important. If we look to the Bible as our guide for how to preach and we apply what we see there, we'll notice that the use of culture to illustrate Biblical truth is not without precedent.
In Athens, Paul was taken to the High Council of the city and there tries to explain the significance of their Altar to an Unknown God. Herein, Paul quotes a local poet. Acts 17:28 says "As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'" They didn't have Top 40 radio markets in Athens, but they had well known poets. Paul uses something from the culture around him to illustrate Biblical truth. Paul does this more than once.
Jesus himself didn't launch into expositions of Scripture without creating interest with a story. Yes, I know that Jesus was speaking the Word of God every time he opened his mouth, but his followers didn't know that. Even the disciples didn't really process that until much later. Jesus used stories to engage peoples' emotions and their intellect before he applied the Scriptures.
To be extra clear, I'm not saying that my way is perfect. The body of Christ is wonderful and diverse and one part doesn't get to call another part less important. For churches filled exclusively with mature believers, a different approach would probably work better, but that's not what our church looks like.
Okay, not everyone is going to crawl around in a submarine or drive to a remote mine fire. Not every preacher has your creative way of putting a topical series together. Can you give us three to four things you've learned about planning this type of sermon series that you think are transferrable to any preacher?
The first thing would be that whole "walking in stillness" idea we talked about earlier. I know I'm harping on this, but if a pastor isn't honoring the Sabbath and resting from his work, he is in sin. There it is. We are commanded, and being a pastor is not an exemption from this.
We must rest from our work and because our work is thought work, we must rest from thinking about our church for one day a week. No emails, no texts, no thought. For one day, we trust it back into God's hands and know that it'll be ok when we return to our inbox tomorrow. This creates a bit of stillness in which to hear from God and to allow our personal interests to grow.
Secondly, get out ahead with planning your messages. Way, way ahead. I'm writing sermons for six months from now. I typically have six months of sermon material in the bank. These are fully formed, ready-to-preach sermons, not just outlines.
This allows me to have several message series in various stages of gestation at once. The old model of "show up on Monday and figure out what to preach this week," has to go. Most pastors are out ahead of that, at least in terms of having topics that they know are upcoming. But most never get past the stage of conception.
That's how we miss opportunities. If you're on a deadline to finish a sermon for THIS SUNDAY and you have writers' block, an illness, or a difficult funeral to preside over, you're in bad shape. That extra margin allows for those things.
So in any given month, there's a message I'm ready to give birth to right away, a couple other series that are in stages of maturation and (hopefully) one series that's being conceived.
For example, I've been thinking for a while that I want to learn more about New York City during the Gangs-of-New-York era. Maybe there's a message series in there somewhere!
A third transferrable principle would be—practice out loud. Run the sermon out loud to an empty room three or four times before you preach it on Sunday. It'll help you with your transitions and make your delivery feel a lot more natural.
Bert Crabbe is the Lead Pastor of True North Community Church on Long Island, New York.