To build a sermon series that reaches people in today’s communication environment, build connections, not a tower. (Think Tinker Toys, not Jenga.)
by Justin Rossow
If over half of my hearers hear less than half of my sermons, how are you supposed to build a coherent sermon series? Whether you are preaching a thematic sermon series on a single subject, or an exegetical series tracking a section of Scripture from beginning to end, or you are following a pericopal rhythm of the Church year, what happens when people miss a seemingly random and increasing number of Sundays?
Does your Philippians series “work” if you only hear the last part of chapter one and the opening of chapter three? Is Advent still Advent if you only watch one sermon online in the month of December? What happens to your rope bridge if large sections of the planks are missing?
If you have been frustrated by sporadic hearers during COVID restrictions (on top of the downward trend in worship attendance), you might be tempted to throw up your hands and give up on planning more than a single week in a row. After all, no one actually follows the thread from one sermon to the next, so why work so hard at building related sermons over multiple weeks? It’s a waste of time.
Before we do a postmortem on the whole idea of sermon series, let’s rethink how we shape a multi-sermon strategy in today’s communication environment. If we can move away from a Jenga approach to sermon series and get closer to Tinker Toys, integrating multiple sermons can still increase the effectiveness of our preaching ministry.
In the first installment of this series on preaching in an age of COVID, we talked about expanding your sermon into multiple communication environments. Take some important content out of the Sunday sermon event and move it into print-based media, video, audio, blog, Facebook, and/or Instagram. By moving away from a one-shot strategy to multi-resource communication you are meeting your hearers where they live: in a culture where you bounce around media environments all day, every day.
If you have begun thinking about different media possibilities, then you are already well on your way to an effective multi-week, multi-platform sermon series. The multiple connection points you create when you expand the communication channels of your sermon help hold a sermon series together as a cohesive whole. And you need those connections more than ever before.
When I first started preaching, you could reasonably put together a sermon series with the finger on one hand: week two came right after week one and right before week three, and for the vast majority of my listeners, that was enough to let them know where we were in the series. After all, they heard the sermon last week, and were planning on coming back next week, too, so the sermon on any particular Sunday simply fit naturally between last week and next week in their natural way of interacting with the world.
Not so today. Today they might show up in person on Sunday, but rarely more than two Sundays in a row. They will likely catch at least one sermon (or part of a sermon) online this month, though not necessarily a sermon from this week (or even this congregation!). And they might read a religious blog article or Facebook post, maybe even from their pastor or staff if their local congregation is posting regularly…
Any given sermon is set free from its fixed location in time and space and turned loose to wander the wilds of YouTube and Google. I just had a series of sermons and blog posts from five or six years ago get a bunch of views over a two-day period … in India. You never know who you will reach when as you expand your sermon beyond the confines of Sunday preaching.
Which is actually really good news! It can just be a little daunting… But the power of that multi-platform approach helps reset what you think you are doing in a “sermon series.” So how do you leverage this communications reality in order to reach your people? Three quick thoughts.
1. Think Tinker Toys, Not Jenga
Whether the sermon series is topical or exegetical or pericopal, we often construct the series so the later sermons build on the earlier ones. That’s a good thing. But what kind of building do you think you are doing? If you build the series like a Jenga tower, it will feel organized and stable to your hearers and do a good job of conveying a coherent message—as long as your hearers are there every week …
Remove too many pieces of a Jenga tower, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. The strength of that approach is also its weakness: the series builds complexity over time but falters if a key foundation piece is missing.
What’s the alternative? Think Tinker Toys, not Jenga. You remember Tinker Toys, don’t you? Or maybe you played with K’Nex when you were a kind. The idea is similar: each node has multiple connection points and can fit together with several other pieces in a variety of ways.
Your tower won’t be as straight, but it can be just as complex, and at least as tall. The difference is the way the pieces connect: in a Jenga tower, all the pieces above depend on all the pieces below; in a Tinker Toy tower, all the pieces are connected in multiple ways—remove a single piece and the overall shape will be different, but not necessarily less stable. The multiple connection points keep the whole thing together even if some of the sections are removed.
If you want to build a sermon series designed to allow listeners beginning at different points, or listening to the series out of order, or even miss half of the sermons, build it like Tinker Toys, not Jenga.
2. Think Theme, Not Argument
Building a Jenga sermon series feels natural because we think of a logical argument in terms of building construction: you have to lay a stable foundation and build up from there, one level at a time. It’s natural, then, to make the overall “argument” of the sermon series the guide to the order of your content. (Even sermon series that take their order from a book of the Bible can come across this way; you end up looking for the logical argument embedded in the book of Philippians and using that to design your sermon series. After all, Paul certainly intended his hearers to read the whole letter from start to finish and not begin in the middle and jump around…)
Focusing on the argument automatically leads to a Jenga tower sermon series; if you miss the foundation, the whole thing falters; check out for week 3, and weeks 4 and 5 don’t make as much sense.
Perhaps you have felt that tension; I know I have sometimes gone back and recapped where we have been so far in the series to help catch people up. While the intro overview can be a good practice, by the time you reach week 6, more than half of the sermon event will be rebuilding the argument from weeks 1-5.
Instead of building a series where the later sermons all depend on the weeks that came before, choose an overarching theme that allows you to say a variety of interesting things in a cohesive way without requiring a specific order. You want each sermon to connect to all the others, just not depend quite so much on their place in a linear progression for their meaning.
The following video is not about sermon series at all, but I think choosing a “theme” for a “season” would be a great way to think about your next sermon series.
3. Go Deep, And Broad
You don’t have to give up theological depth when you preach a non-linear sermon series. In some ways, you can be just as deep and go broader than a linear argument would allow you to. Instead of making each sermon in the series built on the sermons that came before, you can preach a variety of perspectives that all work together as a whole but stand alone much more effectively.
You can still unpack the logic of the argument in the epistle to the Philippians; just don’t unpack it in a linear progression. I recently watched a sermon series on Facebook Live on Philippians. The preachers chose the theme “Joy for the Journey” as a way of making the whole thing fit together. They did walk the series in the same order as the book, but more important than the linear progression was the way the theme focused each sermon from different preachers on different texts into a unified whole.
I actually missed two of the weeks (I had an excuse—I was preaching elsewhere) but I never felt like I missed part of the argument. The broad, general theme held the series together in a way that was loose enough to accommodate my 75% worship attendance and tight enough that I could recognize the theme of joy and journey in all of the sermons.
Do that. Go deep. But go broad, too.
Tie your sermons together in multiple ways. Allow your hearers to jump on board whatever week they happen to show up. You’ll find your series is a more stable construction; and you might even have some fun building it!
One of the benefits of building a Tinker Toy sermon series instead of a Jenga tower is what that kind of connectivity and breadth can do to help align ministries and integrate into the daily, weekly discipleship life of individuals and families. But we’ll talk about that more in Part 3 of this series on preaching in an age of COVID, and beyond.