Podcast: How to Plan Your Next Sermon Series (Tim Patrick)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Preaching through the Bible
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Tim Patrick, co-author of The Whole Counsel of God: Why and How to Preach the Whole Bible, explores how to plan a sermon series. He highlights his own process for conceptualizing, scheduling, and studying for a new series, shares his thoughts on determining an ideal length for a series, and offers advice related to staying on track and in sync when multiple preachers are involved.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview
- An Embarrassing Preaching Moment
- Ideal Sermon Length
- The Sermon Prep Process
- Formatting Approaches
- Planning a Sermon Series
- Accounting for Special Events and Holidays
- Flexibility in Sermon Planning
- Topical Preaching
- Preaching the Old and New Testaments
- Presenting the Gospel in Every Sermon
- Encouragement for the Pastor and the Congregant
The Whole Counsel of God
Tim Patrick, Andrew Reid
This book provides some of the theological, pastoral, and practical resources that preachers will require if they are to prepare effective long-range preaching programs that cover the breadth of Scripture.
An Embarrassing Preaching Moment
As you think back over your career as a pastor, what would you say has been your most embarrassing moment when it comes to preaching?
I don't know what my most embarrassing moment is because there's probably a number that I've just blocked out of my memory, but there was one time I remember preaching in my church on a Sunday—I don't know if it was a good sermon, I don’t even know what the sermon was on—but after I finished I came down and I sat in the front row of the church and was enjoying the rest of the service. I looked at my watch and I thought, Goodness me, it's late! And I turned to the woman sitting next to me—a fine sister who was part of the music team—and I said to her, Why is it so late? What's going on? And she gave me a penetrating glare—not nasty, but just as though she couldn't believe that I didn't know why it was so late. The reason it was so late was because I had preached for almost an hour, and the church had only scheduled half an hour for the sermon. I had just blown that time right out of the water and I was so embarrassed not only that I had done it, but that I was so oblivious to it.
Is that normal for you? When you're preaching does time sort of melt away and you're not even aware of how long you're going?
Well, less so since that occasion. Now I try and keep some sense of time. I don't like the idea of being slavishly tied to the clock—I think there’s something a little unhealthy about that—but I need to keep in check given that I've made a pretty big error in that department in the past.
Ideal Sermon Length
What would you say is the ideal length of a sermon?
That's a great question. I'm of the view that sermons do have an ideal length, but it's not a uniform length. That is, I don't think all sermons should be a standard length, but the sermon should reflect the passage that the preacher is preaching. In all my preaching what I strive to do is respect not only the content of the text, but the form of the text. If you have a long passage, I think you're going to have a longer sermon. If you have a shorter passage, you're going to have a shorter sermon. So it's a kind of non-answer, but I think the ideal length for a sermon is the length that the text requires for you to preach it fully and helpfully to the people in the congregation.
The Sermon Prep Process
Describe briefly what your sermon prep process looks like. You sit down on maybe a Monday or Tuesday morning to start work on this next Sunday's sermon: how do you approach that? How do you start that? Assuming you're in a sermon series—you've got some background that you've been working with when you've been preaching through the book so far—but how do you think about next week's sermon on a Monday or Tuesday?
I should say in all of this my current role is in a Bible college and seminary setting. I have pastored for 10 years, so most of what I'm saying is drawing on that experience of being a regular preacher. I do preach now, but not quite as clockwork as every Sunday morning. The first thing to say is my sermon prep is more than what happens in the week before. When I'm preaching, I know the preaching passages a long way out. Here at the Bible college where I am, I'll know at least a semester in advance what I'm preaching on in our chapel, and when in the church I would know a year in advance, perhaps more, what was coming up. And what that means is the first part of preparation is actually not something that has a lot of strict rules or shape around it, but it's that long extended period of mulling, chewing, and thinking over the text in the background. So if I'm preaching through 1 Thessalonians, for example, I will have been conscious that I would be preaching through 1 Thessalonians for a long time and will have been thinking about the shape of 1 Thessalonians, the shape of its different passages, and the key points of each passage. Maybe as I've been aware that this sermon is coming up I will have had half an ear attuned to points that might be relevant in terms of illustrations or so on. By the time I actually come to put pen to paper, I've had this sermon bouncing around in my head at some level for quite some time. Then when I sit down it's a case of gathering all of those thoughts, many of which I will have jotted down in a notepad or some kind of file, and thinking, How do these come together? But in terms of working on the passage itself, I tend to always print the entire passage from top to bottom on my page, start by exegeting it in a standard homiletic practice, working my way through the text from the first verse to the last, and making sure that I've got a good grip on what it's saying. And as I do that, then I'll start bringing in all of those thoughts I've had along the way. And particularly when we're preaching to a church of people who we are shepherding or who we are pastoring, I'm trying to think, How is this right for this moment in the life of the church? And those are the points that might come to the fore.
