Chapter 117

The Compelling Series

Some sermon series hang loosely together and lose steam as they go. Others pick up speed and attenders with each installment. In this interview, Willow Creek teaching pastor John Ortberg talks about shaping series that stimulate increasing interest. How do you title individual messages and the whole series to connect with people?

John Ortberg: In our congregation titling is very important. The main thing a title needs to do is explain why someone needs to hear this topic addressed. Periodically I look at the religion page in the newspaper for the titles of messages given at various churches. Usually the titles are clever word plays that make sense if you know the text, but the average person wouldn't have a clue what it means.

I'm going to do a series on the kingdom of God. The title is "if Jesus Ran the World." At the anniversary of September 11th, and for other reasons, people are aware of how messed up the world is. That kind of edge between the world as it is and what it might be if the kingdom were realized makes the title interesting. When there's an edge to a title, when there's a sense of tension or you feel like there could be some controversy here, the title is far more attractive than the bland and predictable. You don't want people to read a title and think, I expect a preacher to say that kind of stuff.

So a title has to have an edge. It has to stir curiosity. Should there be an element of promise?

In a great series there is a sense of momentum.

Yes, but tension is the main issue.

A title also needs to have clarity, so that people get the concept. They need to know what the message is going to be about, and feel that this is a topic they would like to hear more about.

Even so, it must have an edge. If the title is bland, it suggests to people that the talk is going to be predictable and bland. Why should I come hear this? I've heard it before. If you just say you're going to talk about "Prayer," the average person has heard messages about prayer before. There's no promise in that title that says they're going to learn something they don't already know.

The edge to "if Jesus Ran the World" is it causes people to think, Isn't he running the world? Or is he not running the world? How am I supposed to think about that? It forces you to think about what you assume to be true about God.

For this series I put in three or four hours coming up with titles. I had conversations with numerous people. It took a long time, but there is a huge payoff.

Recently you preached an extended series that was an Old Testament survey. What did you learn?

People's hunger to learn is going up. People want to have a sense they are mastering new material.

One challenge I encountered was when you preach shorter series, there are natural on-ramps to tell folks that haven't been coming regularly that a new series is starting. When you preach a long series, you don't have those kind of natural incentives. You have to work harder to invite folks to come.

How did you handle long portions of text?

I learned the importance of effective summarizing and about the need to be clear with where the sermon is going, so I know how much time to give to various parts of the story. It's like what the Scripture writers had to do when they wrote history for theological reasons. Their theological agenda drove decisions about what material to include, what not to include, and why. I had to decide, how much information can people tolerate? When do they overload?

I was doing one message from the Book of Judges, and there was some rich stuff about Samson. But then, because I was trying to go through the Old Testament, I wanted to hit Ruth in the same message. As a teacher and student, I was excited about all the wonderful stuff in there. I felt this need to talk about it all. But I had to force myself to remember if I try to pack too much in, they're going to miss it anyhow because it gets too diluted for them to remember. With a long text, the editing process becomes much more important.

What are the best and worst series you have preached?

Some of the best series are those I learn from and can translate that passion of learning into teaching. For example, I gave a series on the parables and found there had been much study and thought on the subject of the parables since I was in seminary. I was excited about what I was learning and then excited to be able to teach it.

Other great series are those where there's a sense of momentum in the congregation. When a series is clicking, people go from one week to the next saying, I've got to come back next week because I want to see where this is going. Those are the best ones.

The worst series are those where I came up with what sounded like a clever concept or metaphor, but there wasn't clarity in how it was going to preach out from one week to the next. Then I got stuck with a series that didn't have logical flow.

What have you learned about connecting sermons in a series?

When there's a sense of momentum and flow, it feels to people like taking a good class at school. If you're taking German, by the end of the class you should feel not that you have heard a series of individual lectures but that you've learned German.

For my series on the kingdom of God, I'll know it has worked if at the end people sense, I have an understanding of the kingdom, and I have a love for it, and I've learned how to live in it. My mind has shifted. I'm starting to think kingdom thoughts. That can happen through a series over a period of weeks in a way that can't happen in a single message.