Escape the Sermon-Series Trap

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Have you ever found yourself starting out on a sermon series and wishing you hadn't?

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 have committed yourself to a series and so—at the risk of boring yourself—you went through with it.

If it is hard on you, your suddenly 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 sound-proofed 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.  

Calvin Miller served as professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama and the author of many books including "Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition" and "The Singer." Dr. Miller passed away in August 2012.

More from Calvin Miller or visit Calvin at http://www.calvinmillerauthor.com

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