One of the difficult tasks a preacher has is to decide what should be the focus of a Sunday sermon. Traditionally this difficult decision is narrowed down through lectionary preaching, a predetermined cycle of assigned texts appointed for each Sunday of the year from which a Pastor can chose to preach.
However, I prefer to preach through sermon series, where the truth learned one week is built upon in the succeeding weeks. In order to accomplish this, I ask myself three driving questions, consider the balance needed through the year, and then make a concrete but flexible plan.
THREE DRIVING QUESTIONS
As I begin my planning, here are some of the big questions I ask:
1. What has God been teaching me? One thing I’ve learned over recent years is that what God does for me He wants to do through me for others (2 Cor. 1:3-4). This goes for every follower of Jesus. If Jesus disciples you in some area of life, He desires that you disciple others in what you’ve learned. This is no different for a preacher. When we ask this question in preparing to preach, it can produce the most powerful sermons and series because we’re preaching a truth and grace that we’ve experienced and therefore one that is more easily touched, felt and seen through us.
2. What do our people need? This question is all about applying the liberating truth of the Gospel. As pastors we need to know well the people God has placed under our care. We need to know the lies they are believing, promulgated through the media and pop culture – lies that subtly change how they view themselves and God. We need to know of our peoples’ brokenness, struggles, relationships, heartache, and doubts and then mine the word of God for the raw grace and truth that realign their worldview, heal their souls, reestablish their identity as God’s children, and empower them to live for Him.If your church is larger, poll the congregation regarding where they are confused about the faith, where they are struggling, or what they’ve always wanted to know. Ask these questions in the classes, boards, small groups, or missional communities you participate in. Ask leaders in your congregation these same questions concerning those under their care.
3. Where do we need to go? This question is all about mission and vision. For me, mission and vision are always about Gospel-motivated and Spirit-empowered multiplication of disciples, discipleship groups, leaders, and churches. This theme should be touched upon at least monthly so that we never lose focus of the reason we exist, yet also be addressed more thoroughly in a yearly series.
Long Series vs. Short Series: Most of my series tend to run around 4-6 weeks. Series of this length provide frequent opportunity for our members to invite their unchurched friends and encourage occasional attendees to participate in the life of the congregation. My hope is that our occasional or backsliding attendees will become reengaged and possibly even get in the weekly rhythm of worship. That said, I’ll also preach through books of the Bible. When these series go more than a few months, we’ll take breaks for topical series or stand-alone messages to keep things fresh.
Yearly Themes: One of the dangers of preaching through sermon series is that it can be easy to focus on the things we’re passionate about and neglect the full counsel of God. A dear friend and mentor of mine, the late Steve Benke, taught me to list the important themes that should be touched upon throughout the year as to assure that I am teaching everything God has called me to teach. Here’s the list I use today:
- God’s Identity-Apostle’s Creed
- Our Gospel Identity: Family, Missionary, Servant, Disciple
- Stewardship/Tithe/Generous Living
- Bible – It’s trustworthiness and daily benefits
- Advent/Christmas – Who is Jesus/God?
- Baptism & Holy Communion
- Lent/Easter – Who is Jesus/God?
- Sin/Repentance/Sanctification and the power of the Spirit
- Relationships (Sexuality/Marriage/Parenting/Family)
- Spiritual Warfare
- Multiplication of Disciples, Discipleship Groups, Leaders, and Churches
It is necessary that each topic is, at the least, sprinkled in a few messages throughout the year or is the focus of an entire message or series. Of course some of the topics may show up in nearly every sermon.
“Taste and See” vs. “Follow Me” series: The goal here is to strike a balance between series that are great entry points into the faith and ones that focus on deepening catechesis and discipleship. “Taste and See” series are the opportunity to grow your congregation numerically by inviting people to see that Jesus is the answer to our ultimate, as well as every day, problems. These series are great for the beginning of the school year or right after Christmas or Easter. The “Follow Me” series have a greater emphasis on growing deep in discipleship and are great follow-ups to the “Taste and See” series.
THE PLANNING PROCESS
I like to know what I’m preaching six months to a year out. When I graduated from Concordia Seminary, Steve Benke gave me an Excel sheet he had used for his planning of sermon series—a sheet I still use a modified version of today. You can download a copy of it here.
On it I have a tab for yearly themes, inspiring videos, series ideas, and worship calendar. Throughout the year, when I have an idea for a series, or if I run into other sermons, videos, books, or music that inspire me, I file them away in the excel document. In the worship calendar tab I put in the dates for the coming year. On it I note the holidays and seasonal rhythms of our context where our services tend to have a larger influx of visitors, which helps me decide when new series can start with the greatest impact.
I then try to take a day or two and work through my preaching calendar. I begin with prayer and repenting of my sins and the sins of people under my care. Then I revel in the Gospel truth that sets us free. I pray that The Spirit would guide me so I can guide his people under my care. I again ask myself the Three Driving Questions I mentioned earlier: What is God teaching me? What do our people need? Where do we need to go? On the calendar I first try to block in the “Taste and See” series that will have the greatest attractional impact based off the seasonal rhythms of our context as well as series for Advent and Lent. I then fill in the rest of the Sundays with series or stand-alone messages based off of the Three Driving Questions and our Yearly Themes. I select the theme for each day and usually a scripture reading. I share what I am thinking with key leaders to get their thoughts and make adjustments accordingly.
Finally, I create separate Word documents for notes on each series. Over the coming days, weeks, and months, I continue to think about each series and sermon. As I come up with ideas, illustrations, quotes, or other bible verses that tie in with a message, I add them to the notes for each sermon in that series. By the time I reach the week of the message, I usually have plenty of material to quickly assemble my sermon.
Through all of this it is imperative to seek and listen to the Spirit. Apart from Him we can do nothing! Sometimes because of my sinfulness or shortsightedness I realize that my thoughts were not God’s thoughts. One of the easiest ways for me to know this is if my idea for a series seems like it’s forced, or if I can’t get any traction on my studies or composition of the messages. Other times, I have had a detailed series planned out only to have God put a pressing need in my heart to do something else. In these times it’s helpful to remember that our planning is but a tool to help us discern the ways in which Jesus wants to feed and lead His people through His Spirit in us. Ultimately, when we listen to the Spirit, whether preaching from series, the lectionary, or any other means, we will preach what his people need.