Planning a preaching program

Here are some ideas, developed from what I did as minister of St Jude’s 1982- 2002

1.      Each year:

  • At least one OT series.

I included at least one Old Testament book because there was very little OT preaching at the time, and so much ignorance of it. Also because there is much truth which is taught in the OT but assumed in the NT, because without the OT the NT makes little sense, because without the OT the NT is easily misunderstood, and because knowing the OT brings a deeper and more stable faith.

  • At least one gospel series.

I included at least one gospel series because I wanted to ensure that people had a Christo-centric faith, not just in theology, but in the incarnate life of God’s Son. And gospels are so useful for introducing people to Christianity.

  • At least one epistle/Acts/Revelation series.

I included at least one epistle/Acts/ Revelation, because people need to know what early church was like, and get this useful teaching about the theology and practice of Christianity. And also because the Biblical revelation reaches its theological fulness in the post-Pentecost apostolic revelation.

  • At least one topical series.

2.      A topical series can be:

  • Theological topics, such as the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the atonement, the resurrection, God the Trinity, the Bible, the church, the Holy Spirit, the return of Christ, the creation, humanity, etc.

These topical sermons teach Biblical truth in a systematic way, and equip people to think coherently and also to answer other people’s questions, such as: ‘Why do think Christ is so important?’ ‘Who or what is God?’ ‘Why do you have to belong to a church?’  ‘Why is the Bible so important?’ This is essential teaching and training.

  • Christian life topics, such as how to pray, the basics of living as a Christian, how to serve God at work, the Christian and the local community, how to share your faith with others, how to belong to a church, a Bible overview, etc. This brings together Bible teaching in a practical way, and teaches people what is often assumed.
  • Contemporary community topics, such as ‘Why don’t Christians approve of abortion?’ ‘What about transgender?’ ‘What about creation care?’ ‘How should I vote?’ ‘It is ever right to disobey the government?’ ‘What is the point of daily work?’ ‘Is it every right to go to war?’ ‘What should our overseas-aid budget be and how should it be spent?’ These are live issues in our society, and we must teach Christians how to think about them and engage with them, or else they will live divided lives. And they need to think about these issues to engage with their neighbours, and to present them with a Christian world-view, which may lead to evangelistic opportunities.

In topical series, we are also modelling how to move from a question to the find the answer in the Bible [a vital skill for everyone], and also how to respond to contemporary questions about the topic, not defensively, but productively [another vital skill for everyone].

3.      The main point of the book of the Bible.

What you must do, when preaching any book of the Bible, is to uncover the main point of the book, and its key sections. You should be able to summarise this in one or two sentences. [Commentaries are not always very helpful.] I used to read through the book many times, asking the questions like, ’Why did the author write this book?’ ‘What was he trying to achieve, and how did he try to achieve it?’ ‘Why is this book in the Bible?’ ‘What does God want this people to learn from this book?’ ‘What does God want to do through this book?’ Look for key verses.

  • Produce a booklet to introduce the sermon series. Include your summary of the main point of the book, preferably by means of quoting the key verse or key verses. Include an outline of the sermon series, a map, a timeline, and any other useful information.
  • Preach an overview of the book as your first sermon, based on your summary of the main point of the book, using the key verses or verses.

4.      Length of series

This, like the length of sermons, depends on the capacity of our congregation. There is no point in going beyond their capacity to receive: there is also good reason to stretch them in the long term! The longest series I did was 3 months on 1 Corinthians; and a 3 X three-month series on Hebrews, with breaks between each section. 

If they have never met expository preaching, then begin with a short series, and explain the benefit of hearing the Bible preached this way, and demonstrate the benefit in each sermon.

Then ensure that in your series for the year you go at different speeds through the different books. Here are some examples.

  • Genesis 1-12 in 6 sermons. John 1-6 in 12 sermons. The atonement in 8 sermons.

Colossians in 12 sermons. Luke 22-24 over Easter.

  • The book of Ruth in 4 sermons. Mark chapters 1-8 in 12 sermons. Current ‘hot potatoes’ in 6 sermons. Revelation in six sermons. I Peter in 12 sermons. The Apostles creed in 12 sermons.

5.      One difficult book.

In all of this I made sure that I included one difficult book of the Bible.

If we don’t teach difficult books, the people are unlikely to read them. We should move people from thinking, ‘What is the minimum I need to know to be a Christian?’, to ‘What is the maximum that God has revealed to us?’ So people need to know the difficult books, and also learn how to approach them themselves. They need to learn how to tackle big books as well as little books. They need Leviticus, Numbers, Chronicles, Esther, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation!

6.      Big Bible books.

These are difficult to preach. Joseph Carryl in London in the 1600s spent 29 years preaching through Job, Sunday by Sunday. This is not recommended! Here are some ideas.

  • Divide the book into three or four sections, and preach a section a year, or two sections one year, and one the next. Preach an overview of the book as your first sermon, based on your summary of the main point of the book. I think that 3 months is the longest series you should preach, and only if the congregation is up to it!
  • Prepare Bible studies to accompany the sermon series, and allocate some chapters to mid-week groups. [E.g., chapter 1 by sermon, chapters 2 and 3 to mid-week group, chapter 4 by sermon, chapter 5 by mid-week group, etc].
  • Prepare a daily Bible reading schedule for the whole book for members of the church, with a brief Bible study for each day, and preach key chapters, linked to the daily readings.
  • Combine Sunday sermons, mid-week groups, and daily Bible readings.
  • Develop the art of preaching 1 chapter, or 2or 3 chapters of a Bible book in one sermon.

