The Enduring Value of a Long Sermon Series
All across America, a myriad of pastors take the summer to plan out future sermon series. Preachers bring key questions to the planning task including: Old Testament or New Testament? Topical or Expositional? Character study or Contemporary Issue?
Pastors wrestle with seminal questions with no clear-cut answers: should I tackle the apostle Paul’s book of Ephesians or should I address woke ideology?
One question that hardly occurred to me to ask even a few years ago — when I began a regular preaching ministry — is now beginning to crystalize with surprising clarity: how long should the sermon series be?
I have come to the conviction that while short sermon series certainly have their place in the life of the church, a longer sermon series seems to provide the potential for exercising a greater shaping influence upon the life of the church while delivering greater spiritual nourishment for the saints.
A longer sermon series communicates to the congregation several important truths that become evident to the church by the very length of the series. Longer sermon series communicate to the church that…
1. The Bible is book that is meant to be studied.
A longer sermon series more effectively communicates to a congregation that “sustained reflection”, “struggle”, and “wrestling” with texts of Scripture play a foundational role in the Christian life.
During my recent sermon series on the book of Job, our congregation saw a preacher (1) wrestling with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar’s application of the doctrine of retribution to an innocent sufferer, (2) fighting to make sense of Elihu’s long-winded speech (Job 32-27), and (3) squirming under the weightiness of the Yahweh speeches from the Whirlwind (Job 38-41). These are all difficult texts that a short sermon series would have omitted.
So what does a longer sermon series implicitly communicate to the household of God?
That the Bible is a book that is meant to be studied! That all Scripture, like the apostle Paul indicated, is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (1 Tim. 3:16-17).
If the pastor never carefully works through long texts of Scripture, then the pastor is probably implicitly communicating to the congregation: it’s not worth it, it can’t be done, and simply be satisfied with a shallow glossing over and skimming over the Word of God.
Which is the exactly the wrong message to communicate to the church.
The church needs a model of a preacher studying hard texts of Scripture in its midst because the entire church should be doing the same. The church needs to be constantly challenged to study the Word of God in all its breadth and depth for therein lies the very life and love of God communicated to His people.
2. The Preacher’s Favorite Ideas are always Subordinate to the Scriptural Texts
I have a feeling that short, peppy sermon series are en vogue in the modern era because many American preachers are really preaching “an idea” rather than preaching “the text”. An idea fizzles out after 2-3 weeks whereas preaching through books of the Bible is sustainable for a longer sermon series because God’s word is stunningly simple, beautifully complex, and enduringly original all at the same time.
A longer sermon series on a biblical book clearly communicates to the congregation that what is important on a Sunday morning is not the preacher’s favorite “pet ideas” but rather the enduring value of the Word of God.
3. The Preacher believes in the Sufficiency of Scripture to transform lives (and believes that maintaining the “Spirituality of the Church” has a significant upside)
There is a great temptation nowadays for preachers to become cultural pundits. Preachers can easily get distracted from their central calling and “get off target” by feeling they need to constantly “weigh in” on every cultural moment (See Kevin DeYoung’s reminder Two Cheers for the Spirituality of the Church).
I have my own ideas about cancel culture, wokeness, critical race theory, and a myriad of other “hot button issues” that parade non-stop on social media and the entertainment news cycle. Yet a preacher truly captivated by Scripture will often practice a “restraint of voice” by recognizing that the Word of God is sufficient to transform lives. The primary calling of a preacher is not to be a cultural pundit but rather to clearly communicate the whole counsel of Scripture so that the people of God might live under the Reign and Rule of God.
4. The Truly Abundant Life is Meant to Be Lived in the Larger Story
The problem with the Christian life is that we typically live within what author Larry Crabb calls “The Smaller Story”: from the cradle to the grave. When we obsess over the smaller stories of our lives, we often reap the consequences: stress, burnout, habitual sin, lack of perspective, and the like.
It is when we find ourselves in the Larger Story that God is telling – from creation to the cross to the consummation – that our lives take on a whole new meaning with God at the center.
We often want scriptural truths applied to our “Smaller Story” which has its place in Christian teaching. Yet a far better way to live the Christian life is to be reminded that God invites you into the Larger Story that He is telling.
What Christians need from God’s Word every Sunday are not human-centered scriptural truths applied to our Small Stories. What Christians need from God’s Word every Sunday is to be reminded that their Small Stories connect beautifully and mysteriously to the Larger Story of creation, redemption, and consummation that God has been weaving from the beginning of time until all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages are worshipping around the throne of grace (Rev. 7:9).
A longer sermon series tends to help a congregation live within the Larger Story that God is telling.
Pastor, Don’t Neglect Longer Sermon Series…
So pastor, if your preaching “sweet spot” has been series that run four to seven weeks since 2015 (before TikTok and Patrick Mahomes became icons of technology and sport), then gird up your loins, put some steel in your backbone, and go ahead — preach a longer sermon series. Bring the same passion. Bring the same heat. You might be surprised at the results.
Jason A. Carter (Ph.D., The University of Edinburgh) is Lead Pastor of Trinity Wellsprings Church (Satellite Beach, FL), blogs at "Gospel-Centered Shepherding", and is the author of Inside the Whirlwind: The Book of Job through African Eyes. Previously, Jason spent 11+ years as a missionary-professor at a grassroots seminary in Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish-speaking country of Africa.
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Image: "Job Speaks with His Friends" by Gustave Doré