When you go to print out that passage that you're going to be working through, are there certain formatting approaches that you take that serve your exegesis and study of the text?
I know lots of people will break a text down by sentence diagramming and that kind of thing. I tend not to go that far in my regular preaching, but I do just lay it out by verse—every line will be a new verse. I do that just so I can make sure I can step through every verse. As I said before, I'm really committed to not just the content of the text, but also the form of the text. So I want to follow the movement—not just extract a couple of juicy bullet points of doctrine—but ask, What is the flow of this passage? What's the movement of these texts? I've got to read it from top to bottom to do that.
Why would you say that's important to do? Explain a little bit more of why the form and movement of the text is valuable beyond just summarizing the meaning or the application today.
I think the answer to that is because that's the way God gave it to us. We've got a tradition in some evangelical circles of looking at passages of Scripture as a kind of a repository for doctrine in which God has buried some doctrine in amongst this narrative, poetry or whatever it is, and my job is to strip away the narrative and the poetry and find the doctrine and tell people the doctrine. I just don't think that's the way the Bible works. I think God gave us the Scriptures in the form he did because that form is vitally important to their message. You cannot communicate the truths that are held within poetry if you strip the poetry away. You can't capture the force of a narrative if you take the narrative away. So I think that the form of the text that we have in the Scriptures is not by accident—it's God given. God knows that the best way for us to hear a message about the end times and all that sort of stuff is through the apocalyptic genre. So we need to respect that genre rather than just decode it, toss it to the side, and pluck the doctrine out of it.
Planning a Sermon Series
When you were preaching regularly in the context of the local church as a pastor, you said that you would have a plan a year out—does that mean that you had broken down a book of Scripture into every week that you were going to be preaching and you could say, I know in week 14 I'll be in this passage in particular. Or was it more vague or fluid than that? How did you approach planning out a whole series?
Yes, I did. I would know pretty much 12 months out to the week what the preaching passage would be. That's a reflection of my view that we need to be working hard to communicate as much of the Scriptures as possible to our people, and we won't do that without a clear plan. Intentions are great, but plans always trump intentions, I read somewhere recently, and I think that's very true. A really significant part of sermon prep is that high-level, long-range planning step—and that's a step that takes some time. It might take a couple of days. For example, you might sit in whatever it is, say October, and you think, As I look at my preaching program, it runs for the next 12 months, but I want to start planning the six months beyond that now. So I'm going to take a couple of days out of my schedule, maybe I'm going to go away and have some time where I can really get my head into this, and I'm going to start mapping out what the sermons will be for the six months beyond the end of the current preaching program. I might do this every six months. Once I'm back down to only having 12 months before me mapped out, I'll map out the six months after that again. And that will take time. That will mean not only being very judicious about which books of the Bible we're going to preach—I'm always preaching through books of the Bible from start to finish and always being committed to every chapter and verse, not just cherry picking exciting passages—then we take those books and we start thinking, How many sermons would you need to preach this book? Is that one series of sermons, or perhaps that many sermons is several series of sermons that will be preached in succession? That's a really big part of it, and I think that it does take time. It does take concentration. It means you have to do a lot of book-level work. And you've got to do it with long-range eyes because it's very easy to think, Next October, or next April, or whatever it is down the track, that's too far away to worry about. Who knows what's gonna be happening then? I'll just worry about that when I get to it. And I understand that because pastoral ministry is always full of unexpected things as we care for people in all the different rhythms and seasons of their lives. But nonetheless, I think if we want to be really responsible in the duty of feeding people on the word of God, then we will have that long-range vision and we will be starting to plan things out well in advance of actually preparing next week's sermon.
