Preaching Extended Series
On Election Day last November, I watched the returns that night with my twenty-two year old daughter. The various news agencies told us the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was going to be close. I was prepared for a long evening, but my daughter was expecting a quick announcement. Over the next few hours, we watched the polls close in various states and the network announce the projected winners of each state. My daughter grew more impatient with each hour. Finally, late in the evening, President Obama was declared the winner and the election ended. Exhausted from waiting, she went to bed before the acceptance speech.
I do not want to sound critical of my daughter. No father could ask for more. The truth is, she is a product of her world. I was raised in a world of letters and phone calls. She was raised in a world of texting and Instagram. Many in her generation have stopped emailing because it is simply too slow. And it isn’t just her generation, but all of society. We are moving at a quicker pace all the time. This reality has made preaching itself challenging, and it has made extended sermon series—that is, series longer than the typical four- to six-week series—nearly obsolete. Yet, there is value in preaching an extended sermon series that cannot be ignored.
It has become my custom to preach extended sermon series during the summer months. It is the only time we really have the option of preaching these series. Normally, our preaching calendars are determined by church activities and the liturgical seasons. That is not all bad. I love to welcome the children back on Rally Day. I value the importance of a stewardship campaign in the discipleship process. I love the traditions that go along with Advent and Lent. Yet, each one of these wonderful events limits the number of consecutive weeks available for a series. In my experience, the best time for a series of eight or more Sundays is during the summer months. The calendar is free and you are in complete control.
Normally, I take that thirteen week period and preach on a single Old Testament character. Through the years, my congregation has examined the life of Abraham, Elijah, Esther, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Nehemiah and Ruth. This summer I am planning to examine the life of David. Experience has taught me there are two great benefits in preaching these sermon series and one challenge.
The first great benefit of preaching a long-term sermon series is education. This is the painful truth. We live in biblically illiterate times. We simply don’t know the Bible as well as previous generations did. Through the years, I have met people who believed Pinocchio was the prophet who was swallowed by a great fish and the Bill of Rights was part of the Ten Commandments. Preaching from a single story gives them the opportunity to hear those timeless stories.
The second great benefit of preaching an extended series is accountability. Many churches in my area simply give up during the summer months. Sunday school is dismissed. The choir departs and the preacher takes a well-deserved rest. For one quarter of the year we plan no major church events. There is something wrong with this kind of programming. Announcing a sermon series that will last throughout the summer months tells your community you are open for business. As the spiritual leader of the church, you are telling your congregation you expect a 24/7/365 church.
The challenge of long-term sermon series is keeping people’s interest. How do you keep people interested in a single topic for more then a few weeks? I have found several things that work. First, I retell the story up to that point each week. The stories themselves have held people’s attention for generations. Second, I use “catchphrases” to describe individual characters to link the series together. For example, everyone in my congregation knows Joseph as the well-built handsome young man. Everyone knows Jacob’s brother was red and hairy. The constant use of these phrases links one message to the next. Third, spending time with individual characters gives you the opportunity to humanize them. The world has changed a great deal through the decades, but the human condition remains the same. For example, how many people struggle with their siblings, like Joseph? How many people struggle in love, like Jacob?
The world does an exceptional job of dividing our population into groups, and our current tech culture does a great job of dividing people’s attention. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, does a wonderful job of uniting people and captivating their hearts. My generation and my daughter’s generation are different in many ways. However, we all need Jesus. Preaching extended series is one way to call people together to learn and grow in faith.