One of the preacher’s greatest challenges is choosing what to preach and when. Three years ago, this challenge escalated for me when we started adding off-site campuses with live preachers. Planning for multiple locations has forced me to think farther ahead and formulate concrete principles around which we build each series.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
1. For everything, there is a season.
Certain times of year are easier to attract the unchurched. We want to leverage these opportunities by building our calendar around them.
For Americans, 2-3 weeks after school starts, 3-4 weeks after the New Year, and Easter and the weeks that follow it are the best times to target the unchurched.
2. Balance depth and breadth.
The author of Hebrews understood that some of his audience needed milk, while others were ready for meat (Hebrews 5:12). To balance the “milk” of high felt-need attractional series, we fill in the rest of the calendar with deeper things like book studies.
3. Numerical growth comes mostly from campaigns.
Children don’t grow at a steady rate. They shoot up a half inch one month, then grow little over the next few months and then hit another growth spurt. Churches do the same.
At New Song, all of our growth has come from campaigns. Campaigns are intentional series that combine weekend preaching with mid-week small groups and daily readings, all on the same subject. That’s why my books The Bible Questions, The God Questions, Future History (Daniel), and Jonah all were designed as church-wide campaigns. In each of these campaigns, we’ve grown between ten and twenty percent, with consolidation (and some attrition) following. We’ve positioned most of our Campaigns during the attractional seasons of September, January, and Easter, though we found that Future History hit the spot by starting it in December. (Daniel was a wiseman, so his early chapters fit well into the Christmas season. By the time we hit the future portions of Daniel in January and February, our attendance popped seventeen percent.)
4. All growth comes from Jesus.
As our team sits down to strategize the preaching calendar, we recognize that apart from Jesus, we can do nothing (John 15:5). Prayer is as important in the sermon-scheduling process as it is in the sermon-writing and sermon-delivering process.
A key question we ask during planning is, “Lord, what do you want to teach your people during this time of the year?”
5. Titles matter.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but most of people decide to read a book based on its cover. A bad title is a reason to stay home. A good title can spark curiosity, anticipation, and momentum, and motivate your people to invite friends. A good title promise benefits, raises intrigue and sticks in your mind. Where can you find good titles? Search Amazon’s best-sellers list and surf the websites of some of the large churches you know. You’ll find lots of great sermon titles there. (You’ll probably also find that many of them have borrowed those titles from somebody else. You can too.) There’s nothing new under the sun.
6. There is no perfect preaching calendar.
In 2001, I developed the perfect preaching calendar. Then 9/11 hit. I was scheduled to speak on spiritual gifts. Like every preacher, I changed my subject that week. I spoke on destiny, then three weeks on Islam, and concluded with a Christmas series called The Prince of Peace.
To have a perfect preaching calendar, you need a perfect preacher. The only one I know returned to heaven many years ago. So we pray, plan, and re-evaluate when a crisis hits, but don’t expect perfection. It only leads to frustration.
7. Choose your series 9-12 months ahead of time, put work into it 2-3 months ahead of time.
By Christmas, we have our September campaign on the schedule. In May, we’ll make sure we have its materials chosen and ordered (or written). In June, we recruit small group leaders. In July, we prepare graphics. In August, we beginning small group enrollment.
Great series don’t happen because of 6-10 days of preparation; they happened because of 6-10 months of preparation.
Nine months ago we decided to do a history series, called Continuum. We wanted it to be highly experiential. Last week we turned our auditorium into a map. I’m walking from section to section, recounting what happened where. This requires signs, props, and a spotlight. To pull all this off, we secured the spotlight three months ago, enlisted volunteers to create the props three weeks ago, and are having a ball, because we prepared in advance.
Ignatius Loyola said, “Work as if it all depends on you, and pray as if it all depends on God.”
That’s good advice! Fortunately, it doesn’t all depend on you. But God is depending on you to do your part in his partnership miracle of bringing words to life.
You won’t be able to sink a thousand hours into every sermon series. However, investing a few hours a year in advance, a few more hours three months in advance, and a few more hours a few weeks in advance will increase the quality of your preaching moment. I think God would be honored by that, and I know from experience that you will feel better about it too.