Accounting for Special Events and Holidays
That's so interesting and helpful. One question came to my mind related to holidays or other special calendar events: when you're planning sermons that far out, are you adding in weeks where you're going to preach a sermon that's not maybe part of the typical series, but it's going to be a Christmas sermon of some sort? How would you approach those kinds of special events?
What I've tried to do, and it is difficult, is tried to craft the shape of the preaching program so that the book of the Bible we're teaching through will bring us to an appropriate passage of Scripture for those holiday events. So the obvious thing is you try to make sure that you're preaching the beginning of Matthew or Luke at Christmas time. But I think you can't do that every year if your goal is to preach your people through all different parts of the Bible. You're not just gonna preach the same sermon every year, so what other parts of the Scriptures speak powerfully to the incarnation of Jesus—I think a lot of them do—and can we bring our preaching programs to a place where those will be the passages that we are naturally reaching as we preach through our sermon series? I remember a few years ago, for example, at Easter I had worked it out so that we'd be preaching through the book of Joel. I can't remember off the top of my head exactly how the sermons broke down in Joel, but it worked out neatly that we were able to have our Easter Friday and Easter Sunday sermons line up with the text of the book of Joel. You can preach the cross from Joel, and you can preach the resurrection from Joel. That's actually really exciting for the people of God because when you do that they realize, Wow! Not only am I hearing amazing things about the history of God's people, but goodness me, so much of the Bible points to the Lord Jesus! Who would have thought you could see the cross in places beyond the passion narratives in the Gospels or beyond some of Paul's letters? Who would have thought you could see the incarnation in places other than the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke? So people get really excited that the Scriptures are telling this grand story that regularly intersects with the message of Jesus.
Flexibility in Sermon Planning
So what would you say to the pastor listening right now who hears all that you're saying about the value of planning sermons out that far in advance, but maybe he just really likes the flexibility of from week to week? Maybe he has a general plan of getting through a certain book in about this many weeks, but from week to week he likes the flexibility of being able to choose exactly what passage to preach out of, how far he goes in a certain passage, and doesn't really want to have to lock himself down too much that early. What would your response be to something like that?
I think in the first instance that different people will do things different ways, and I think we always need to have some flexibility. Even though I'm a strong advocate of lots of forward planning, you can't be completely rigid. There's always times, seasons, and reasons for introducing flexibility and changing your plan. Having said that though, I guess what I want to say is I think it's okay so long as there really is a plan, because I think pushing beyond the example you've given, you do sometimes hear of pastors who don't really have a plan. What they do is kind of celebrate the freedom and flexibility they have to not even know what they're preaching next week. I'm not so comfortable with that because I think feeding the flock of God is a really big responsibility and I think I don't want it to be done on the fly. Yet, I'm comfortable for there to be flexibility, comfortable to realize that there's a moment in the life of the church that says, Hey, we've got to slow down a bit or, We've got to address something else because that's where we are. But I think I want to see flexibility within a plan rather than flexibility instead of a plan.
As you think about creating a sermon series and sketching out what the plan is for that series, you've talked a lot about expository preaching through a single book of the Bible. Is there any room, in your mind, for topical series that maybe jump around to different passages throughout Scripture, but maybe it's all centered on a certain biblical theological or systematic theology theme? In your mind, is there any room for that kind of series?
