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Have you ever found yourself starting out on a sermon series and wishing you hadn't? For example, at some point have you found yourself somewhere in the Ten Commandments and wished there were only eight? Or if you're more topical, have you found yourself in the midst of Five Steps to Happiness and suddenly knew there were only three? However, you had committed yourself to a series and so — at the risk of boring yourself — you went through with it.

If it was hard on you, you must realize it was even harder on those in the audience. I have here and there quoted the little sister who reportedly said, "My pastor just preached 66 sermons from the Book of Philippians; while I still love my pastor, I hate the Book of Philippians."

It is true many great theologians have preached up to hundreds of sermons on a single book of the Bible. Take John Calvin, for instance. He would camp out in some book of the Bible and stay there for years. He is said to have preached hundreds of sermons from a single book of the Bible, and he was well loved — at least by Calvinists.

When he was arrested during one sermon and hauled off to jail, he was so committed that when he was freed, he stepped back into his pulpit and took off preaching at the very same point in his manuscript at which he had left it years earlier. It took more than an imprisonment to interupt a series in those days; but this was before Blu-Ray and TiVos, when there was little to do but cherish the first legal printings of the Bible, go to church and admire the longevity of Latin scholarship.

Taste lately has grown restless.

In this age of drive-thru sermons and two-second sound bites, most people want the milk of the Word condensed, and the wisest of preachers tend to prepare and preach their sermons with the maximum impact to be gained in a 55-minute worship service.

I have, throughout my ministry, preached sermon series somewhere between two and six sermons. I have a series on the Ten Commandments and a slightly longer one on the Sermon on the Mount. I believe in this, if for no other reason than it linked preparing sermons together for me. I have lots of Advent series, which always required four solid sermons on the Incarnation and a special Christmas sermon. I have lots of series that ran through Lent leading up to Easter. The other series I have preached tended to be shorter than six weeks.

We live in a season of life when the 30-minute episodes of Seinfeld (these usually require only 22 to 24 minutes of written scripts, minus introductions and commercials) last only a few years. This should clue us in to writing individual sermons and series in such a way as to seem fresh and captivating for the long haul.

I realize longer services and sermons are required to pull sermon-listeners out of the world. Living in secular culture for 168 hours a week and going to church for 60 minutes requires a good bit of time to pry folks out of the whirl of their busy lives into a few moments of spiritual reflection.

For this reason I have grown compassionate for those preachers who take longer to preach the Word, but long-winded preaching usually is made long by redundancies and poorly edited content. The best of sermons are written by those who understand good persuasion is not long-winded and good teaching is not necessarily blunted dull by rambling pedagogy.

Often I would use Sunday nights to preach a series that might be considered by some to be inappropriate — a series such as one on "The Song of Solomon and Christian Sexuality." This would seem to be a good time to lock the babies in the nursery and put the children in a soundproofed room and talk with the adults about sex. Often when I tried this kind of series, I found that my interest in the subject was greater than theirs. This left me feeling as if I were some deviant in a world of pious hypocrites, but it did help me realize if a series on sex cannot be pursued to some fiery end, what is left to intrigue the saints?

It is enough to say that when preaching through a series of sermons, choose a subject that really needs multiple sermons to get it all said. Then, when you notice people nodding off during sermons which have over-explained the subject you couldn't keep fresh week by week, it is perhaps the wiser course to start a new, shorter series which has enough relevance to keep the congregational buzz and your pulpit going strong. 

Dr. Calvin Miller served as Research Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, as a poet, artist, novelist and evangelist. Before coming to the divinity school, he was professor of communication and ministry studies, and writer-in-residence at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 40 books and numerous articles on religion and preaching. Sadly, Dr. Miller passed away in August 2012.

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David Buffaloe

commented on Feb 1, 2013

When I preach series (and I do) it forces the audience to read and consider the whole book. We keep dumbing down to our audience, it will continue to grow dumber and dumber. Just because we're in Seinfeld mode as Americans doesn't mean we should placate that in the audience. Trust the Holy Spirit or your spirituality will be blue like jazz.

commented on Feb 1, 2013

Mr Buffaloe, I understand your desire not to "dumb down the word" but all Dr Miller is saying is rather than do your 99 part series on the Matthew, why not be a little more creative and package it in 16-20 four week mini series (that would be your whole year of teaching). With a little creativity you'd have something for every season, family issues, doctrine and so much more. Even the Holy Spirit is creative.

