How to Plan and Package a Year of Sermon Series
The series "brand" can unify what a church says and does.
PreachingToday.com: A sermon series demands more from the preacher in the way of "packaging" than a stand-alone sermon. You need to choose a series topic and title, and perhaps a series metaphor, subtitle, and text. You need to divide the topic into individual sermons and Scriptures that cover a certain amount of terrain each week. You title and perhaps subtitle each message in a unified way. You may write a marketing paragraph for the church website to stir interest in the series, and so you're thinking about how to connect with culture. What process do you follow?
David Daniels: I start planning for the next year around September. Typically I begin my thinking with what I perceive are the needs of the church and where I feel that God is leading us and me, whether it's a greater focus on mission, community, personal sanctification, or another topic.
Something we started this year and plan to do again next year is to give the whole year a theme. 2011 was the "Year of Mission," and so every sermon series related to what it means to be missional. Some of the series have been overtly about mission, like our March series "Pandemic: The Global Outbreak of the Gospel of God." Before "Pandemic," we had a two-week series on orphan care. For the summer, I taught a 12-week series on James; the central theme was, If we're going to be a church on a mission, then our best missional testimony is how we live. I also preached a series about practical evangelism called " Kingdom Starter Kit," followed by a six-week series on the Holy Spirit's role in our mission.
So the year is a series of series.
Daniels: Exactly. Before we get specific in planning the series for the year, though, we look at the calendar and block out the weeks where each series will fit. We build our preaching calendar around the non-negotiables on the church calendar. In January I always preach a vision series. Easter and Mother's Day are set. We have to take into account the rhythm of people's church attendance when it comes to times like Spring Break at school.
We also factor in when new people enter the church versus when they are settled in the church. Naturally our series during the seeking times will be slightly different than the settling times. There have been times when I've scheduled a series that seemed great because it fit a five-week block in September, but then realized it was a settling series when it should have been more of a seeking series. We should have scheduled it for November.
Once we know the blocks of time we have to work with, I schedule each sermon series and then begin to plan individual sermons in order in a series. I tend to move from week one being more theological to the final weeks leaning more practical, from the why to the what. By the time we get to the end of a series, we are leading people toward personal and corporate application of the spiritual truths they have learned.
Once I've determined the flow of the sermon series, I begin work on "branding," which means the words and images we will use to communicate the series. We titled a recent series on the Holy Spirit "3rd Person" and chose titles and graphics that reflected the mystery of the Spirit. We titled a series on the Book of Jonah "Life Overboard" and a 6-part series on the Bible "TXT MSG." We coordinate our titles, visual elements, staging and collateral materials, not for the purpose of being slick, but to help people stay focused in one direction. Often we will see if there is a way to brand ministry initiatives during a series (homeless outreach, new class, and so on) in line with the series so that people can see how what we hear is connected with how we live.
One series that has become a recurring part of our annual calendar is what we call "Rewind." It's been a tremendous success. On the four Sundays in November, I revisit the highlights and key principles of the several selected series from the year, one Sunday per series. We exclude our Easter series, the series leading up to November, and our vision series. This usually leaves about four series for the year.
Instead of a series being heard and forgotten, the "Rewind" series reignites and reminds the congregation concerning where we've been. "Rewind" says, This has been the life of our church for the last twelve months; let's not forget the significant principles God has taught us. "Rewind" also benefits the teaching team by giving some breathing space when we don't have to prepare new material before we hit the Christmas season.
How do you determine the needs of the congregation as you plan the series for the year?
Daniels: As I think about series, I spend a lot of time listening to my fellow pastors in the church, sharing ideas from my heart and letting them reflect back. I really value my staff, because I know how much greater contact my staff has with our people and what's going on in their lives.
That's one reason I don't plan sermon series alone. I meet with our worship pastor, media director, executive pastor, and a couple of other creative people. Four or five times a year, we'll take a whole day and work on the next couple of series in broad brush strokes, talking about the overarching metaphors and ideas we want to communicate. Typically I bring to that meeting the ideas God has put on my heart, but that team helps to flesh out the ideas.
They're honest enough to say things to me like, "I think if you preach it that way, you will deliver the theological goods, but I don't think that will change anybody's heart." We'll go back to the drawing board and work on it some more. We're always asking, "How is this truly going to change lives?"
In addition to giving honest feedback, creative teams are beneficial because they just keep you working ahead. When you work ahead, the series become more creative and good ideas eventually become great ones.
What mistakes should we avoid when putting a series together?
Daniels: We can overbrand things. We can become enticed and titillated by our great titles, incredible posters, and clever wordsmithing, and count on that to carry the day rather than on excellent study of Scripture and humble preaching.
I've also learned how easy it is to get lost in our metaphors. If we've decided to use a circus metaphor for a series, but then when I get into the sermon text for the week the apostle Paul is using a marathon metaphor, now I've got several metaphors to deal with. Metaphor on top of metaphor is impossible to communicate.
There is also a downside to working ahead. Because we prepare a Bible study guide for people to use a week prior to a sermon, I must choose a text, title, and topic ahead of time—before I have been able to give a deeper study of the text. More than once I have discovered that my title, metaphor, or focus wasn't exactly aligned with the text.
But hiccups like this don't overshadow the wider benefits of planning series far ahead. For instance, we try to take the other major initiatives going on in our church and co-brand them with the current sermon series. When we did the "Pandemic" series, we were raising money for a Bible translation. We shifted our initiative a couple of weeks in order to fit with the series, and in our advertising we put the "Pandemic" logo and graphics on it in order to help people understand that this initiative fits where we are right now with the series, that what they're hearing on the platform makes sense with what's going on in the church. We try to connect ministry with the message.
What makes a series interesting enough to people inside and outside the church that they keep coming back and inviting others to join them?
Daniels: At the end of the day it's not clever branding; it's relevant preaching. If I'm not handling the Word of God with integrity and showing people how truth makes a difference in their lives, all my creativity would be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. In the end, we hit the mark when we faithfully preach God's Word in a way that opens up the possibility for genuine life transformation.
We treat the branding that goes with a series as one more way to help people catch the vision of what we're trying to communicate.
David Daniels is pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and co-founder and executive board member of Beta Upsilon Chi (Brothers Under Christ), a national Christian fraternity.