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Determining the optimum length of sermon series and preaching units
I love the comment at the very end of John's Gospel: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (21:25). That's how magnificent Jesus is!
But frankly, I struggle to proclaim all the things Jesus did that are written down. So many texts, so little time. This struggle creeps into a couple of key challenges I face in any literary genre of Scripture but particularly in the Gospels. They have to do with the length of a sermon series and with the length of the preaching units within those series.
I recently shared with several pastors a proposed plan for preaching through Luke. The size of the preaching units was generous, yet the plan still required sixty-seven sermons. My plan called for preaching the birth narratives of Luke 1–2 during the Advent or Christmas season at the end of a calendar year. Then preaching through Luke 3–18 occupied all but five Sundays of the next year. The plan called for continuing with Luke 19 at the beginning of year three and wrapping up the series with a message on Luke 24 on Easter. I thought it was a great plan, but my pastoral colleagues questioned whether my congregation could take such a long series without a break.
Gifted preachers like John Piper and Mark Driscoll may be able to sustain people's interest in the same book of Scripture for more than a year or two, but most congregations and pastors need the variety that is built into Scripture itself. So how long should my series be? If it is on the long side, how do I keep people engaged? I have met people who claim to dislike the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. When I probe this a bit, I find that a previous pastor spent months or years in one of those books. The length of his sermon series simply exceeded the length of their tolerance. These are people who love the Scriptures, but they grasped intuitively that a gospel is to be read through in two hours, not two years.
A related challenge is the size of preaching units. Should I preach all three "lost" stories in Luke 15 together, or should I combine the first two shorter stories and preach a single sermon on the longer story of the lost son? Recently, while preaching through John, I decided to preach through all seventy-one verses of chapter 6 in one sermon. Gulp! I did that because I thought the development of Jesus' argument and the choice it forces hearers to make (vv. 60–71) was so compelling that I needed to work through the whole chapter in one sermon. How, then, can I cover adequately a passage that takes more than five minutes just to read?
I have six theses about the length of sermon series and preaching units. (I wanted to find a seventh so I would have a perfect number, but, alas, I could not.) I have deliberately identified these as theses rather than elements of a formula, because your preaching context is different from mine and different from the church in the next town. Even within your ministry, the particular needs and questions will change over time. People always need to hear what Jesus said and did, but what is going on within your zip code will dictate how you approach questions related to length of series or length of text. Here, then, are my six theses.
1. People need to know the story of Jesus, and accomplishing this will require longer series and blocks of text.
Both believers and nonbelievers are fascinated with Jesus. But a decline in biblical literacy and the renewed interest in revisionist accounts of Jesus' life and teaching have created a hazy, shallow understanding of Jesus—who he is, what he did, and what he said. As one pastor observed about the university students he queried about Jesus, "They like Jesus but not the church."
This sentiment stems in part from the disconnect between the way Jesus lived and the way Jesus' church behaves, but it also results from people's ignorance of the Gospels. People hear snippets about the biblical Jesus and overlay their picture of him with images of a shaman or guru imported from Eastern religions like Buddhism or Hinduism. Or they hear Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman tout the "lost gospels" and imagine Jesus as a boy who used his power to lengthen a board that his earthly father, Joseph, cut too short while building a custom bed.
More than ever, our generation needs to hear the Gospels preached from beginning to end so they can know the true story of Jesus—who he is, what he did, and what he said. This will require some longer series. Mark's Gospel consists of sixteen chapters, but the other three top out at twenty-plus chapters. It will definitely take more sermons to preach through Matthew than Philippians or Malachi!
The need for listeners to grasp the story of Jesus will require preaching through longer texts for each sermon. This is a function of narrative. Preachers can afford to work with preaching units of six to twelve verses in the Epistles, but in the Gospels we may need to preach thirty verses to cover a whole narrative—a story whose plot has been resolved.
Without a good grasp of how the larger story of Jesus develops, listeners will not be able to see how the various parables, pronouncements, miracles, and gracious acts of Jesus fit together.
2. A good way to keep a series from being too long is to break it into a miniseries.
After accepting a pastorate in the north suburbs of Chicago, I decided to begin my preaching ministry there by working through John. I wanted to lay the right groundwork, building my ministry on the gospel of Jesus Christ. In addition, because The Da Vinci Code movie was due for release in a couple of weeks, I wanted to address the challenges it threw at the true picture of Jesus. But for various reasons I did not want to spend six months in a row on John—the time it would take me as I had divided the book into twenty-four preaching units.
