Reader Request: Resources for Preaching a Series

A reader wrote to ask, “Have you discovered any resources to help design message series since that post [Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #1 The Series]?”

Ideas for Preaching a Series

  1. Read Rebuilding Your MessageIt’s an easy read, full of practical tips.
  2. Watch the Rebuilding Your Message webinar produced by Ave Maria Press with co-author Tom Corcoran.
  3. Watch or listen to series preached at Catholic parishes, for example:
  4. Adam Hamilton (Methodist pastor)’s book Leading Beyond the Walls has a section on series, read more here…
  5. Try it. Just do it. 🙂 But, before you start the series, recruit a group to provide feedback–folks in your parish with experience in communication, sharing the faith, offering critique, etc.–and during your “experiment,” meet with them weekly. This will help you gauge what’s working and what’s not and make week-by-week improvements. At the end of the series, solicit feedback from your parish using an anonymous web form or a printed card.

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Seek a Future of Hope (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

“When you look for me, you will find me.” –Jer 29:13

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God says to His people, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you.”

Now if you’re like most of us, and have ever been anxious or curious about your future, this is great news! God has a plan for you. Your life isn’t left to random cosmic events. There is a God of the universe who loves us as individuals, and we matter to Him. He has a plan to give you a “future of hope,” no matter how desperate or unfortunate your current life situation may seem.

But then things get a bit disappointing. Jeremiah doesn’t have the details of God’s plan for us.

Instead God gives these promises:

1. When we pray to God, He will listen

2. When we seek God with all our heart, we will find Him

3. If we’re in an exile of sorts—cut off from God or those around us—He will bring us back and “change our lot.”

While God is our loving creator, He doesn’t force any of us into a relationship with Him. Each of us must seek God with all our heart to find the future of hope He has for each of us. Seeking God requires our whole heart and personal prayer—moral behavior, church attendance, or being “religious” are all good, but none of these is a substitute for seeking God.

Seek the Lord, and begin to know more deeply and confidently the plans God has for you today.

hope
Image: “Hope” Melanie Tata (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

The Journey Matters (Psalm 37:5)

“Commit your way to the Lord” –Ps 37:5

Commitment is hard.

From taking the first step in a new resolution, to sticking it out when distractions arise, to continuing your commitment when it becomes boring or repetitive—commitment can test our heart, mind, and body. This verse offers us a promise—that if we trust in the Lord, he will act. But this comes after we take the first step, and commit.  

Commitment
Image: Memphis CVB (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

Now, committing anything to the Lord may sound intimidating, but God never asks the impossible of us. The Lord doesn’t ask us to promise success or commit our glowing achievements to Him. No, to “commit your way” means to commit your life’s journey. To give the long, winding, and possibly confusing road of your life to God. To “commit your way” is to give your whole self, your way of being—whatever unique personality traits, way of going about life, and human gifts you have. God cares about the process, not just the results. He promises that if we trust Him with that process—the way of our lives—He will act.

What’s the one area of your life that’s hardest to let God in on?

It could be money, school or work, relationships, your family, or even your doubt in God’s existence—whatever it is, “commit your way” to God, even if you don’t know the outcome, and trust that God will lovingly accompany you wherever your road takes you.  

What is Salvation?

If our idea of salvation isn’t God’s idea, then (spoiler alert!) by extension the Good News that we proclaim and announce isn’t going to be truly Good.

Earlier this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine [aka Teaching] of the Faith, published a letter, Placuit Deo, “on certain aspects of Christian salvation.”

What do people today think about salvation?

Across the world, we see two “drifts,” two different directions that start with something good, but then drift and become disconnected from the greater whole. The first is…

I can achieve it! Just watch me!

