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.
1) Deep Development
A series that gathers momentum can be a landmark in church life.
The more an idea is developed, the greater is its impact. If I preach a thirty-second sermonreading 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 downthat 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 (what, where, why, 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, we should 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,
3) Wide Research
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:
Next week: part two
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.