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Deepen Your Preaching Barrel by Planning Ahead

The benefits of using your summer to plan out your sermon series for the coming year.

Average Rating:  [see ratings/reviews]Deepen Your Preaching Barrel by Planning Ahead

When I first became senior pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver in 1996, I had limited preaching experience. Sundays seemed to hurtle toward me at the speed of sound every three or four days and one of my biggest anxieties was deciding what to preach on. As I look back on my first sermons that summer, I see how I recycled the few sermons I had in my hip pocket. Then I ran out and panic set in. After a couple of months, I felt like I was "scraping the bottom of the barrel" for sermon material. In those days my sermons basically consisted of the Bible text, a football illustration, and a quote from C.S. Lewis.

When I engage in advance preparation, I'm less likely to feel like I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel because there's more time for the barrel to fill with God's wisdom and insight.

One of the practices that has made preaching at Tenth Church sustainable, and even life-giving, has been taking time each summer to map out the possible sermon series for the coming year, from September through the end of June (an associate pastor plans our summer series in the spring). I have found that summer is a particularly good time for me to engage in some longer-range sermon planning as I'm able to get away from the day-to-day pressures of ministry and look back over the last year of preaching. I have the space to prayerfully seek God's guidance for the coming year. I typically take two to three weeks for study and planning each summer, then two to three weeks for vacation. (Tim Keller, who served for many years as senior minister of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, shared with me that he took one month for study in the summer and a month for vacation, and with this yearly rhythm he never felt the need to take a longer sabbatical.)

However, I don't begin my planning for possible sermon series from scratch in the early summer. I keep a "hopper for preaching" file on my computer. Throughout the year, as ideas for sermon series come to mind as I read Scripture, books, and engage in conversations with people, I jot down possible sermon series ideas in this document.

Scripture, needs, Holy Spirit

When I first began preaching I asked Minho Song, the seasoned pastor of Young Nak Church in Toronto, "How can I discern what to preach on a given Sunday?" He drew an image of a triangle and wrote "The Word" on the bottom and explained that the base for our preaching must be Scripture. He then drew another side of the triangle on the left, and wrote "Needs" (of the community). He said, "Ask yourself, 'What are the needs of the people you are going to be preaching to?'" Finally, he wrote, "Holy Spirit" on the right side of the triangle and asked, "What is the Holy Spirit doing in your own heart? What is the Spirt stirring in you?" Ever since, I have used this triangle to assess what to preach, not only on a given Sunday, but when I plan a sermon series.

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Gerry Gould

June 27, 2017  2:46pm

Thanks for this helpful article, Ken. I used to be much more "spontaneous" in preaching, but once I moved to service design teams and a larger Staff team, I have had to adjust (teams yield better results generally, but presents a challenge to be responsive to the "winds of the Spirit"). I told one of my Staff recently that I feel restrained by having "series mentality" - I want to call an audible! I like that you give yourself freedom to adjust throughout the year. Following summer vacation, I take a few weeks to prayerfully plan the entire year. As has been mentioned, balance is important to us here, too - theological, practical life, being on mission, spiritual practices, evangelistic, Bible books and characters, Church vision, stewardship, etc. Reading your insights, Minho's triangle idea and then Tim's comments, made me realize we need to address culturally relevant issues in series themes more than we do, and not just address them as applications in a message.

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Ken Duggan

June 27, 2017  12:48pm

I'm preparing now for my summer planning retreat. I will talk with key leaders at church and ask what those they serve are dealing with at present. I take 3 days at least an hour away from church. My wife often stays with me the first evening and leaves the next morning. With the input of my staff in mind I make sure that I offer a healthy dose of OT, NT, topical and character studies. Even if it is a topical message I make sure the text drives the message and series. I think, read and pray during these precious times away and am always amazed at the insight the Spirit gives as I withdraw from the familiar. I usually plan for six months now while I began planning for a year in advance when the church was young. I have been doing this now for 27 years at the same church, and as Ken says I am often concerned about what I am going to preach this year. However, dozens of series and hundreds of sermons later, I can testify that the Spirit still brings fresh insight into His Word.

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Dan Matheson

June 27, 2017  1:32am

Helpful article Ken! I don't have a lot of practice in determining sermon topics - but I've gone with the general rule of consult, consult, and consult. And I really like Minho Song's triangle idea! Thanks for sharing this...

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Tim Day

June 26, 2017  1:07pm

Thank you, Ken, for this excellent article. When we did long range sermon planning at The Meeting House, we also would keep track of major cultural issues, trending TV shows or developments in technology or entertainment. We would also review upcoming blockbuster movies. These would often help to spark the creative process. Thank you for your leadership in the church, Ken.

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