7.      The choice of particular books and topics

This is an issue of both education [if the Bible is God’s syllabus for us, how is it wisely administered?], and pastoral need, that is, the pastoral need of the congregation as a whole. [If the people need to know of God’s sovereignty, then Genesis, Deuteronomy, Proverbs or Revelation would be helpful. If they need Christology and Atonement, Colossians. If they need a doctrine of the church, Ephesians. It they need practical Christianity, James. If they need to be more loving, and more aware of heresy 1 John. If they are legalists, try Galatians, etc].

If you are more ambitious, you will have a longer-term plan, and implement these principles with a five-year plan, which may of course be adapted according to need.

You should keep in mind the fundamental place of ‘The Law’ [the first five books of the Bible] in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The prophets and wisdom books assume and apply the Law in the Old Testament, and in both Jesus and the apostles we find the theology and themes of ‘The Law’ are of fundamental importance.

In thinking about contemporary topics, you should work out the most important ones in terms of world-view implications. You could also invite people to suggest topics and choose the most popular.

[See Tim Patrick, Andrew Reid, The Whole Counsel of God: Why and How to Preach the Entire Bible, Crossway, for a more ambitiously long-term plan for expository preaching.]

  • Teach, transform, and train.

In this preaching I was trying not only to expound the Bible passage, but also to ensure that their lives and the life of the congregation were being transformed. We had a reputation as a ‘teaching church’. I had a dread of producing a collection of badly-behaved parrots!

I was also trying to train people to read and understand the Bible for themselves. This included training people to exegete different kinds of Biblical literature. This would be only point in a sermon, and would be a useful and productive and rewarding point. ‘We know this is the main theme of this chapter, because this phrase comes four times: look at v.1, v.9, v. 16, and v. 20’. ‘Notice how in this Psalm, each verse says the same thing in two ways’. ‘You need to know that the word ‘rest’ has an important Old Testament background.’ If we don’t model and explain exegesis, then people may pick up bad habits from elsewhere, and teach those bad habits and so bad ideas to others. I also trained them in Biblical Theology, and in thinking theologically. I encouraged and tried to train them to learn not just for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of others:

  • To teach and admonish one another with all wisdom [Col 3:16].
  • To engage in pre-evangelistic and evangelistic conversations.

9.      Preaching Group.

If a number of people will be doing the preaching of a series in a church, form a Preaching Group, then ensure that there is lots of joint preparation time, spent on topics like:

  • What is the main point of this book, how do the sections of the book serve this main point, and then, how should we divide the book for sermons, and how will each sermon serve the main point?
  • What is the main point of this topical series, and what are we hoping to achieve?
  • What are the important theological issues we need to tackle in preaching this book or this topical series?
  • What are the educational and pastoral needs of the congregation which relate to this book or series?

All this needs to be done before the series starts!

Then the preaching group could continue meeting, with each person bringing their exegesis for discussion at one meeting, then bringing their sermon to the next meeting. It would be good to get them to ‘preach’ their sermon in the church or hall, especially if they are not experienced preachers. The aim here is to give maximum feedback on exegesis and sermon and presentation before they preach to the church.

10. A demanding ministry!

I realise that all this looks very demanding. Here are some ideas to keep in mind.

  • The more early work you do in preparing a series, the less work you have to do for each individual sermon. If you know what the whole book is about, it is easier to preach on parts of the book.
  • I used the same series for different Sunday congregations, which meant the same preparatory exegesis was useful, though the presentation and application of the sermon varies according to the congregation.
  • As a matter of personal discipline, I used to do very deep work in preparing one series a year, to increase my skills and stretch my ability, and set a lower standard for the other series.
  • If you have another theologically trained staff member, you could ask that person to lead the preaching for that series, and/or lead the team which will preach that series.
  • A useful aid to preparing expository series is to find the best commentary and/or overview resource. Get advice from other preachers and Bible/Theological College staff on the best book.
  • If you are well organised, you could form a partnership with another church for that series, and do the general preparation together.
  • If you want to do a theological topic: read the relevant article in a Dictionary of Theology to give you an overview of the topic; find a good book on the topic; decide what are the key parts of the Bible; think about the misunderstandings of the topic in your congregation or in current Christianity; think about the practical implications of the topic.
  • If you want to do a pastoral topic: read the relevant articles in a Dictionary of Pastoral Theology; talk with wise members of your congregation; and reflect on your own pastoral conversations.
  • If you want to do an issue in contemporary society: look for good material on trusted websites; find a Christian in your congregation or beyond who can give you professional insights on the topic; or invite a guest preacher who has some wisdom on the topic; or do a joint sermon with a person in the congregation who has some wisdom on the topic.
  • There are some contemporary topics which are so complex that it is probably best to tackle them in a seminar style, either on Sunday or mid-week. This allows for a longer presentation, and then plenty of time for questions and answers and discussion.

Peter Adam