Divisions for John's Gospel
Rather than preach straight through John, therefore, I used its natural divisions to create two series. First, I preached a thirteen-week series, titled The Jesus You Need to Know, from John 1–12. Then I took a three-month hiatus to preach another series before returning to finish John. My second series lasted eleven weeks, covered John 13–21, and was titled Jesus' Mission in High Definition.
Even if I had preached straight through John, I still would have divided the book into two distinct series. John 1–12 is commonly identified as the Book of Signs, since "Jesus is at work in public ... showing signs and teaching to diverse public audiences." John 13–21 is commonly identified as the Book of Glory, since Jesus' elevation to glory on the cross is imminent. This latter half of John contains Jesus' farewell instructions given privately to his followers (John 13–17) and then ends with a detailed account of Jesus' passion and resurrection (John 18–21).
Divisions for Matthew's Gospel
For Matthew, some scholars have taken the alternation between narrative and discourse as the key to the book's structure. Between the birth narratives at the beginning (Matt. 1–2) and the passion and resurrection narratives at the end (Matt. 26–28), there are five sections that each begin with narrative and end with a discourse. As David Turner notes, "Matthew marks each of the five transitions from discourse back to narrative with the phrase ... 'when Jesus had finished'; 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1." This leads to the following structure:
I. Introduction: the origin of Jesus the Messiah (1–2)
II. The gospel of the kingdom (3–7)
A. Narrative (3–4)
B. Discourse: Sermon on the Mount (5–7)
III. The kingdom expands (8–10)
A. Narrative (8–9)
B. Discourse (10)
IV. Opposition to the kingdom increases (11–13)
A. Narrative (11–12)
B. Discourse (13)
V. Opposition to the kingdom intensifies (14–18)
A. Narrative (14–17)
B. Discourse (18)
VI. Opposition leads to warning and a call for readiness (19–25)
A. Narrative (19–23)
B. Discourse (24–25)
VII. Epilogue: The passion, resurrection, and commission of Jesus the Messiah (26–28)
Working with this rough outline, you could break Matthew into seven miniseries if preaching straight through the book. Or, if you planned for some time gaps between the sermon series, going with two or three series makes the most sense. Otherwise listeners would lose a sense of continuity. A two-part series might consist of preaching through chapters 1–13 and then later through chapters 14–28. For a three-part series, you could divide Matthew into chapters 1–10, 11–18, and 19–28.
There is another way to break Matthew into a three-part series. Some scholars have noted the expression "from that time on Jesus began" in Matthew 4:17 and 16:21 as a key indicator of structure. Craig Blomberg proposes this outline.
I. Introduction to Jesus' ministry (1:1–4:16)
II. The development of Jesus' ministry (4:17–16:20)
III. The climax of Jesus' ministry (16:21–28:20).
For a two-part series using this approach, the breakdown consists of 1:1–16:20 and 16:21–28:20.
Divisions for Mark's Gospel
Mark's Gospel breaks into two or three natural divisions for pastors wanting to preach it in more than one sermon series. William Lane sees a key break between Mark 8:30 and 8:31, arguing that "with verse 31 an entirely new orientation is given to the Gospel." The first major section of the Gospel ends with Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah and Jesus' warning for his disciples not to tell anyone, while the second section begins the movement toward Jerusalem and opens with Jesus' first prediction of his death and resurrection.
More recently, R. T. France has proposed this breakdown into three acts.
Act One: Galilee (1:14–8:21)
Act Two: On the way to Jerusalem (8:22–10:52)
Act Three: Jerusalem (11:1–16:8)
Divisions for Luke's Gospel
Luke lends itself to a two- or three-part sermon series. The best commentators agree on Luke's basic structure.
I. Luke's preface and the birth and childhood of Jesus (1:1–2:52)
II. The preparation for Jesus' ministry (3:1–4:13)
III. Jesus' ministry in Galilee (4:14–9:50)
IV. Jesus' journey to Jerusalem (9:51–19:44)
V. Jesus in Jerusalem: his death and resurrection (19:45–24:53)
Working with this basic structure, a preacher could break the book into two series (1:1–9:50 and 9:51–24:53) or three series (1:1–9:50; 9:51–19:44; and 19:45–24:53). As I write this, I am currently preaching through Luke. I will divide it into three series, each separated by a three- to four-month break. But I will use one title for the entire series: Jesus and God's Plan for a Broken World. Each series will have a different feel to it. The first series will focus particularly on the identity of Jesus. The second will contain the bulk of his parables. The third will focus on the passion.
