The Big Advantage of Shorter Series

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TylerR's picture

Editor

I heard RT Kendall took about 20 years to go through Hebrews. That's too long. I'm on track to take about 1.25 years to get through 1 Peter. Is that too long? Maybe. I don't think it necessarily is.

The author suggested a long series may grow stale for some people. It certainly never has for me. What do ya'll think?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Steve Newman's picture

Once in a while, it's not bad to mix in a smaller book, such as Philemon or 3 John, just for variety. It's also not bad to choose a series on smaller selected passages, such as Hebrews 11. But if you have a congregation that will take on a longer series, it can really be a blessing. It's great to preach through Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel if the group can take it. I will do the longer series on the midweek Bible study, because those are generally the people who are hungriest for the Word and will work through a long series. It's good to know your congregation, but I believe in expository preaching and we have to help them develop a taste for it. 

T Howard's picture

Sorry, Steve, but the midweek service is reserved for church-wide corporate prayer.

pvawter's picture

I disagree with this statement:
"you have to be an amazing preacher to keep people engaged in a six month series in Jeremiah." The whole idea of preaching systematically through a book is to let the text of God's word shine. Does that take work? Yes! But it should be the scriptures that shine not the amazing pastor who can keep the people engaged.

Is it possible for a preacher to turn people off or make a book seem stale and unappealing? Yes. But I do not think it is his job to keep people engaged either. Simply glory in the text and the God it reveals, and those who likewise love him will rejoice to study the word. If God's people can't stay engaged with a well-studied and well-preached series, then there are likely other issues than the length of the sermon series.

Bert Perry's picture

I'm not a pastor by profession, but I do get to teach and preach from time to time at a local nursing home, and one thing I've found to be very helpful is if you're delighted in the text.  If you use the text as a springboard to jump off to what you really wanted to talk about, good luck--it's not going to go well except with those who also have that soapbox in their heart.  However, if you're digging into the text, asking questions that you don't necessarily know the answer for ("why did David's sons ride mules? "), most people will get interested as well if you have anything resembling good delivery.  

Some have no interest, sure.  Jesus saw that, and so did the Apostles.   There are also people who are interested, but get bogged down in details when the material is unfamiliar to us--I saw this when teaching Hebrews a while back.  Oddly, the person who had no clue (and admitted as much) had a seminary degree.  (score one, apparently, for schools teaching techniques, but not Scripture?)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

JSwaim's picture

I am almost finished with a series preaching through the book of I Samuel.  I started on 1/8/17 and I anticipate that I will finish on September 24.  The total number of sermons should be 26, and those sermons are preached over the course of 39 weeks.  Why thirty-nine weeks?  As I recall, we missed a Sunday in the winter because of bad weather.  We had special speakers several times.  On fifth Sundays, we have communion and I have used those Sundays to preach on the seven sayings of Christ from the cross.  I missed being in the pulpit once when I went to a pastor's conference, and I'll be out of the pulpit twice for vacation.  I preached topical sermons on Palm Sunday and Eater this year (though I did not preach topically of mother's or father's days).  So a half-year series gets stretched to 3/4 of a year.  Then I think of the times my church members miss church because they are on vacation or are sick (or other lesser and less noble reasons) and don't hear specific sermons.  I thought about going right into II Samuel and I've thought about preaching for a couple of months through Titus, then going into II Samuel.  I haven't decided on that yet.  Frankly, in I Samuel, there are passages that are easy to preach and some that are hard.  If I did an abbreviated series in I Samuel to cut the length, I'd skip the hard stuff.  I would lose and so would my congregation. Overall, there are so many interruptions for a series that is only 1/2 a year, that I think it's best to keep plowing through consistently. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'm covering 1 Peter for Sunday School. We do this in a discussion format, where I talk for a little while, and pause to ask questions and discuss at strategic points. We just finished 1 Peter 2:4-10. It took five weeks, and we had 44 discussion questions. These are about evenly split between interpretation and practical application. We had a really wonderful time. Why should we rush through, to cover the whole book in about 8 weeks? Why make it shorter? If you can take your time, be interactive, and help people to think critically and practically about the text, what's the rush?

I admit I originally thought of doing a quick, 10-week run through 1 Peter. I always promise myself that I'll be quicker next time. It never happens. If you have the teaching ability to take it slow, and you can engage your people in an interactive discussion to teach them how to interpret the text and apply it, then I think you have no reason to rush.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

A few thoughts regarding longer series:

1. Is a long series actually preaching the text? When we separate verses from their context, are we still preaching that text? There is a kind of long series that isn't actually expositional. It is what has been called serial topical preaching, which amounts to a series of topical messages built by isolating sentence, words, or ideas from their context, by chasing rabbit trails hither and yon. Expositional preaching seems almost contrary to long series because expositional preaching should typically deal with thought units. Expositional preaching is developing a message along the lines of the text/author's argument and progress. I wonder if some "expositional preaching" is more of developing a message along our own ideas.