There are a few issues I have with topical series. They're quite popular in lots of churches, but I personally find that they're very difficult to do well. To preach a good topical sermon you have to be really strong. So you have your topic, whatever it might be, because everyone likes to preach topical sermons on engaging issues—let's say it's about sex or sexuality or something like that. You pick out your key passage on sex and sexuality, and that's okay. But if you do that, you're preaching that passage out of the context of the book in which it was written and wherever you find that passage. God has not just given us that as a floating piece of Scripture somewhere. He's given it in the context of a larger argument—a larger narrative—and we lose all that immediately. So you're de-contextualizing the teaching. The other thing people do is they jump from passage to passage to passage. Again, I find that unhelpful because how do you know you've got all the passages? What made you choose this passage and not that passage? Why did you go for these three passages on say, justification, but you didn't go to these other five passages on justification? So in all of that, I think what I'm saying is in topical preaching there is a massive risk of bias whereby the preacher ends up teaching their take on something—that it has all their own history, biases, and imbalances in it. This is, of course, true of any sermon we preach from any part of the Scriptures, but I think far less likely if we're preaching expositorally through books of the Bible. When you preach a topical sermon you're giving your people permission, as it were, to cherry pick the parts of the Scripture that resonate with the things they want to hear or the things they want to say, rather than the parts of the Scriptures that come up next in the sequence of the Scripture as God has given it to us.
I'm struck by how even that inclination towards expository preaching and some of the rationale you just outlined does sort of reflect even more fundamentally something we already talked about: Scriptural revelation is not just a series of disembodied doctrinal truths, but actually the forms of Scripture that they’re embedded in actually carry significance.
I think that's true and I think there's also another issue apart from that bias and de-contextualization of the Scriptures: you'll find that people in the church who hear mostly topical preaching will learn doctrine, but they won't learn Scripture. I think this is actually too common in our churches. I reckon you could visit a lot of Bible-believing, evangelical, Scriptural-focused churches and you could survey people in the church and ask them doctrinal questions and get some pretty good answers. Like, How does Jesus make us right with God? Well, he died for our sins. Paid the price. You could say to people, Tell us the nature of Jesus. Well, he's fully man. He's fully God. You could say to people, What is the Bible? It's God's revealed word to us. I think you would get a lot of good doctrine, but I also reckon if you went to the same people and you said, What's the high point of Mark's gospel? they might not know. Or, What are the big movements in the book of Isaiah? They wouldn't have an answer. Or if you said, What's the significance of the ark of the covenant in the book of Samuel? They would say, I don't know. And I think that's revealing because it says we're teaching doctrine, but we're not teaching Scripture. Again, going back to our oft-repeated point now, God has given us the Scriptures and I think we need to be teaching them and learning them.
Preaching the Old and New Testaments
How would you describe the right balance between preaching through the Old testament, or sections of the Old Testament, versus preaching through the New Testament?
I have a mentor—a very wise Christian man who taught me in seminary, and he was a great preacher—and he said the Old Testament is roughly three times the size of the New Testament, so we should preach the Old Testament three times as much as the New Testament. He also said the Old Testament comes first, so we should really understand the Old Testament before we come to the New Testament. I'm not sure I agree and I think he was being just a little provocative in putting that out there, but it certainly is a challenge to the idea that Christians really just need to know the New Testament, and the Old Testament is at worst case optional or just a kind of an interesting backstory. We've got to believe that the whole Bible is the word of God, and the whole Bible is given to God's people for their good. And so we want to be preaching through the Old Testament pretty solidly. I don't know that I'm firmly fixed on exactly what the ratios would be, but I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of maybe it's two-thirds Old Testament and one-third New Testament. That way I'm giving my people a balanced diet of Scripture. It means that I've got a whole lot more Scripture that I'm thinking of preaching, which is excellent. And it really means that I'll be filling out far more fully the picture of God's work and the history of God's work in his world. And of course, the Old Testament brings us to Jesus. You can't—as a New Testament believer and as a Christian who knows the Scriptures—you can't read the Old Testament without seeing that all of its momentum, in various different ways, heads directly towards Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, as the Savior of the world, and as the one who comes in the line of David. So again, when you preach the Old Testament, it's not like you're leaving Jesus aside. It will drive you to Jesus. It will drive you to his incarnation, to the atonement, to the resurrection—that will happen regularly. The other thing is if you're not really working hard to preach the Old Testament, your New Testament preaching will not be as strong because, as everyone knows, the New Testament is just soaked in Old Testament. When the New Testament documents were written, they were written to people with the presumption that those people were soaked in the Old Testament. There is over two and a half thousand references back to the Old Testament in the New Testament in one form or another—sometimes a direct quotation, sometimes they're allusions. That means that you can't really get your teeth into the New Testament—you can't really let the New Testament speak into your heart—unless you're pretty familiar with the Old Testament.
