This is the second article in a two-part series. To read part one, click here.
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 the final three of six differences, along with suggestions on how to capitalize on them.
4. Planned Response
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:
5. Repetition over Time
When I teach something week after week, my people are more likely to apply it day after day.
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 30 to 90 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:
6. Blanket Coverage
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 everyoneespecially the one who needs it mostis 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.
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.