Chapter 4

Planning Your Advent Series

6 tips to help create an effective and exciting Christmas sermon series.

It’s that time of the year—again! You’re sitting down to plan your Advent or Christmas series. If you’re anything like me, planning and writing sermons for this special season can feel a bit overwhelming and daunting. Where do you even start? You want the series to be fresh but not forced. You want it to be engaging but not cheesy. You want it to be grounded in Scripture, connected to the birth of Jesus, relevant to the needs of your congregation and tied to the holiday themes that are already on people’s minds. Each year I find this to be incredibly challenging. Yet, I’ve learned to remember and apply some key lessons that I’ve learned along the way (often by making many mistakes). The following principles have really helped my planning to be more effective and more exciting.

Take it to the Lord in prayer

I know this principle is obvious, but sadly I’m tempted to skip it until the end. My tendency is to think by myself or brainstorm with friends, and then once I come up with a series idea I’ll ask God to bless it at the end. But we need to reverse this order of planning. We shouldn’t plan and then pray. We should pray and then plan—and then pray some more! In other words, prayer can’t be skipped.

Prayer can’t be an optional part of our planning or treated as a hurried add-on that’s tacked on at the end. We want our sermons and series to be bathed in prayer. We want to be led by the Spirit and taught by Jesus. And the way this happens is by starting with a humble spirit of dependency. One of my mentors once told me that whenever he comes to the place where he says, “Lord, I can’t do this!” he knows that he’s in the right place. This is always the place to start. Before we put our pen to paper, we must commit all our planning to God and ask him for help. Ask him to show you the spiritual needs of your congregation. Ask him to give you creativity in helping people to see their day-to-day lives through the story of the gospel. Remember, we have not because we ask not (James 4:2).

Brainstorm all the different angles

Christmas is all about celebrating the Incarnation, but there’s many different angles to this truth: Giving, Jesus’ humanity, the Christmas Carols that have been written, the four main characters in the story (Joseph, Mary, the Wise Men, and the Shepherds), the prophecies in the Old Testament, etc. Take the time to think about all the different ways that you can come at the same old story. Are there any themes that get you excited or intrigued? Could you build a series of messages off them?

For one Advent season, I took the angle of Jesus’ humanity and chose different texts that explain the practical benefit of his human nature and what this means for our lives. If you’re stuck, try bouncing your ideas off your friends, some trusted people in your congregation, or your preaching team.

Meditate on the famous texts & songs

Something that always helps my brainstorming is finding a quiet spot, opening up my Bible, and re-reading the famous Christmas texts (i.e. Matthew 1, Luke 2, Hebrews 2, etc). I’ll spend some quality time meditating upon the characters and the problems and the unique details that we find in these passages. Then I’ll start jotting down any ideas or questions that come to mind.

Additionally, I’ll look through some old hymnals or go online and read some famous Christmas songs. I’ll think about the lyrics that have stuck with us over time and see if there’s an angle that I can work with.

This is what happened this year. As I was reading over the lyrics to “Joy to the World,” I started to ask myself what does it really mean to “prepare him room” today? This sparked the idea of somehow connecting the cultural anxiety of getting ready for Christmas to the spiritual challenge of preparing our hearts to experience the joy of Jesus in our daily lives. How do we live in such a way that welcomes the spiritual fullness of God? And suddenly a new series was conceived!

Words and titles matter

After you’ve discovered the angle you want to take in your series, take your time to come up with a series title that is concise and engaging. I decided to use the lyrics “Prepare Him Room” as the series title itself. It was a familiar and intriguing phrase. Try to avoid trite and overused “Christianese” expressions like “The Reason for the Season.” Understand the society and cultural context that God has placed you in and pick a title accordingly.

