Sequence preaching: How to design and prepare and effective sermon series
Have you ever found yourself staring at a blank sheet of paper or at a blank computer screen wondering what you’ll preach next week? If so, then consider sequence preaching. Preaching a series of sermons has advantages for everyone. The preacher isn’t starting from ground zero every week, and the listeners have a sense of direction and purpose.
It is not difficult to convince most preachers and listeners that sequence preaching consists of a good idea. What may be more challenging is to know where to begin.
A simple five-step process follows, field tested in a local church, that will help you craft an effective sermon series.
Step 1: Select a sermon series theme
Sequence preaching can be expository or topical. One option includes picking a book from the Bible and preaching either the whole thing or a portion. A second option would be to choose a topic or theme and then select a series of messages that develop your theme.
Your listeners can help you with the selection process. Each year I organize a sermon planning group. This group of 12 to 15 individuals (you can use a smaller number, if needed) commits to a 30-day assignment of talking to family, friends, and neighbors about topics for a possible sermon series. Many excellent ideas for expository and topical series emerge from this audience analysis. You will invariably end up with more suggestions for sermon series than you can accomplish in one calendar year. Then you can ask for feedback from your leadership team in order to select the best options.1
Soliciting feedback from your listeners regarding a possible sermon series creates a sense of excitement and anticipation. One couple went online and purchased a book for me that they thought would be helpful for a sermon series. They were not even members of our congregation!
Step 2: Determine the number of sermons in the series
Once you have decided on a particular book or theme, determine the number of sermons that should be included. In determining the number of sermons for an expository series, thought units are more helpful guides than chapter divisions.2 I listened to one pastor preach a series of 21 sermons on the book of John. He decided to take one chapter each week. That works reasonably well with certain books, such as Daniel, but not for the Gospel of John. Look at John 2. How many thought units can you find in that one chapter? At least two. John 2:1–11 records the miracle at Cana. John 2:12–25 records the first cleansing of the temple. Similarly, there are multiple thought units in John 3 and John 4.
As a young preacher, I spent two years preaching through the Gospel of Luke. It was a welcome change from the panic of staring at a blank sheet of paper each week. My preaching passage was preselected—the next thought unit in the Gospel of Luke. The text was rich and varied, and both the preacher and the listeners enjoyed the journey through the Word of God.
Just be aware that you need to choose your text carefully if you intend to preach an extended sermon series. You also need to think about the attention span of your listeners. If you spent the whole year preaching through Ecclesiastes, everyone would be soon crying out, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
As a rule, I limit each series from four to six sermons.3 We live in an era when people have short attention spans. You might need to preach on a portion of a book rather than the entire text. I have preached a six-part series on an entire book of the Bible, and I’ve also preached a four-part series on four verses.
An example of an expository series from Paul’s letter to the Philippians follows. This series was entitled “Rejoicing in the Lord” and covered the entire epistle:
• “Two Reasons to Rejoice,” based on Phil. 1:1–11
• “Rejoicing in the Midst of Adversity,” based on Phil. 1:12–30
• “Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory,” based on Phil. 2:1–11
• “Rejoicing Together,” based on Phil. 2:12–30 • “Rejoicing in Jesus Alone,” based on Phil. 3:1–4:1
• “Always Rejoicing,” based on Phil. 4:2–23
An example of a series on a portion of a book follows. This four-part series on James 5:13–16 was entitled “Prayer, Praise, and Healing”:
• “Is Anyone Among You Suffering?” based on James 5:13a
• “Is Anyone Cheerful?” based on James 5:13b
• “Is Anyone Sick?” based on James 5:14
• “Heal Me, O Lord” based on James 5:14–16
If I had given such careful attention to the entire epistle, we could have spent several years in James. That might have been educational, but I’m sure that most listeners would welcome more variety. For an expository and topical series, I preached a four-part series based on Luke 24:13–45.
The series was entitled “The Emmaus Road”:
• “The Testimony of Cleopas”
• “The Testimony of Moses”
• “The Testimony of the Prophets”
• “The Testimony of the Psalmists”
Step 3: Develop a reading list
Once you have decided on a series and the number of sermons in it, you are ready to develop a reading list. For both an expository and a topical series of sermons, your primary source of information should always be the inspired text. When preaching through a book or portion of Scripture, the thought unit determines the parameters of your study. For a topical series, you will look for a passage or passages of Scripture that address the subject under consideration.
As you develop your reading list, consult with at least one resource person who has expertise related to the content of the sermon series. For example, when preparing for a series of 12 messages on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, I consulted a New Testament scholar whose Matthew library is larger than my entire New Testament library. After we had a stimulating discussion, this New Testament scholar recommended five books that became the primary volumes on my reading list.