Daniel Betters

commented on Feb 1, 2013

We essentially preach through books of the Bible and tie shorter books to one theme or subtitle and longer books to several. For instance we preached a series on James called: 18 Ways to Ruin Everything. You guess it, it was an 18 week series. But we also just finished Mark and just took the book chapter by chapter under the them of The King and His Cross. The natural breaks in the Gospel along with the various subjects of Jesus' ministry made for a 48 week series. We took a break for Easter, Christmas and a 10 week series on Marriage (which I though was too long). Anyway, I say all that to say that it is possible to preach through long series while keeping interested congregations. Our church has grown over the last three years to more than double in size (planted with 150 and are now at 400 on big Sunday mornings). We just keep preaching through the Word. I think the bigger key is whether or not the preacher has prepared in prayer, study, spending time with people and is skilled at our modern day avenue of preaching. Some guys should preach for 20 minutes and others can go 90 minutes. Depends on lots of factors.

Keith B

commented on Feb 1, 2013

He makes some good points. I've sat through that 10 week series on Jude. It got old. I'm currently preaching a Christmas-to-Easter series on the Gospel of John -- hitting the major points, including the "I AM" statements. I plan on concluding with the crucifixion and resurrection at Easter. I'm considering heading into Acts afterward.

Aaron Householder

commented on Feb 1, 2013

Shouldn't your bio include that Dr. Miller went home to Glory a few months ago?

David Buffaloe

commented on Feb 1, 2013

Not even sure who #2 is, but I don't do 99 part series. My Hebrews series is one sermon per chapter. The Holy Spirit is creative, and we must not quench the Spirit nor chop the Word so as to placate an ever listless audience. The average person spends 111.5 hours in the secular world (if you remove the 56 hours that they sleep) and .5 hours, if that, listening to a sermon each week. Until God's Word is planted in the heart we will continue to lose America to the secular and Muslim worlds - and that is the fault of the preacher.

Zachary Bartels

commented on Feb 1, 2013

"most people want the milk of the Word condensed, and the wisest of preachers tend to prepare and preach their sermons with the maximum impact to be gained in a 55-minute worship service." Which wisdom are we talking about here? (see James 3). Mirroring the world back at our congregations gets fewer complaints but is ultimately a great disservice to them.

Bill Williams

commented on Feb 1, 2013

There is no way that one sermon a week, no matter how long or short it is, will do anything to counteract the effect that "111.5 hours in the secular world" will have on a person. Maybe pastors should be focusing less on the length of a sermon or sermon series, and focusing more on training their congregations how to study the Bible for themselves. That will have a significantly greater impact on the congregation, than preaching to them one or two sermons a week.

Bill Williams

commented on Feb 1, 2013

@kb, our pastor follows a similar philosophy, and I think it has worked really well. There's something to be said about hitting the major points of a biblical book, getting a sense of the "big picture," and not loosing the forest for the trees!

Raymond Slocum

commented on Feb 1, 2013

I've NEVER regreted anything I have ever preached! Because I preach The Word of God!!!

Beverly Birchfield

commented on Feb 2, 2013

I simply move on to another theme or sermon when I sense the Holy Spirit is finished with whatever series I'm on... even if it's the middle of the series. It's simple to wrap it up when He's finished.

Michael Karpf

commented on Feb 2, 2013

What is really sad is today that people don't want to be fed solid food from the work of God. If you do a series on Romans (it takes me a year to do it), and teach your congregation from what I believe along with many others is the Magna Charta of the New Testament, you are being obedient to your call. Problem is, people don't want this. They want something to make them feel good instead. There has been a real decline in solid expository preaching. This in my opinion is tragic. God's word is the only thing we will take into heaven with us. It makes sense to know it. There is much emphasis here (Bangkok) on the prosperity gospel instead of solid expository preaching. Pastors fulfill your calling and preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2)

Marc Daniels

commented on Feb 2, 2013

I believe in long series. I preach at a small church in a community with a high rate of illiteracy. I have pastored this church for twelve years and have expositorily preached through many books of the Bible in that time. Sunday nights, we have tackled Romans (1.5 yrs), 1 Corinthians (1 yr), Isaiah (1 yr), Kings/Chronicles - with minor prophets side series (1.5 yrs), and Revelation (1 yr). In the mornings, I have been in the Gospels for the last five years, taking off two to three month stretches to tackle shorter series and then coming back where we left off. I have seen the members of the congregation grow in their faith and Biblical literacy over this time and their depth now amazes me! I attribute it to walking through the Scriptures with them and teaching them how to unlock the Bible for themselves.

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