The next step was deciding how to break the series up into four messages. I sat down with our preaching team and we brainstormed about the biblical steps that go into experiencing more of the rule and love of Jesus in our hearts. What are we called to do to prepare for that? We came up with four steps: Expect, Ask, Change, and Give. We need to live with an expectation of God’s intimate presence. We need to ask God to manifest himself more to us in this way. We need to change any false ways of thinking and sinful behaviors that may be hindering this. And we need to give our lives away in sacrificial love to others.

We also decided to go with “down to earth” titles that corresponded with the cultural themes of getting ready for Christmas. For example, we often go into the holidays with positive expectations of how the season will go. Then we have a list of things we’re asking for. We change the decor, the music, etc. And when people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?”, they’re mainly thinking of whether or not we’ve bought all our gifts for others. It took us about a week bouncing different words and ideas back and forth before we came up with the final list, but the time spent getting this right is worth it.

When Paul was trying to communicate the love that the church in Corinth needed to have for one another, he developed arguably the greatest prose on love ever produced (See 1 Cor. 13:1-8). It’s not wrong to spend some time working hard at picking your words and title carefully.

Use discernment in picking ideas

Along the way another idea for a series came to mind—“The Reason He Came.” In this series I could preach from four different texts in John’s Gospel where Jesus basically spells it out and says “All right, here’s why I came to earth ....”

1. To Do the Father’s Will (John 6:38-40)

2. To Give Abundant Life (John 10:10)

3. To Save the World (John 12:44-47)

4. To Bear Witness to the Truth (John 18:37-38)

This is where I needed to exercise some discernment. I prayed about it and began to weigh the pros and cons of each series. One benefit of “The Reason He Came” was that it’s very straightforward. You don’t have to explain to people what you’re trying to teach them. Another benefit is that people today seem more open to the “original words of Jesus” than other passages (not that other texts are any less inspired). So, I could see this as an effective way to engage non-Christians who claim that Jesus was a good teacher. “Okay! So, what did he actually teach?” However, a major downfall I saw was that it’s not as fresh or as “down to earth for daily life” as “Prepare Him Room” would be. It doesn’t tie into any of the other “Christmasy” phrases and themes that people are hearing. Moreover, as I asked the question, “What does my congregation need?”, I realized that they need to grow in experiencing the presence of Jesus on a daily basis. I talked this over with my preaching team and the decision was made.

Prepare a message not a sermon

The old Scottish preacher John Duncan once said, “Preaching is the delivery of a message.” In an effort to come up with a new and creative way to present the Christmas message, we must never forget that we are preparing a message, not so much a sermon.

Let me give you an example: For the past two years my sermons have been broadcasted each Sunday on Moody Radio throughout all of South Florida, and without even realizing it I had allowed this wider audience to change the way I preached. One day I was having breakfast with one of my congregants and he said, “I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but something has changed in your preaching. It’s like you’ve lost the personal connection you always had with the church.”

I knew he was on to something. I had become too general in my points and too refined in how I was communicating them. I had almost lost the raw human element that goes into delivering a specific message to a specific group of people. It was a great reminder that I need to focus on the specific truth that God has called me to bring, not on crafting an overly impressive way of communicating it.

Another way of putting this is that I need to preach a message for the particular people that are in front of me as if no one was ever going to listen to or read that sermon ever again. We must always speak from the heart and never be afraid of “letting it rip.” At the end of the day we are not called to be impressive, creative, or entertaining; we are called to faithful to God’s Word.

Stick to the good old story

No matter what series we come up with or what angle we take, the end goal must be to preach the saving message of Jesus. Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). Remember, the power is not in us; the power is in the gospel. In the beginning, the Spirit was hovering over the chaos of the world waiting on the word to bring about physical light. Today, the Spirit is hovering over the chaos of people’s lives waiting for the Word to go forth to bring the spiritual light of Jesus into their lives. Preach the love of God. Preach the wages of sin. Preach the gift of God. Preach the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Preach forgiveness. Preach the gift of eternal life. Preach the reason that he came. No matter what, stick to the good old story and it will be a successful Advent series!