That raises a broader question of Christ-centered preaching in the Old Testament, or gospel-centered preaching. I think among certain Reformed circles these days, there's been a healthy, exciting resurgence of an emphasis on that kind of thing. But we've all probably experienced the sermon in the Old Testament where maybe we think, That went a little too far. Or there's the common critique of “finding Christ under every rock in the Old Testament.” So I wonder if you could—this is maybe a funny little game here—maybe complete the sentence: Christ centered preaching in the Old Testament is not . . .
Christ-centered preaching in the Old Testament is not wooden, mechanical, simplistic, or the same every time. How's that for a start?
So what do you mean by wooden or mechanical?
I think sometimes our commitment to seeing the unity of the Scriptures can lead us to leap frog from passages in the Old Testament to key New Testament doctrines, or New Testament passages, in a way that really is artificial where we haven't understood the shape of the Old Testament book we're in, or how it rightly and naturally drives us towards Jesus. But we've just looked for the first opportunity we can have to kind of nail a New Testament text onto it.
Or we pick a key word that is used, not realizing that one is in Hebrew and one is in Greek, and they're not necessarily the same concept even.
Yes, that's right. That can be an example of where there's a desperate need to get from whatever it is—the end of Numbers—to the cross of Christ, and so we just find a way. To be honest, I think our congregations probably pick that up. They probably realize that we've just made a leap, and we're making that leap because of a noble commitment, which is a commitment to see Christ in all the Scriptures; but maybe we haven't actually done enough work in the Scriptures to show us how this part of the Old Testament really does lead us towards Christ.
Presenting the Gospel in Every Sermon
So would you say that it's important to clearly explain and proclaim the gospel itself in every sermon? And if so, how would you do that in a passage of the Old Testament that really doesn't directly connect to the gospel and to Jesus in any clear or direct way?
It really depends what you mean by “proclaim the Gospel.” I think that needs careful thought and unpacking. I don’t think it only means preaching the mechanics of the atonement. Telling people that Jesus died for their sins and they need to repent is not the only way the gospel can be preached. I think that's a fine thing to do and I think we should be doing that regularly, but that might not be the fullness of gospel preaching. You see this in the New Testament, of course, in the book of Acts where they proclaim the resurrection, or the Lordship of Christ, as well. So I think what we want to be doing in every sermon—New Testament or Old—is thinking about what other gospel—perhaps the word is “resonances”—what are the key gospel ideas that are in this passage, and how can we show that they are fulfilled in Jesus? So it might be, for example, that as we go through the history of Israel in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, we're looking at the rulers of Israel, the kings of Israel, and that has great gospel resonance with Jesus as Lord, Jesus as King, Jesus as Messiah. Christ Messiah is the anointed one. It's language that picks up directly on Samuel's anointing of Saul and David. So Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel's kingship. There's actually a gospel truth in the fact that Jesus is Lord Jesus, he’s Messiah, Jesus is Christ. When you're helping people come to faith, only the Spirit can do that. When you’re helping people learn the faith, you have to tell them about Jesus' death. You have to tell them about Jesus’ resurrection. But his place as the Messiah who died and the Messiah who rose is really relevant. And so maybe what you're doing in these Old Testament passages is picking up on that primary resonance. As I've said, in the books of Samuel and Kings, the primary resonance is that of Jesus as the king and then that hints at some of the other gospel truths: what kind of king is he? Is this a king who lives for himself? Is this a king who calls others to die for him? And there's this natural way that you can expand those gospel truths without just simply going straight through into explanation of the mechanics of substitutionary atonement straight away.
That's so helpful and such a nuanced way of viewing it and a healthy reminder that the gospel is this multifaceted thing and Christ's role as our Messiah is crucial to his work as Messiah, and so we need to keep that in mind.
