Getting the Most from the Sermon Series
Getting the Most from the Sermon Series
How to take full advantage of the unique strengths of series preaching
Recently I decided to fix a basement leak and had a contractor come give an estimate. Wanting to remove some paneling, he asked, "Do you have a pry bar?" I retrieved two: a small, thin lever about five inches long and a Superbar more than a foot long. The contractor grabbed the Superbar and removed the paneling in minutes.
The contractor chose the tool with more leverage. In the same way, many pastors, wanting greater leverage, choose to preach primarily in series.
But we may not be using all the power inherent in the form. When we understand how a series differs from a single sermon, we can take full advantage of the unique strengths a series affords.
Here are six differences, along with suggestions on how to capitalize on them.
The more an idea is developed, the greater is its impact. If I preach a thirty-second sermon—reading John 3:16, saying, "God loves you so much he sent Jesus to die for your sins. Believe in Jesus and you will be saved," and then sitting down—that will have less effect (all things being equal) than if I give a thirty-minute sermon in which I explain why God had to send his Son, illustrate with stories showing human sinfulness, give examples from the Gospels of people turning to Jesus in faith, and so on. As long as there is movement, not redundancy, more development means more power.
Series offer much more time for development; a four-part series gives us several hours. We can explain more principles, dig deeper theologically, answer more objections, paint images in greater detail, offer more examples, tell longer stories, address the full scope of application (who, what, where, and how), expose more Scripture. Instead of one drama or testimony in support of the theme, there can be many. We can preach sequential expository sermons through Books of the Bible. Such breadth and depth and focus will more likely change lives.
To harness the power of deep development:
- Plan a series with the big picture in mind. In many cases, we can view the entire series as a single large sermon, having one main subject and one big idea needing development. In this megasermon perspective, each week's sermon is like a main point developing that big idea.
- Ask yourself: What is the overall purpose of the series? What Scriptures do I need to cover? When the series is over, what do I want people to know, do, feel? What objections will I need to answer? At what point in the series will I deal with these various aspects?
A series is not four sermons gathered loosely under a general topic (a wide series), but rather four sermons working together to accomplish one aim (a deep series).
A series that gathers momentum can be a landmark in church life. I recently preached through Galatians, and midway through it one man prayed in the service, "Lord, thank you for leading Pastor to preach through Galatians. You have spoken to us through this Book. Continue to guide him as he plans his preaching in the future." Another woman told me, "Make sure you are taping these." Others asked me to e-mail my sermon notes that week, and one woman came up after church and asked for my printed notes. This series coincided with a renewed sense of God at work in our church, leading in new people, bringing back people long absent. God gave us a spiritual momentum that was not there when the series began.
In the sports world it is called Big Mo, and it can make a season. Momentum in a sermon series is just as powerful. People get curious and excited. They learn new things that change their lives forever. They stand up and tell how God is working. They invite others.
Series build momentum because of connection: what happens today is tied to what happened last week and what will happen next week. A series resembles a giant flywheel, still spinning from spiritual energy applied before, accelerating more from energy exerted today.
Series have far more potential than single sermons to increase attendance and visitor flow. After the first sermon, hearers know what to expect in future sermons, and if they are helped, they are motivated to attend and to invite others.
One reason people like series is they give a sense of mastery of a subject. Serious Christians do not want to be shallow novices. Spirit-filled people yearn to learn and understand.
To take full advantage of the power of momentum:
- Sweat over titles and announce them with enough lead time. Use titles that promise something, stir curiosity, create tension. Do not release all tension and answer all questions before the last sermon.
- As you answer questions in one sermon, raise new questions by saying things like, "Notice that so and so is true, but what about such and such? We'll talk about that next week." Media land calls those "teasers," and they are extremely effective. Plan the series before you begin so you can use teasers effectively.
- Over the course of a series, aim for a pattern of crescendo rather than decrescendo. I am prone to give my best stuff up front and make the first sermon the climax, but then the following sermons simply let the dust settle. Instead, like a novelist writing a mystery, we should plan what tension will be maintained and resolved at what points of the series.
- Tell people who should attend in the future. "If you know someone with an addiction problem, you will want to bring him for the next two weeks." And lest we overlook the obvious, tell people to invite their friends. "Has God been helping you through this series? Who do you know who needs the same thing?"
- Pray. The Spirit of God is the primary source of kingdom momentum.
When we study for a series that will last four weeks or more, we have added time, reason, and motivation to research thoroughly our subject. We know our spadework will pay higher dividends.
When preaching through a Book like Genesis or Revelation, expanded research is critical. We must make decisions about how to interpret texts early in the Book, and we don't want to have to pull an about-face in chapter 20.
