Those of us committed to verse-by-verse exposition will know that one of its practical advantages is that it takes away the weekly stress of deciding what to preach on. If we preached from Ephesians 1 last week, we know that we will speak from Ephesians 2 this week. But what about the macro level? How do we decide what books our people need to hear?
Some pastors arrange their teaching programs for a whole year or even longer; others work four to six months ahead. Our church tends to arrange its rotas three months at a time, which means I am beginning to think about July to September at the moment.
Here are seven questions I ask myself during this process:
1. Am I cultivating the sorts of habits out of which a good sermon series can grow?
The tendency exists among all of us to preach on what we know. Therefore, if we have not read 1 Kings recently, we are very unlikely to preach on 1 Kings.There are certain habits that can lay the foundation for deciding what to preach on. Along with cultivating our own walk with God through prayer, one piece of advice that I was given is to read through the whole Bible every year. This will help to ensure that when we come to select material for sermons, our eyes are open to all the possibilities.
Another habit recommended by Derek Prime is to write down the "seeds of sermons" when they occur so we can retrieve them at a later date. These days, the ability to make notes easily on an iPad should mean that the annoying feeling of writing something down only to lose it is a thing of the past.
2. Have I prayed?
A series must be chosen prayerfully and carefully. Peter Grainger adds, “Considerable thought and prayer is needed before deciding on a series and its relevance to a particular congregation. There is nothing worse than wondering in week four of a two year series on 1 John whether you have made the wrong choice.” (Firm Foundations, p. 10)
Similarly, Mark Driscoll recommends the practice of taking a few days in solitude and silence before God. In Vintage Church, he writes, “During that time with God, I am refreshed and encouraged as I prayer-walk, canoe, read my Bible, repent of sin, journal thoughts that come to mind as I spend the day with God, and ask God to give me direction regarding my Bible study, out of which comes my preaching and teaching…Once I believe God has burdened me with a specific book of the Bible, text, or topic, I then spend time prayerfully considering why and how God would have me study it.” (p. 96-97)
Not all of us can go into the wild, but most of us can manage to find somewhere to pray and a quiet coffee shop in order to journal, reflect on the church, and jot down some thoughts. Ideas for my most recent series have come as I have walked and prayed and thought about our needs and challenges as a church.
3. What have we preached on recently?
We aim to give a balanced diet to the sheep, and therefore a consideration of what has been taught previously will affect what we teach next.
Since arriving at Ambassador almost two years ago, I have taught the book of Joel, Mark 1-11, Philippians, the book of Joshua, 1 Corinthians 6-7, and we are partway through Ephesians. Henry, an elder who shares some of the preaching with me has been teaching a thematic series on prayer. Before I arrived, the church had a series on the life of Joseph, Colossians, and the Apostles’ Creed. Furthermore, some of our home-groups have recently covered Acts, Romans, and Proverbs.
What are we in danger of neglecting? This list pushes me in the direction of the Old Testament for the summer. When did we last do something from the Psalms or wisdom literature? Equally, I would like to finish off Mark’s gospel at some point. Long term, when was the last time we did anything apocalyptic? What about a short topical or doctrinal series?
4. What does the church need?
When considering a preaching series, we need to take into account the needs of the congregations where God has placed us. Haddon Robinson comments that expositors “must be as familiar with the needs of their churches as they are with the content of their Bibles.” (Biblical Preaching, p. 54)
When you are new at a church, it can be hard to know the issues that affect it, but this is something that should grow over time. Again, we could ask: How is the congregation composed? Are there a lot of new Christians? Is there a lot of transfer growth? Has the church been confused by a split at another church in town? Are people unsettled after the fall of a prominent local Christian leader? Is there confusion over a particular lifestyle or issue? Do we need to have a renewed emphasis on evangelism? Any number of these factors might affect our choice of series.
In a recent interview, Tim Keller says that his practice is to develop certain themes during the year. Following a scheme originally developed by Young Life, he aims to emphasize God’s character and apologetics in the autumn, Christ and his work in the winter, and then Christian living and building one another up in the spring. This corresponds to when most new people arrive at the church in the autumn and fits well with an emphasis on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in the period between Christmas and Easter. The aim is to hit similar themes regularly but from different books of the Bible, thereby exposing people to the breadth of Scripture and introducing them to parts that they might otherwise never reach.
At Ambassador, about 40% of our current membership list has started attending the church since August 2010, and this has meant that we have taught on Philippians (unity and partnership in the gospel) and Ephesians (the nature of the church).
A long-term goal for every church pastor should be to take church members into territory that they might not otherwise explore. In Hong Kong, this would mean not just sticking with the New Testament but also preaching from the Old as well. Derek Prime says, “To bring our people into fresh pastures, we must continually break new ground.” (Pastors and Teachers, p. 127)
5. Are there seasons in the life of the church that require a particular emphasis?
This might be a particular time of year (e.g., Christmas or Easter), or it may be a national event (e.g., the Olympics). It could also be something happening in the life of the church (e.g., a week of outreach coming up) that requires special preparation or training. It might be a local event. In a previous church where I worked, the local museum across the road was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, and we were able to tie in a preaching series accordingly.
6. How long should the series last?
This one is debatable! The received wisdom seems to be that the more transient the church, the shorter the preaching series ought to be in order to give people exposure to a wider range of Biblical genre. This will especially be the case when the congregation is comprised of a large number of young Christians who are less familiar with the Bible. In Hong Kong, which is very transient, I preach through books of the Bible, but do so in blocks of four to five sermons at a time and in this way hope to give people a balanced diet over a period of two to three years.
7. What do others think?
I find that conversing with others is invaluable. I try to speak to a range of people about what I am thinking to get their initial thoughts on it. They range from the elder with whom I share some of the preaching to people with whom I meet up one-to-one, other pastors, or even those who aren’t yet believers. In theory, this would also be something for us to discuss as an eldership, but so far I have not been as good at this as I would like.
Throughout this decision-making process, I will start collecting commentaries and articles on the book that I am thinking of preaching on. This is especially true in Hong Kong where it takes longer for good resources to arrive! I will also work through it during my quiet times (often using the excellent “Daily Reading Bible” series by the Good Book Company). I will continue to pray and try to apply it to my own life and start to think about any difficult issues that the book raises (obvious examples for Joshua would be Rahab’s lie, the apologetic issue of the Canaanite genocide, or the sun standing still in chapter 10). I find that reflection ahead of time on potentially tricky issues relieves the pressure on the week before the sermon is due.
These questions are in no way exhaustive; they do, however, help me in what can sometimes be a difficult decision to make.
After all this, I can relax, put my feet up, and get on with the job of actually working on the text…
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