2. Is a long series actually preaching? Or is it a running commentary communicating facts about the text? I wonder if long series have lost the focus on the need to preach and instead view the preaching as merely (or almost merely) an intellectual exercise in a classroom. 

3. Is a longer series actually preaching the text as a sufficient revelation from God? Or are we feeling the need to say more than God said by actually preaching our own thoughts about what really should have been said? I realize this is a fine line, but I think it is one worth considering. If authorial intent matters (and I think it does), then preaching a text expostionally should track that fairly closely. That means that 16 message on Ephesians 1:3-14 is probably going to add something that Paul through the Holy Spirit wasn't intending. That's not to say that a few topical rabbit trails would be inappropriate as one delves into election, or grace, or the unfolding mystery, or some such. But let's not confuse that with expositional preaching of that passage. Let's call that topical preaching (which, incidentally, is the predominant pattern of the Scriptures).

4. Is a long series actually serving the congregation well? Why does a congregation need 75-100 messages from one book? Would they be better served by hearing a few of the other things that God has said? What does 75 messages from Ephesians grow in God's people that 30 messages from Ephesians, 15 messages from 1 Thessalonians, and 20 messages from Isaiah, and 10 message from Proverbs wouldn't grow? One of the things that helped sparked my interest on this that turned into a longish academic work on preaching planning was a comment comparing the preaching of Lloyd-Jones with Spurgeon in terms of which congregation was exposed to the greatest amount of Scripture. Put aside the obvious differences in style of handling a text and just think about the difference between spending week after week after week on one page of Scripture vs. being all over the Scriptures from week to week. I wonder if we as evangelicals are quick to talk about the inspiration and authority of all Scripture but slow to demonstrate that through our preaching. When we spend long periods of time in one book, we may be at risk of devaluing the rest of Scripture. At the very least, we probably aren't preaching the whole counsel of God.

5. Is a long series actually a point of pride for a pastor?  I once heard of a pastor who spent months in the first few verses of a book. He meant it as a good thing. I cringed. 

6. Is a long series an indicator of a pastor out of touch? Or, dare I say it, bordering on too lazy to understand his congregation and their needs at the present time?

A number of years ago, much earlier in my ministry, I was laboring through a longer series. A man in my church approached me and said, "I think the congregation is getting a bit weary of this series." It was a thought well worth having. Over the years, I changed my preaching style somewhat. Sometime later, I actually surveyed my congregation about how long a series should last before moving on to something else. The bulk of the responses was from 4-8 weeks. As a pastor of people, I think we should consider how a long series affects the congregation.

I have found that preaching 4-8 weeks at a time (occasionally ten weeks) on something is sufficient both for me and them. I then typically move away to something else and come back to it. So a recent series through Ephesians was 33 messages preached over 42 weeks with two series and a "high altitude" message interspersed in there. I am currently preaching through 1 Samuel since February. I have preached 12 message in 1 Samuel and 12 messages in other series. It's helpful both for me and for them to change it up more frequently. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Why make it shorter?

Because God gave us a lot of Bible to preach.

But I do think there is a difference in what we might do in a classroom format vs. what we should do in preaching. But atomizing the text might not be as helpful to the congregation as we think it is. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

I understand what you're saying, Larry. Speaking for myself, I'm doing interactive teaching ​through 1 Peter, not preaching. If I were preaching, I'd cover it much faster. I preached through 1 Peter a few years ago in 20 sermons. It didn't take long. But, because I'm teaching in an interactive, discussion format, it's taken me about 13 weeks to get to 1 Peter 2:11 this time! Smile  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

JSwaim's picture

Interesting thought to compare Spurgeon with Lloyd-Jones.

If the Lord allows, I figure I have 15-20 years left to preach as a pastor. How much of the Bible can I cover in that time? Moving right along....

Larry Nelson's picture

 

Some recent books that he has preached through:

1 Peter: 6 weeks

Ecclesiastes: 19 weeks

Ruth: 9 weeks

Acts: 20 weeks

Jonah: 9 weeks

Comment: His sermons average about 50 minutes, and he's a fast talker, so I'd venture that he covers an above-average amount of material in each. 

Steve Newman's picture

T Howard wrote:

Sorry, Steve, but the midweek service is reserved for church-wide corporate prayer.