David Jackman, a leader of Proclamation Trust in England, says when he decides on a Book for exposition, he begins to read it devotionally, and he focuses his side reading on related commentaries. This process begins six months or more before he starts preaching the Book.
Bill Hybels says when he takes his month-long summer study breaks, he brings a pile of books on topics he knows he will preach in the year ahead. He culls stories, statistics, and principles.
To take full advantage of wide research:
- Build margins in your preparation.
- Plan for several weeks or months between when you decide on the subject of a series and when it begins (some preachers plan preaching calendars six months to a year ahead). This usually means we will research future series at the same time as we do final study for a current series.
- Plan your research. Once you decide on a series, list the must-read works on the subject, and to prevent procrastination set due dates for completion.
Many people will not respond to a significant appeal for action on first hearing. As I recall, one study said the average Christian heard the gospel something like seven times before responding. Urging people at the end of a sermon to pray more may not require much consideration, and people may respond on the first request. But asking people to sign up for a two-week missions trip to Haiti, or to fast and pray for lost neighbors, is another matter.
Series preaching enables us to prepare people thoroughly for a significant response. In the first sermon we can announce the specific commitment we seek during the series. For example, one church I know has a three-week stewardship series every year, and the pastor asks early on that every church member give a percentage of his or her income to the church, and for members already thus committed, to increase that percentage.
After we announce a desired response, we can carefully lay the groundwork and make our appeal for action at the opportune time.
On the other hand, we may feel that stating the desired application up front will scare people away for the rest of the series. In that case, we can prepare the soil, and then near the end of the series plant the response we want hearers to consider in the weeks remaining.
To take advantage of the significant responses that series make possible:
- Ask for one unfamiliar response.
- Appeal for something specific, concrete, and large.
- Challenge people. If the topic is familiar, like Bible reading, challenge hearers to join a churchwide reading program that aims to cover so-many chapters a day, records progress, uses a buddy system, and so on. A series implies that the subject is important, and so a murky, minimal response is an anticlimax that can trivialize what has gone before.
- Plan application as thoroughly as the rest of the content.
- Arrange content with the response in mind. Know before the series begins what response you will present in every sermon.
Repetition over time
For five weeks I have been preaching a series on walking in the Spirit, and I have had one overarching objective: to help people learn to pay attention to the Holy Spirit every day. A stand-alone sermon may have inspired some to attempt that in the following week, but most people probably would soon have changed their focus because of the different application of the following week's sermon, the different topic of the next Christian radio program or devotional reading, the demands of life pressing upon them.
But in this series I repeated my objective weekly, and as the series progressed, I noticed the power of repetition over time. Some who did not pay attention the first Sunday did on the second. Based on conversations, I discovered that those who tried to pay attention to the Holy Spirit grew in their focus and learned from experience. Some have established new thought habits as over 35 days they have again and again tuned in to the Spirit.
Author Stephen Covey says, "To establish a good habit takes about 21 days." Another author says, "Positive change that lasts usually takes anywhere from thirty to ninety days." When I teach something week after week, my people are more likely to apply it day after day, and habits will more likely form that continue after the series ends. Repetition over time is one of the biggest wrenches in the series tool bag.
To take full advantage of repetition over time:
- Make the main application visual with a picture, illustration, object lesson that you allude to throughout the series. In my series on walking in the Spirit, I asked one man to walk across the room with me twice. One time I looked away from him as we walked, and as a result we did not walk in step. The second time I watched his feet and marched in cadence with him. My point: in order to walk in step with the Spirit I had to pay attention to the Spirit. I acted out that object lesson in two sermons. As the series progressed, I asked, "Do you remember when I walked across the room with Sam? What was the point?" People answered immediately.
- Write memorable, engaging statements that sum up the main application of the series.
- Prepare enough before beginning the series to know what idea and application will take center stage.
The great frustration of preaching stand-alone sermons is that on any given Sunday 25 to 50 percent of the congregation is absent. We preach a sermon "everyone needs to hear," and everyone—especially the one who needs it most—is not there. Series preaching ensures that a higher percentage of the church hears the series theme.
In a series on the Book of Galatians, the chief idea was that human performance of moral codes cannot make us acceptable to God; that happens only through faith in Christ. I made that statement in some form in nearly every sermon. After several months of sermons from Galatians, even casual attenders got that principle in their bones.
To take full advantage of the power of blanket coverage:
- For each message, assume this is the only sermon in the series some will hear.
- Find ways to present the key series idea in each sermon.
A powerful sermon series is more than four sermons with a common theme, and more than the sum of its parts. A powerful series is a team of sermons that work together. Take advantage of series synergy, and you will multiply sermon power.