If you plan your preaching calendar well in advance, you can solicit the assistance of individuals from far and near. With some advance planning on your part, the books on your reading list can be purchased at a great discount. I generally purchase good quality, used books online, saving time and energy.
Step 4: Create a visual motif for the sermon series
One of the advantages of sequence preaching includes focusing on a particular passage or theme for an extended period. This provides the opportunity for your worship team (if your church has one) to create a visual motif for the entire series. For example, in preparation for a six-part sermon series on Philippians, we printed several thousand parchment scrolls of the Philippian letter, which could be given to listeners. Students from the church school helped to roll the scrolls, creating some anticipation and a sense of active involvement in the upcoming series. This Philippian scroll became the dominant visual motif for the series. Listeners were encouraged to actively participate during each message by reading portions of the epistle from their scroll. They were also encouraged to take their scrolls home for further study. To see worshipers coming to church each week with their copies of the Philippian scroll in their hands was a beautiful sight.
For a topical sermon series on healthy Christians, we acquired a balance beam from a local gymnastics school.4 Members of our worship team purchased and painted large styrofoam letters that spelled out the words Healthy Christians (see photo on previous page). These letters were placed on the balance beam, along with the silhouette of a gymnast. The nonverbal message was clear: this sermon series on healthy Christians is all about balance.
Developing a powerful visual motif becomes difficult, if not impossible, if the passage or theme shifts drastically every week. Sequence preaching provides time to develop and utilize a powerful visual motif that will be remembered long after the series has ended.
Step 5: Craft a powerful preaching idea for each sermon in the series
When preaching a series, remember the basics: each message should be the communication of a single powerful idea.5 For both expository and topical preaching, that single dominant thought may be derived from the text. That big idea from the text usually needs to be restated in order to make it contemporary, concise, and memorable. Your preaching idea is the single dominant thought that you want your listeners to remember. As your series unfolds, you might wish to take a few moments to review the preaching idea from each preceding sermon in the series.6 This will heighten a sense of unity and progress as you lead your listeners on a journey through the Word of God.
Once you have completed the series, you have a resource that members can share. At the conclusion of a ten-part expository series on the book of Daniel, we gave away more than ten thousand CDs. Doing so extends the impact of your preaching ministry. Your sermon series could also be made available on your church Web site or podcast on iTunes.7
Of course, not all churches have all the resources I have mentioned here. That’s fine. Take what you can and apply it the best you can to your own situation. You won’t be sorry. Sequence preaching has been practiced for centuries and for good reason. The next time that you find yourself staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen, consider implementing this simple five-step process, or any variation thereof, for the design and preparation of an effective sermon series.
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1 For more information about a sermon planning group, see the article “From Panic to Purpose” in the September 2004 issue of Ministry, or chapter 18 of Powerful Biblical Preaching by Derek J. Morris, General Conference Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005.
2 There are rare occasions when chapter divisions and thought units run parallel to each other. When preparing a series of messages on the book of Daniel, I discovered that the first nine chapters of the book of Daniel are distinct thought units. Daniel 10–12, on the other hand, is a single thought unit. With this in mind, I developed a ten-part sermon series on the book of Daniel. This series can be viewed online at www.forestlakechurch.org. Manuscripts of this ten-part expository sermon series are available at www.preachwithpower.com.
3 My longest sermon series in recent years was a 13-part series on the Ten Commandments, entitled, “Words of Blessing: A Fresh Look at the Ten Commandments.” When planning the series, I sensed that I would need at least ten sermons, one for each commandment. I chose to add a first-person narrative at the beginning of the series to set some historical background and to conclude the series with two additional sermons: one on “The Two Great Commandments” according to the teachings of Jesus, and a final sermon called “Disposable?” which addressed the issue of the perpetuity of the moral law. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the listeners maintained interest and focus for the entire 13-part series.
4 The Healthy Christians series was comprised of six messages: “Healthy Lifestyles,” “Healthy Families,” “Healthy Finances,” “Healthy Relationships,” “Healthy Bodies,” and “Healthy Minds.” The Healthy Christians sermon series is available as part of the Adventist Preaching DVD series, volume 11, at www.acn.info or call 1-800-ACN-1119.
5 Jesus modeled the importance of communicating a single dominant idea. See “Lord, Teach Us to Preach!” in the October 2001 issue of Ministry, or chapter 1 of Powerful Biblical Preaching by Derek J. Morris, General Conference Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005.
6 For an illustration of this teaching method, see the sermon series on “Prayer, Praise, and Healing” at www.forestlakechurch.org. Manuscripts of this four-part expository sermon series are available at www.preachwithpower.com.
7 For more information about extending the impact of your preaching ministry, see “Preaching to the World” in the July 2007 issue of Ministry. If you would like to learn how to podcast your sermons on iTunes, contact email@example.com.