In saying that there are other facets to the gospel, I think that's completely correct. But that never means we diminish things like the cross or the resurrection. It's a really important balance we have to hold as teachers of the word and pastors of people to be able to say two things are true, not your choosing between Christ’s Messiahship or Christ's death, or something like that. And I think that sounds easy to say, but sometimes people mishear that and they feel if you're putting a strong emphasis on one truth, that you're thereby marginalizing the other truth. And so we need to be able to do both things at once: emphasize a different truth about Jesus and a different truth about the gospel without for half a second saying that other truths are also just as important. It's a fuller figure and a longer range project of discipling people in the faith.
Encouragement for the Pastor and the Congregant
I'd love for you to speak a word of encouragement to two types of people: the first being the pastor who's feeling discouraged in his preaching. Maybe he has been laboring in his preaching for years now and, for whatever reason—maybe it feels like it doesn't come naturally to him, or it just feels like it's become this burden that hangs over him every week, or he feels like his people aren't responding, it doesn't seem to make a difference in anyone's lives, or he's received some negative feedback from somebody about it. What word of encouragement would you offer to him? And then on the flipside, what word of encouragement would you offer to the Christian sitting in the pew who maybe feels, for whatever reason, like the preaching in his church isn't what he wishes it was—maybe it feels overly technical sometimes or disconnected from his own life, maybe the pastor struggles to make those applications that feel relevant and helpful, or is quite long winded on a regular basis (not just occasionally). What word of encouragement would you offer to that person?
The big encouragement is that we need to persist in the word of God. What we're not looking for is a whole lot of spectacular or emotionally significant moments. There's no reason that might not happen—and praise God if they do. But actually, the Christian life is one where we are committed to a discipline of sitting under the word and the discipline of living out that word; not where we're committed to getting a certain feeling from either teaching or listening to the word. Now that's a kind of a baseline truth, and I guess I'm saying that because what I don't want the pastor to do is to look for something else other than the Scriptures to liven up their preaching. However hard it is, and however difficult you find the the preparation of the sermon, and however little feedback you're getting from the congregation, the solution is not, Let's park the Bible to the side and inject something else into the church that hopefully will be more stimulating and more exciting. I think pastors need to be able to hear feedback, and I think all of us have weaknesses in our preaching. So the pastor needs to not be offended if the congregation does say, Look, you need to work on some aspect of your preaching. Take that as a great opportunity to keep growing in that skill of expositing the word, applying the word, and feeding the flock of God that you've been entrusted with. And so maybe there will need to be that work, but continue on. And again, picking up on something that we've been saying in this conversation, if you're not preaching through different parts of the Scripture, that might be a great thing to do. I know from personal experience: a friend of mine has related a situation in his church where he feels that the pastor continues to go back to the same texts and the same doctrines week in week out. I think perhaps a great thing for that pastor to do would be to move to some different parts of the Scriptures. Preach through more of the Old Testament, preach through those poetic books, or parts of Scriptures that you haven't been feeding the flock. It might be that part of what's going on is that people feel like, I've heard this already. We've eaten this meal. And you want to say, Actually, the diet of Scripture is rich, full, and varied. And so you might have a chance to think about bringing more of that to the people of God. It might be hard work, but that's part of the job. Preaching is not necessarily meant to be easy. It's meant to be faithful, and that might be hard work.
To the person in the pew I'd say it's okay to offer the pastor some feedback, but please don't be comparing your pastor to someone you heard on the Internet, or to some great hero of the pulpit, or some conference speaker who lit up an event however long ago. The difference is that it's often easy to do that one-off big event sermon because you polish it, practice it, and it's a set piece. But what your pastor is trying to do is pastor you from the pulpit, as well, not just teach you or not just dazzle you with their rhetoric, but to continually feed you and to continually bring out that meal of Scripture for you week in week out. Again, you might not feel that it's the most exciting, you might not feel like it lights you up; but please appreciate it for what it is. It's the word of God being spoken and explained. It might be that you could imagine the form of that word of God being more exciting, but the real point is what's happening with the substance of that word: are you letting that word transform you? Are you receiving it as the word of God to you for your growth, for your maturity, so that you grow into someone who brings more glory to Jesus? Or are you stuck on looking at the medium and the way that it comes to you and, therefore, not allowing that word to do its work in your heart?
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