I know that you have your sermon series planned out well in advance. How do you determine the book or topic of your series? What are some practical things to think about when trying to decide what to preach or teach on in the coming months or year?
Thank you for caring about preaching God’s Word and giving me an opportunity to help you think through how to do that. The Bible commands us to “preach the word,” but it does not give us a singular method for doing so. Therefore, we lean on things like prayer, wisdom and counsel to determine what will be the best way for us to “preach the word.”
So, I will share with you what I do and some of the logic behind it, fully knowing it may not be best for your context, but I hope it’s helpful nonetheless.
Where to Begin
I start by sketching out the books and topical series I am really excited about and believe to be most timely for our people. Unlike a lot of Bible teachers, I do not see the pulpit as merely a classroom lectern. My goal is not merely to teach but to lead the church through the pulpit. I want to consider what work God has for us next and how to lead that effort by preaching God’s Word.
After I get a few ideas, I then take a day of silence and solitude to repent of sin, pray, read Scripture, sketch out plans and try to develop a plan for the upcoming 18–24 months. Once my plan starts to solidify, I submit it to the Mars Hill Church executive elders for consideration. They make suggestions and help me ensure that I am under authority and getting godly counsel for the preaching schedule.
I find that the more organized I am, the better prepared my team will be to work with me. Right now, for example, I know the pulpit schedule (who is preaching what and when) for the next 18 months—and so does my team.
At Mars Hill Church, we organize our teaching around “campaigns.” A campaign is more than a sermon series; it involves linking your entire church or ministry up to your pulpit and pushing one big idea through every aspect of your church or ministry.
Practically, this means making the pulpit a central piece, but not the only piece. It means doing some hard work to plan out how to tie your sermons into your small groups, your counseling, your events, your design, your online strategy and more. Mars Hill and I give away a lot of these resources and sell some others, if you’re looking for examples.
Seasons of Ministry
In addition to campaigns, it is helpful to know the seasonal cycle of your ministry. This varies from place to place. In a military town, attendance can fluctuate a great deal with deployments. In a college town, the summers usually see a major plummet in attendance. In a place like Phoenix, where people flee during the hottest months, the same can be true. In places like Seattle and Alaska where the winters can be long and dark, people tend to be out and about a lot during the summer enjoying the good weather. Conversely, in places like Southern California where the weather is nice year-round, it is possible for a church to actually grow during the summer.
No seasonal rhythm is set in stone, but the following has been my experience at Mars Hill.
For most of our churches, we have two major harvest seasons. The first is in the fall, from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. Summer vacations are over, the rainy season starts, schools are back in session, new people have moved into the area and our attendance swells. At this time we start a new sermon series (this year at Mars Hill, it will be the Ten Commandments), all of our ministries kick into high gear (especially our Community Groups) and it is imperative that everything launch strongly for the sake of momentum.
For our church, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is a bit flat. Some churches are Christmas churches, and others are Easter churches. Our biggest day of the year by far is always Easter, never Christmas. We have so many singles, college students and newly married couples without kids that they tend to leave town to visit family during the holidays. We also have a lot of first generation Christians who didn’t grow up with the tradition of going to church on Christmas.
So for us, the holidays are a time to have a lot of parties for our people to love and enjoy one another. During this time I do a shorter series called "God’s Work, Our Witness" when I recap what God has done the prior year and what we are calling our people to for the upcoming year. The series includes a financial year-end push to make budget and end the year strong. We generally shut down the office for the week after Christmas and catch our breath.
From January through Easter we see our highest attendance of the year. Football can mess up some of the Sundays (especially Super Bowl Sunday, which has become something of a religious holiday in the States), but we plan on moving full steam ahead during this time. We black out a couple of key chunks of this time, no vacations or extra breaks for staff members.
During the big harvest is when we have our largest campaign of the year, and we push the hardest. Last year, our major campaign was "Real Marriage." This year, it’s "Ephesians: Who Do You Think You Are?" Next year, I’m working on what I think will be the biggest thing I’ve ever done. It is such a massive project it will take a full year to pull it all together.
The big harvest culminates on Easter. We love, love, love Easter at Mars Hill. We go all out. A few years ago we had almost 20,000 people show up in the rain at Seahawks Stadium. This year, we are live-streaming from a historic church in downtown Seattle to all of our other 13 locations, for a total of 42 services spread across four states. We go big for Easter, and it’s all about evangelism, conversions and baptisms.