That's great if you do that. But it's not the law of the Medes and the Persians to do so. A lot of churches don't. Hopefully you have some other opportunities other than the Sunday morning service to teach people. 

BryanBice's picture

A few years ago, I also did a series through 1 Samuel, and when I was nearing the end, it seemed that not going on to 2 Samuel would be leaving things undone, so I carried on. Same thing happened at the end of 2 Samuel, so we then ventured into 1 Kings...and then 2 Kings! Took about 4 years of Sunday evening messages, but the series was broken up by various special things. I never felt bogged down, nor did I sense that the people did. In fact, it was almost kind of melancholy to finish! Didn't help that Israel was in exile, I'm sure!

Greg Long's picture

Larry, I'm just curious. Why did it take you 33 sermons to preach through Ephesians? I preached through Ephesians in 12 sermons, maybe I didn't do it justice but 33 also seems like stretching it to me.

On the other hand, I'm not really sure how you could preach any fewer sermons than the number of chapters in a book, at least in most books, correct? Like the book of Acts, how could you do it in fewer than 28? Possibly you could combine a chapter or two towards the end of the book.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bert Perry's picture

I've been in a three year series--presumably at least 130 sermons--on Ephesians.  On the light side, a year after three sermons were preached on Ephesians 5:22-4, and slightly less time after five sermons were preached on Ephesians 5:25-33, there were six new babies in our church of just 50 families, one of them my second daughter.  I found it valuable at the time (not just because of the daughter), though I'd agree that there are times when you've got to wonder exactly how much one can, or ought to, say about a particular passage.  Perhaps it really has a lot to do with whether the pastor links the message to other passages to get somewhere approaching an informal "Biblical theology" through his preaching?

(I'm told someone out there wrote six volumes of commentary on Ephesians as well..)

Regarding midweek prayer service, it strikes me that it would be a wonderful thing if it were truly devoted to prayer.  Most of them that I've seen are mostly song and teaching.  That has its own purpose, but it's not...prayer service.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

pvawter's picture

I'm sure there's a balance to be found in the length of a sermon series. In fact, some of the arguments made on this thread are better than the ones in the OP, imho.

However, it seems to me that some books, especially many of the OT books, demand a longer treatment. How could you preach Genesis in 10 weeks and do it any type of justice? Or any of the major prophets? Or the psalms? Then again, if you embrace a covenant theology hermeneutic, you can just say, "It's Jesus and the church" and fly through any OT book in no time. Smile

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm at the end of 2 years preaching though the book of Psalms. It's taken 82 messages to get through Psalm 70. I don't think I'm atomizing the scriptures or ignoring their context, but I did take a break after book 1 to preach a topical series on our church's core values, and I'll be breaking after book 2 to preach through Titus in about 10 weeks.

Don Johnson's picture

Is actually not taught in the Bible... so it is amazing how dogmatic we can be as we state our preferences, dare I say legalistic?

Most preachers develop their own style as they grow. I think I am much better at it than when I started, one can only hope so after 30 plus years. I personally prefer the glacial method of exposition which apparently is wrong. Glad I finally found that out! I've preached through numerous books, some at great length. John was five years, Romans was about seven I think. I've also preached through the entire Bible chronologically in about 17 months.

I think the word of God is rich enough to handle lengthy detailed exposition. The shorter series can be helpful, I am sure, it depends on what you are doing and why you are doing it. In the epistles especially, it seems just wrong to try to do without detailed exposition, although you can build a chapter length message by working through the argument of the passage. It seems to me that you need to do the detailed exposition first so that you can adequately do the more comprehensive message, however.

The way to keep variety is: 1) plan in breaks, including guest speakers, mini-series (I break for Christmas every year) etc 2) have more than one service - it seems to me that the article described a situation where the preacher is preaching one sermon a week. Just doesn't seem natural, to me. I have three services on Sunday and a Bible study on Wednesday. Four different series going. Some are more in depth than others and I also rely heavily on other works for some of them. My third service on Sunday right now I am using D. A. Carson's The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God as the basis (with full acknowledgement) for an occasional series on the Love of God. (outstanding book, by the way)

Anyway, everyone has to find their own style and use it. I don't criticize other preachers styles, even the boring ones. They answer to God and God can use boring preachers. Content is more important than style.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Larry's picture

Moderator

Why did it take you 33 sermons to preach through Ephesians?

I preached it paragraph by paragraph basically with the exception of Ephesians 4 where I dealt with the "put off/put on" individually as more topical sermons. The last one (#33) was actually Rev 2:1-7 about The End of the Story. 

On the other hand, I'm not really sure how you could preach any fewer sermons than the number of chapters in a book, at least in most books, correct?

