I’ve extolled the virtues of advanced message series planning for years on this blog, but I realized I’ve never really described the process in detail. So, here it is. This is only my process, but I’m sure there are better ones out there. However, it’s worked for me for years. Please keep in mind this post emphasizes only the technical side of the process. Here we go:
- Make the time. The primary reason preachers don’t do this is because they don’t create the space to do it. For me, I have the annual time for preparing the sermon calendar for the following year scheduled in for either the week after Thanksgiving or the first week of December. It takes close to a full week to do all of this properly.
- Create the calendar shell. Open up a basic word processing document, grab a calendar, and create a space for the full date (including the day of the week), the text you’ll be preaching from, the prospective title of the sermon, and the big idea (TBI) of that sermon. Do it for every Sunday of the year, with the correct date for each week.
- Now, in parentheses, type in all special Sundays. This would include at Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving Weekend, the Sunday before Christmas, Christmas Eve (if you have a Christmas Eve Series). If your church is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary or something, note that Sunday. I even include significant days that aren’t religious at all—like Super Bowl Sunday, Spring Break, etc. What this does is help begin to draw the lines for how long sermon series are.
- Notate your own absences throughout the year. If you know your family plans to be gone on a particular weekend, note that on the sermon calendar. If you have a speaking engagement, put it on there. If you’ve already put down the special Sundays for the church, you’ll already be able to look and see when it might make sense for you to take a Sunday off. For me, I often do it between series, and on Sundays that are “less expensive” to the church…those that are in the seams of everyone’s personal calendars as well–for instance.
- Create a balanced diet sheet. This is your self-made lectionary based on where the church has been, where it’s going, and where the Spirit’s leading you. All of that flows through a balanced diet filter. In a given year, I want the church to study Old and New Testament textual books, study the life and teachings of Jesus, grow in the spiritual disciplines (prayer, worship, etc.) practical living tools (marriage, sex, money, etc.), and learn how to share the Gospel with others. Lastly, I like to have a series during which we do practical theology of some kind—a “why we believe what we believe” series for the average person. You aren’t yet picking out the specific series at this step. Please note also that some of these subjects get touched as we go through a book of the Bible, and thus most of my sermon series are books of the Bible, preached expository, “marketed” topically. I know I need to flesh that one out a bit more, but that’s for another post.
- Know the seasons. There are four distinct times of year people are more open to spiritual things—New Year, Easter, Back-to-School, and Advent/Christmas. Notice that and take it into account when you plan the next step. This part is huge—know your church’s actual summer habits, and DO NOT throw away the summer.
- Measure the seams in the year and list the series by length. This is taking stock of the ideal lengths of message series in light of the aforementioned data. You might, for instance say, “a four-week series to start the year, followed by a ten-week expository book study leading into Easter seems like the right way to go.” The key here is to do this for the year, before you put the actual series content in. List the lengths, and the general season of the year in which the series are to fall. So, you might say, 8 week series – Back to School, 6 week series mid-October to Thanksgiving, etc.
- Spiritual Discernment. Is there anything on fire inside of you place there by God? Is there anything you believe the church really needs this year? Spend time in prayer. Reflect. I will often look at where the lectionary tracks throughout the year. If I preach along with it from time to time, there are additional resources for sermon prep than other times. In addition, there is a real beauty to the church year. Spend all the time you need here, and write down general ideas as they come. I usually categorize those ideas according to the balanced diet sheet. The key here is listening for God’s guidance and using your experience with people as a pastor to birth series that are actually in your heart, not just your head. If you are thorough during this step, the next step will happen smoothly.
- The Jigsaw. I take the ideas and put them, loosely, in the slots you’ve got for the series on your sermon calendar. You’ll likely sense what ought to go where. Usually, my biggest deliberation is to choose which books of the Bible we will study.
- Finishing. Now, it’s about choosing specific texts, sermon series titles, and big ideas. Don’t feel the need to do this in chronological order. For instance, I finished next year’s Advent series first, because it was flowing most naturally. When it’s done, spend time praying and looking at it again for a couple of days. If you feel good about it, you may not later, so remember, it’s not in stone. It’s a spandex plan–some give, but some structure as well.
That’s a quick reference guide to how I actually plan the process. There are other small steps I’ve omitted for brevity’s sake. However, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of doing this for balanced, thoughtful preaching that honors the Lord. Call this sermon preparation preparation. It’s preparing to prepare to preach, and it’s vital.