How do you plan your church preaching programme? Ray Evans shares some wisdom about long-term planning, short-term planning and how you should follow this up.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15)
So much could be said about quality teaching. But I just want to highlight a few areas about planning.
1) Long-Term Planning
I previously mentioned the Bible in ten years preaching goal. How can that actually happen? Well, it won’t if you follow the example of the puritan preacher, Joseph Caryl, who worked through the book of Job in 424 sermons over 24 years!
So you have to plan the ‘diet’ carefully.
Don’t start at the beginning and plough straight through. Neither should you give every book the same amount of time and coverage. Not all parts of the Bible have to be covered expressly in a consecutive manner. Some of the longer Old Testament books are very difficult to cover like that. Some books or sections may be looked at in a mid-week overview.
I would suggest taking sections – and sometimes whole books – so that in a comprehensive way you gradually cover the whole biblical corpus.
At Grace Community Church, we usually have an exposition series from an Old Testament book, then a Gospel, and then an epistle or two. Each series lasts about two or three months before we return to another section of another book, returning later to the part we haven’t finished.
Romans for example (which I have now worked through three times) was last covered in four ‘visits’ of about 12 sermons every time.
Generally we work in a rough canonical order, but intersperse wisdom and poetic literature, often in the summer period, when the consecutive nature of the material isn’t quite so important.
Aiming to cover the whole Bible like this means you have to expound the parts that are difficult and challenging, and not just your favourite passages. Each passage will also have its own unique emphasis and part of quality teaching is to let each passage speak, knowing that balance will come as other parts do their own work.1
Exposition is bringing out what is there, according to the Holy Spirit’s purpose, and not reading in what you want to find there. It is also crucial to recall that all scripture is Christian scripture, and every passage must point to Christ as Saviour and King.2 Gospel invitation and motivation will need to be a constant presence too.
But not all teaching has to be consecutive sectional expositions to be authentic.
There will be times for varying the approach, such as a ‘key doctrine’ or ‘key defeater-belief’ series, or a ‘how-to’ series such as reading the Bible, learning to pray, helping your children, coping with stress at work, or loving your spouse. These need to be biblically based but not necessarily always rooted in one passage.
A word of caution here: a topical series requires great skill. You will need to be aware of many/every passage that speaks to an issue, hold them all in their Biblical tension, and make fair application to today – it’s a tall order. I’d suggest young preachers shouldn’t cut their teeth here.
There is also an important place for the preaching of the ‘big texts’ of the Bible. By that I mean the most well-known verses of Scripture. Younger preachers brought up on the ‘big idea’ of a fairly long passage may need to think carefully about this neglected aspect of preaching. It is a practice that is going out of fashion, and for some good reasons, but it is a skill that should not be lost.
We once did a series where we looked at each word of John 3:16 over a couple of months. We had to work really hard, but the ministry of all who took part was blessed.
2) Short-Term Detailed Planning
How do you plan in detail for quality teaching?
I used to do a three month preaching rota mapping out roughly what I would preach. But now, as the preaching team has grown, we plan a year ahead. We take time out to pray, think, and discuss this. We outline our series for morning and evening for the whole year; what books, how long each series will be and whether it will be best to cover it morning or evening.
We also factor in ‘specials’ such as Easter, Remembrance Sunday, and of course the lead up to Christmas. We also plan for special beginning of the year ‘vision’ sermons for September and January and discuss the topical series that will be interspersed amongst the regular expositions, trying to ensure a good balance.
We also discuss differing our approaches.
For example we did one series entitled Side by Side, following the chapter headings of the book by Ed Welch3, and supplemented it with in-depth interviewing of members of our congregation throughout the following month. We also made some video material available for home groups so that they could delve even deeper into the important issues raised.
A church near us does a regular ‘hot topic’ evening when an issue of the day will be addressed; another has a monthly ‘open mic’ Q&A evening. Over the years we have experimented with all kinds of things; a commitment to expositional ministry doesn’t mean that all teaching has to be straightjacketed in delivery!
