Series Teaching: 4 Sermons or 40?
The sermon series has become a staple of our current preaching and teaching culture in the mainstream church. Pick a book or topic, package it with a name and some graphics, and promote it over a period of weeks to the congregation. Certainly series teaching has been tremendously effective for the majority of churches and pastors that employ it. One question that continuously comes up with respect to sermon series is this: How long should it be?
Before the sermon series. There was a time before the current trend in series teaching where pastors did indeed teach sermon series. We just didn’t call them that. Pastors would teach through a book of the Bible, or on a particular topic for several weeks. Sometime in the early 1990s, someone decided each of these series needed a snappy name and a logo, and the modern sermon series was born. I’m not sure who is responsible. But indeed before this time the thought that anyone was going to give input to the pastor about how long a sermon series should be, let alone what to teach on, was nonexistent. Today it’s a matter of constant discussion.
The series as a promotional tool. If you’re using your series teaching as a promotional tool, then shorter series are always better. The best length is 3-4 weeks (messages). The idea here is that with those lengths you nearly always have something new coming up. A guest who joins in the middle of a series is just a week or two from something new, and never feels like they missed a big hunk of teaching—it’s easy for them to get up to speed in a few weeks. And shorter series work well for the ubiquitous church mailings, websites and e-blasts and other media and communication.
Longer series mean less promotional avenues—who wants to plug that you’re in week 12 of your 3-year journey through the Psalms? Even series as long as 6-10 weeks are often tedious if your congregation is expecting the shorter series format. And you can’t easily do a community mailing on that. Instead you may focus on key inviting times like Easter, Christmas or community events the church is engaged in, promoting based on the season versus the message series.
The weakness in shorter-length series is that it is often difficult to communicate with the same depth that you get with a verse-by-verse teaching style. If you’ve got to cover the broad middle of a topic in three weeks, then you either have to have a very narrow topic, or you’ve got to move briskly and only hit the tops of the trees.
The series as a maturity engine. Quite a different way to look at series teaching is as a maturity and spiritual growth engine for the church. In this style of leadership, a pastor may indeed spend months, even years, in a particular book of the Bible. I know of one pastor who has been in the book of Luke for more than two years, and another who spent nearly a year in 1 Peter. Classic preachers like Spurgeon often went years on a book of the Bible.
This teaching style allows the pastor to linger where needed. The promotional avenue here is week-to-week, reminding the church of particular teaching points within the series’ greater whole. Sometimes a longer series like this can be broken up into sections, but more often than not the teaching as a whole is what gains value over time. What began as a series on the early church becomes a pastor’s seminal work on the book of Acts, for instance.
Other aspects of longer teaching series can make this method effective. The cross-referencing of passages during an extended study allows the congregation to see many parts of the Bible while the key focus remains in one particular book or topic. This method also works well for pastors who may teach one sermon on Sunday morning, and another sermon on Sunday night or Wednesday night. In that way he can enjoy the benefits of both methods, teaching a shorter series at one time and a longer series at the other.
The standalone sermon. The standalone sermon should not be discounted. Non-series teaching can be tremendously effective. Many pastors re-boot the year with an annual sermon on the “state of the church” or a refresher in the church’s core mission and values. Pastors also use standalone messages to emphasize certain topics or ministries, like baptism, missions, the family, serving, stewardship or specific doctrines. Far from being ineffective outside of a series, standalone messages can be strategically placed for maximum advantage. Standalones can also fall in between teaching series, allowing a period for promotion and build-up to the next teaching block.
What is best? The answer to this question is dependent on the pastor and his teaching style and calling, and the specific needs of the church. Some pastors are very effective at short series or long series teaching, but not vice-versa. Others are adept at both styles. You may also enter a style for a season—for instance, choosing to do a short series leading up to or following Easter, but doing longer series the rest of the time if that’s your preference. What works best for the pastor and for the church is the answer—short series, long series and standalone sermons can all work well in a given church and situation.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.