The sermon is short and focused on evangelism. We do not offer kids ministry but invite all of the kids to join us in service, which makes it fun and allows us to stack up more services closer together, as the turnover is faster. We sing a lot, everyone on stage dresses up, and we dunk people and cheer all day. It’s nuts in a glorious way. Even when we were a church of 100, we have always sought to outpunch our weight class on Easter and go big.
Pruning and Planting
After Easter, we continue to roll along. Attendance flattens out through the spring, and summer is a time to prune and plant. We do all of our staff and elder performance reviews at this time. We finish our fiscal year and reset all of our budgets. We change up programming. This is the best time of year for new leaders to be put in place, so that they can ramp up in time for the fall push. We plan for the fall push and line out the entire next year.
Most staff takes their vacation sometime during the summer, and I tend to take a break from the pulpit. For 16 years, I’ve preached a lot. The first decade I preached on average about 50 weeks each year, or close to that. In more recent years I am down to 45 or so. I’ve never taken an extended break of more than a few weeks since 1995 when we were in core phase.
When I am out, other Mars Hill pastors generally cover our services by preaching live. This summer, however, I’m getting six weeks off, which is a really long time for me. I want our other pastors to get a summer break as well, however, as we work hard at Mars Hill, so I’m bringing in some friends to preach a series called "My Best Sermon Ever." I’m asking each one to choose what they think is their best sermon and preach it for us. We have Wayne Grudem, Paul Tripp, Larry Osborne, Eric Mason and Bruce Ware confirmed for this summer. They will make an amazing deposit in the people of Mars Hill. I should have done something like this, inviting other pastors to invest in our people, years ago.
Come and See vs. Go and Die
“Come & See” series are intended to bring people in to the church. These are series that hit a felt need or controversy or have a major evangelistic thrust. "Real Marriage," for example, was the biggest "Come & See" series I’ve ever done. Lots and lots of new people came to the church, and tons of people became Christians.
“Go & Die” series are intended to mature the people in the church. These are series with a big call to repentance, life change, and aligning your life with Jesus’ mission through the church. "The Seven" is an example of a "Go & Die" series. Another example would be "Jesus Loves His Church," which I did after the huge attendance increase of "Real Marriage," as we had thousands of new people who needed to know what a church was and why we do things like preaching, baptism, Communion, small groups and giving, and why we have leaders like elders and deacons.
A church that only does "Come & See" series sacrifices size for depth. A church that only does "Go & Die" series sacrifices depth for size.
As a general rule I prefer to have the big "Come & See" major campaign start in January or February, last two to three months, and then spend the rest of the year doing "Go & Die" minor campaigns. Basically, we catch the fish early in the year and clean them the rest of the year.
Some friends of mine who are gifted preachers prefer shorter series for the sake of newness and momentum. Without disparaging that approach, I opt for longer series and longer sermons (an hour plus is normal for me).
I find that people have an appetite for whatever you feed them. If they get books of the Bible, longer series and longer sermons as their steady diet, they grow accustomed to it and develop an appetite for those things. I do some topical series, but I really like to teach through books of the Bible, which means the length of a series depends on the length of the book. So I have no standard length for my series, but I try to find books of the Bible that fit into the annual seasonal rhythms.
The Best Sundays to Take Off
There are a handful of Sundays that most preachers in the U.S. can take off without hurting momentum at all. These include:
1. The first Sunday of the year, if it’s close to New Year’s Day
2. The Sunday after Christmas
3. Memorial Day weekend
4. Spring Daylight Savings weekend
5. Fourth of July weekend
6. Labor Day weekend
How to Preach a Long Series
Sometimes you will feel compelled to simply preach/teach something, even though it does not fit the annual calendar. To accommodate that you can do one of two things:
1. Break up a longer book or series into smaller sections. I am doing this with the book of Acts. It will take me 58 sermons to go through Acts. Rather than preaching all of them consecutively, over the course of a few years I will preach from Acts during the seven to 12 weeks following Easter. After a few years, we’ll have gone through the whole book.
2. Just plow through a longer series or book of the Bible, and don’t worry about making it fit a seasonal pattern. In the past I did this with Genesis (one full year) and Luke (two full years), and God was gracious to grow our church in depth and size.
I hope there is some help in all of this. It’s a big brain dump for me. A lot goes on in my mind as I organize my Sunday preaching—there are innumerable variables to consider. I am praying that, through trial and error, you figure out what works best for the people and mission Jesus has given you.