Whichever Gospel you preach, weigh the benefits of going straight through it versus giving your people a break between major chunks of it. If you preach it straight through, creating a different title for each major section can bring freshness and keep listeners from feeling stuck in the same book for months or years. On the other hand, if you break a Gospel down into two or three series and separate these by weeks or months, it might be wise to use the same title that holds the separate series together.
Timing is important. You might start Matthew or Luke during the Advent/Christmas season, that being a natural time to study Jesus' birth narratives. Then keep going when the calendar turns to January. Alternatively, you might time a series so that you preach the passion sections during the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
However you accomplish it, thinking in terms of multiple series can make it possible for you to preach through an entire Gospel and keep your listeners tracking with you.
3. Once your people know the story of Jesus, you should focus on key blocks of Jesus' teaching.
Throughout my ministry, I have alternated between preaching entire Gospels and preaching key blocks of Jesus' teaching. I have taken congregations through the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), the Parables of the Kingdom (Matt. 13), the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24–25), and the Upper Room Discourse (John 13–17). I have also preached series on the parables of Jesus.
Another possibility would be a series titled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. Obvious candidates include John 6:25–28 (where Jesus invites his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood), Matthew 5:27–29 (where Jesus tells his followers to deal with lust by cutting off body parts), Luke 18:18–25 (where Jesus instructs the rich ruler to sell all his possessions), Luke 14:25–27 (where Jesus says his followers must hate their parents, spouses, and siblings), and Luke 16:9 (where Jesus counsels his followers to use worldly wealth to gain friends with the ultimate goal of being welcomed into eternal dwellings).
My mentor Haddon Robinson quips that these kinds of texts would be grist for a sermon series titled Things I Wish Jesus Had Not Said! The point is not to preach these texts because they are radical or disturbing. Rather, the radical or disturbing elements have a way of drawing our attention to critical concepts for those who follow Jesus and participate in God's kingdom. F. F. Bruce's book The Hard Sayings of Jesus provides useful leads and ideas.
A commitment to biblical theology may lead you to explore what Jesus says on particular topics such as wealth, marriage, faith, or obedience. The best way to do this is through the exposition of key parables or sayings on a given topic. You can pull together two or three or four texts on a given topic, or you could opt for a general series on What Jesus Says about Life's Big Issues.
Series that opt for a narrow slice of a particular Gospel or that organize themselves around a theme work best after listeners have gone through one or two Gospels and have a good grasp of the overall story.
4. Maintain the tension between breadth and depth when determining your preaching units.
For almost fifteen years, I lived ninety miles north of Yellowstone National Park. I referred to it affectionately as my family's backyard. When friends visited from out of state, I often took them through Yellowstone in a day. How does one cover 3,468 square miles and 237 miles of main highway in a day? I figured out that the best way to do this is to balance breadth and depth. I drove most of the main highways so that my friends could see dozens of major features. Yet I made four or five key stops—Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Fountain Paint Pots, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—so that my friends could explore these areas a bit more fully.
A similar approach works with preaching the Gospels. For example, with the "lost" stories in Luke 15, the three parables clearly go together, so preaching them together will help listeners keep the big picture in mind. Yet the parable of the lost, or prodigal, son is so compelling that it seems to deserve a sermon of its own. In fact, the parable could be the grist for more than one sermon. Timothy Keller's book The Prodigal God reflects a way to break it down into seven sermons. So what is a preacher to do—three parables in one sermon, one parable in one sermon, or one parable in seven sermons? The answer is all of the above. Vary your approach over time and even within a series on a particular Gospel.
Personally I prefer to preach all three "lost" stories together. I want people to get a good sense of the flow of Luke's argument. If, however, I turn to Luke 15 to address the meaning of salvation or the way that we are to view our unchurched neighbors, then I will tend to focus solely on the third parable.
Excerpted from Preaching the Four Gospels with Confidence by Steven D. Mathewson, Craig Brian Larson. Copyright © 2013 Christianity Today International. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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