It depends on how you preach it. I preached Isaiah in six messages. I preached Job in 3 messages. I am at 14 messages in 1 Samuel 1-16. I plan on having fewer messages than chapters because it is narrative and it is better to preach complete stories. You could preach Acts in a few messages by breaking it down something like The Church at Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), the Church in Samaria (Acts 8-12), and the Church to the Remotest Part of the Earth (Acts 13-28). It is harder to do but I think it is could for people to see the big picture. I have also preached some books in single messages, kind of an overview message. Again to give people a big picture. It's what Dever called "high altitude preaching."

I think there are a variety of good ways to preach a book, depending on the purpose for a particular series. I think it is good to mix it up. But overall, I would be cautious about devoting too much time to one book and ignoring the rest of what God has revealed. Whatever we do, I think we should break it up every 6-8 weeks by going to something else for a few weeks. It will be good both for the pastor and the people. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

How could you preach Genesis in 10 weeks and do it any type of justice? Or any of the major prophets? 

By preaching major sections such as Creation and Fall (1-3), the explosion of the population (4-11), the Patriarchs (12-50).  Or Isaiah 1-6, 7-12, 13-36, 36,39, 40-48, 49-57, 68-66. It's actually pretty easy to break most books down into larger sections, though IMO, it is much harder to preach this way.

But I think one must decide on the purpose of preaching a book. It will be much harder to preach a shorter series if your purpose is to say everything that could be said about a passage. Or to deal with each individual word and do word studies. 

It is an interesting thought (to me at least) that a book like Isaiah was a collection of messages from apparently throughout 60 years of ministry. It wasn't delivered over a period of consecutive weeks. I wonder how much that should influence our preaching through it. 

Or how about the epistles that were designed to be read in one sitting in the church so that the people could understand and follow it from that one reading. 

Don is right that there is no biblical mandate of how to preach. It is another interesting thought that virtually the whole Bible is topical in nature. And yet so many resist topical preaching as being unbiblical. 

Or the psalms? 

The psalms, to me, are a bit of a different animal because of their nature. There can be a lot of repetition in some of them. And because they are not a sustained argument, they lend themselves better to "one at a time" or "picking and choosing." They typically stand alone and thus one can do just to an individual psalm without preaching any other psalm.

Again, I think a key consideration is the question how much of the Bible is the congregation getting to know? I think we need to intentionally expose them to more of Scripture. 

Don is right that there is no biblical method of preaching with regards to text selection or sermon series length. These are practical matters that we should think carefully about.

Bert Perry's picture

You can preach them, sure, but I wonder if we would have all kinds of benefits if we simply started each service by reading, or singing, a Psalm or other poetic passage from the Scriptures.   All you need is someone who can read well, you get a picture of what God's prescription for music in Old Testament times was, you get the Word of God unfiltered (Jesus quoted the Psalms a lot if I remember right), and it's a few minutes of the service that the pastor doesn't need to prepare intensely for.

Somewhat off topic, so 39 lashes with a wet noodle for me, of course.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I think it all depends upon the preacher and his particular congregation.  I think I can handle a long series after preaching for forty-five years, but not so much in my earlier days. Also, a congregation accustomed to benefit  from a long series is different from one accustomed to a steady diet of topical preaching.  In that case, I would recommend short expository series and even unconnected single expository sermons until the congregation grows in ability to appreciate and benefit from the expository style.  But above all else, preach the Word, and keep on preaching the Word.

I remember doing an eight part series on the Kingdom Parables in Matthew thirteen on Sunday nights in my early years, and had people asking for more.  They had never heard anything like this before.

G. N. Barkman

Larry Nelson's picture

 

My pastor is starting a series on the second weekend in September that will take us through Galatians in (tentatively) 16 weeks.

Too short?

Too long?

Just right?

Don Johnson's picture

Larry Nelson wrote:

 

My pastor is starting a series on the second weekend in September that will take us through Galatians in (tentatively) 16 weeks.

Too short?

Too long?

Just right?

It depends on what his purpose is. I've done the whole bookin one message, in a series with one message for each of the first four chapters, then more detail for ch 5-6, focusing on sanctification. I haven't done a full exposition, which would take much longer. 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

Larry Nelson wrote:

 

My pastor is starting a series on the second weekend in September that will take us through Galatians in (tentatively) 16 weeks.

Too short?

Too long?

Just right?

Kinda depends on how the pastor presents it, and what the needs of the congregation are.  No?   Whether it ends just right depends on whether the pastor is a skilled exegete, and whether he's gauged the real needs of his congregation.  

Obviously I'm fully qualified to judge Larry's pastor despite being 80 miles away and knowing, to my knowledge, precisely one member of his church.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.