Homiletical Opportunity and Challenge in Series Preaching

January 9th, 2013

“Every sermon has an element of teaching.”

As a professor of preaching, I have shared this fact with every introductory preaching class that I have taught. In my early days of teaching homiletics, I took great pains to explain three different styles of sermons, namely Kerygma (proclamation), Prophecy (pastoral), and Didache (teaching). In addition to providing a specific definition for each style, I tried to make it clear to my students that each sermon would have elements of each and that, whether intentional or not, their preaching would impact congregational beliefs and perhaps even individual Christian development. In effect, each sermon would teach something, whether intentional or not. Every sermon offers the preacher an opportunity to advance Christian knowledge in the congregation. Given the reality that every sermon imparts something to the hearers, preachers must pay particular attention to the content of their preaching.

However, as the years passed and as I studied more closely the needs of the people in worship, I developed a mantra based on my commitment to the definition of preaching as “the proclamation of the gospel to the people of God in a particular time and place.” Every sermon offers the preacher an opportunity to advance Christian knowledge in the congregation, but the purpose of preaching is not simply to teach about God, it is to offer good news that is present and active and above all transformative for their lives. Offering good news in every sermon is an essential requirement of effective preaching and the reality is that every sermon imparts something to the hearers, whether it is good news or not. That I believe represents a challenge for preaching sermon series.

Generally, when a pastor makes the decision to do a sermon series, it is because there is some aspect of the church’s life or ministry that he or she wants to emphasize to the congregation. In order to do so, the preacher chooses a general focus and divides it into several related subjects or points that hopefully lead to the main point. Or, the preacher may choose to focus on a biblical text of sufficient length that it needs to be addressed over several weeks, or the assigned lectionary texts for several successive weeks may be so aligned as to offer the opportunity to do a series of sermons on the story or teaching encompassed in the text or even on a topic suggested by the combined texts. In any event, preaching a series of sermons almost always offers the preacher an opportunity to pay attention to a specific area of development for the congregation.

Building Knowledge

In series, the pastor gets an opportunity for teaching beyond regular Bible study classes, and more importantly, the whole congregation (beyond the small percentage that participates regularly in Bible study) is exposed to a deeper level of knowledge about the Bible or Christian practice than can be imparted in a single, stand-alone sermon. Generally, a pastor has limited time for the biblical interpretation of each week’s sermon, but when the series is focused on a significant portion of Scripture, the biblical exegesis undertaken must also be of significant depth.

Even when the series is developed around a topic, there must be a foundation of Scripture that makes the topic relevant for its use in developing the spiritual life of the congregation. Despite common belief to the contrary, even topical sermons must stand on a foundation of Scripture, since without a basis in Scripture, what the preacher offers may be a good lecture or motivational speech, but may be lacking as the prophetic word of God. But whether the sermons are developed as biblical expositions or topical engagement of Christian beliefs or practice, hopefully before announcing the intention to preach a particular series, the preacher would recognize the opportunity for serious exegetical work in order to connect the text or the topic appropriately to the life of the people.

For the people, preaching sermon series works because it provides the congregation with an opportunity to improve their knowledge of Scripture and perhaps to deepen their understanding of God, of their humanness, and the divine/human relationship that is realized through the covenant of grace that gives us salvation in Jesus Christ. It helps to fill the gap in Christian education that is the bane of churches across Christendom.

However, there is an issue for me in that preaching is the proclamation of the good news of the gospel. Too often, in the interest of expounding on either a topic or a particular Scripture passage, the good news may be lost or difficult to recognize throughout the sermon series.

Offering Good News

The sermon series that is focused on interpreting Scripture is in many ways a form of Bible study. Unfortunately, Bible study is not focused on imparting that level of good news. Bible study provides pastor and people with the opportunity to look back and interpret the lives of the people of God in order to understand the movement of God in time past. It is undertaken, to some extent, with the hope that by gaining biblical knowledge through the study of past events, Christian faith may be bolstered in times of present need. Bible study is an essential activity for spiritual development, as it engages the minds of the people in the interpretation of the biblical record, but it is not nor is it meant to be kerygmatic.

Similarly, when a sermon series is focused on a topic, the preacher may spend so much time ensuring that the hearers understand what the topic means for their daily lives, or even for their Christian development, that the sermons miss the critical requirement of offering the good news of God’s transformative love for living in the present. The topic may connect loosely with Scripture, and it may relate to the contemporary situation, and yet miss the key ingredient of divine love, active, present, and working to transform the hearers to reclaim the image of God.

There is a great need for the proclamation of authentic good news in today’s church. The issues faced by twentieth-century Christians have never been greater and we all need good news that is real and active in our world.

Though difficult, series preaching offers the pastor a great opportunity to offer the good news, in all three genres of sermon style. To do it effectively requires work, but it is well worth the effort.

A sermon series may be focused on teaching, but there is still the opportunity for the preacher to be kerygmatic – to proclaim the good news of divine love; to be prophetic – speaking pastorally to the people committed to her or his charge; in addition to being didactic – teaching the word of God to the people of God. But through it all, when done well, it is a not-to-be-missed opportunity for the preacher to proclaim the good news of divine love while advance the knowledge of Scripture and developing the people of God to live to the glory of God.

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