We also try to let our overall annual preaching be shaped by three key aspects:
Spring is about growing and we will seek to emphasise personal spiritual maturity. Summer is about serving and we spell out what teamwork will look like. Autumn is about reaping and so we then emphasise mission, evangelism, and outreach. These are ‘background’ emphases which just inform our applications and emphases.
One of the benefits of a morning and evening pattern is that it helps to make covering the Bible in ten years a realistic goal to set.
Having mapped out the year we then sit down before each quarter and discuss in more detail the general content of the messages.
The preacher leading a series will present some outline notes which we use as a basis for our discussion. With different preachers taking part in a series it is crucial we do not overlap - or clash! - in content. We help one another by also making suggestions for FOAM – Facts, Observations, Anecdotes, and Metaphors.
Getting everyone to share is a real advantage of group work. One may know a great story which would amplify a point. Another may have come across a video clip which would start a point well. Someone else may know some statistics which illustrate a key application.
You may be thinking, “I’d love to have a team of preachers to work with.” Well, why not get together those who take part in some kind of teaching ministry in your area and try the exercises above? You can at least do this in ‘have a go’ form. They will be pleased that you have asked them and they will learn from this practice.
In all this, remember that you need wisdom to be flexible and have the courage to change your rotas and plans as circumstances demand. A sudden tragic death of a member of the congregation may alter everything. A national catastrophe may need addressing. Pressures on church unity may need a special sermon.
Lots has been written on this in many great books, so I don’t want to linger here, just to emphasise a couple of other planning or structural issues that can help develop quality teaching.
In general we want to ensure talks are well-rounded. This means:
- Good ‘normative’ content (what does the passage say?).
- A strong ‘situational’ feel (who am I speaking to and what are they thinking, and what do they need the most?).
- Passionate ‘existential’ reality (Is there a sense that we are being addressed in the Word by the true and living God?).
That balance of ‘Logos – pathos – ethos’, as the classical authors expressed, it is still a key insight into good communication now.
While none would endorse everything that TED talks do, there are some good communication insights here we can all learn from. These talks, accessed by millions, pack in a lot in just 18 minutes. The best get a good balance of the emotional, the novel, and the memorable. Worth thinking about at least, if definitely not slavishly copying.4
After all that is described above, the preacher still has to go away and do their own work on a passage’s meaning, then develop an outline and headings, find illustrations, and think carefully about application in their particular context.
Quality teaching is not only developed by good methods and advanced preparation, but also by retrospective feedback and review. Most preachers are a bit to raw to receive feedback immediately, though we have all had to deal with someone who wants to make their strong point to us, and ‘right now!’
A better practice, however, is to set up a small group who regularly review and reflect upon the teaching and help the preacher to become better. The refection can look at content; that is, is it Biblical, clear, helpful and engaging?
But also it can look at delivery: how did it sound, was it pitched too high, was it too loud, or too long? And what difference has it made? Whose lives have been touched and how? Eternity alone will tell the full story, but we may be able to encourage one another as we see, “God’s good hand on us” (Acts 11:21).
Feedback is not about cloaked criticism, but it’s like a coach who is trying to help an athlete. Their careful observation can lead to much better performance.
Quality teaching, like all ‘quality’ variables needs time and effort to improve it. But it’s definitely worth the effort!
1. Jay Adams, Preaching with Purpose (Zondervan, 1986). Though this is dated now, and you won’t agree with parts of it, there are many suggestive ideas that can help a preacher say what the message of a passage actually is, and to today’s audiences. His Truth Applied (The Wakeman Trust, 1990), and Truth Apparent (Presby and Refd, 1982) are also very useful.
2. See Timothy Keller’s masterly, Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 2015).
3. Ed Welch, Side by Side (Crossway, 2015).
4. Carmine Gallo, Talk like TED (MacMillan, 2014).