An individual-centric worldview “tends to see the human person as a being whose sole fulfillment depends only on his or her own strength” (Placuit Deo, para. 2). If you’re keeping score historically 😉 one could call this a “neo-pelagianism.” Now, there’s something intrinsically good about wanting to grow in strength, and we even find in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus, in his youth, advanced in wisdom (Luke 2:52). However, the problem is when we think we can do it ourselves, that the self-help and self-growth is going to come all from my “self” or maybe just by looking to Jesus as a great moral teacher or inspiring example for me to follow.

The second drift is in the opposite direction, and says…

I’ve got inner peace! I can’t hear you!

In this drift, we see “a merely interior vision of salvation,” “a vision which, marked by a strong personal conviction or feeling of being united to God,” but “does not take into account the need to accept, heal and renew our relationships with others and with the created world” (para 2).  For the history buffs out there, this is akin to a neo-gnosticism. While a Christian most certainly should have a personal experience of God’s love, the problem comes if this is the end state–or if a person turns inward to “protect” themselves from the messiness of the world, separating themselves from the “healing dimension of salvation” and the meaning of Jesus Christ truly being “made a member of the human family” (para. 9, 2).

Proclaiming Today

People aren’t blank slates waiting for us Christians to fill their heads with information. We connect with others more fruitfully, when we recognize and understand what assumptions and drifts they might be living out. Knowing these two major “drifts” reminds us that our announcement of truly Good News must include:

  • the transformative power of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit
    • without this, it’d be depressing news about how bad we are and need to get with the game, buck up, and fix ourselves by being “good”] (para. 2; cf. 2 Cor 5:19; Eph 2:18)
  • the healing, elevating, and participatory dimension of Jesus Christ’s mission (para. 9)
    • without this, why wouldn’t we run for the hills to escape from the rest of humanity? I mean, we human beings can be a unruly bunch!

Placuit Deo sums it up concisely:

“Salvation consists in being incorporated into a communion of persons that participates in the communion of the Trinity.” (para. 12)

Jesus Christ “is at the same time Savior and Salvation.” (para. 11)

“The salvation of men and women will be complete only when, after having conquered the last enemy, death (cf. 1 Cor 15:26), we will participate fully in the glory of the risen Jesus, who will bring to fullness our relationship with God, with our brothers and sisters, and with all of creation.” (para. 15)

That’s the road we’re on, and inviting others to join us in.

Fullness in our relationships:

  • with God
  • with humanity
  • with all of creation

That’s Good news, indeed!

Use Words (Psalm 91:2)

“Say to the Lord…” –Psalm 91:2

Inside the Old Fort
Image: Ken and Nyetta (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Seems simple, right? “Say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.”

Of course many of us often think of God as a protector—a “refuge and fortress.”

Yet, living this out isn’t so simple. Here’s why: in order for God to really be my refuge and fortress, I must humble myself enough to allow God to take on this role in my life. God can’t be my refuge unless I cooperate with Him, and seek Him for cover and guidance. God can’t be my “fortress” building, unless I’m humble enough to enter through the door for protection. It takes action to turn to God as a refuge or fortress. Trust goes beyond the occasional passing thought.

The Psalmist writes, “Say to the Lord.”

Did you catch that? We’re supposed to talk to God directly in prayer and tell God that we trust in Him, that we want Him to be our refuge and fortress against the storms life brings upon us.

Take up the challenge of this verse today.

Say to the Lord, “you are my refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.” Then pour out your heart to the Lord about all of the things you need refuge and protection from, all the things that are hard for you to trust in Him for.

And then listen. By doing this you’re building a relationship with God—a sure sign of your trust in Him!

Value Statements: Not Just for Large Organizations

When you start hearing about defining “values” of a team, do you sometimes think–well, we’re just a small group, that doesn’t really apply to us.

I’m with you. Sometimes a group of just four or five, say a small sub-committee or ministry core team, doesn’t quite seem to need values, right? I mean, we’re so small and close, we “get” each other. But, think about it from this perspective:

When we first drafted and integrated our values we were a four-person team. We spent a few weeks developing our corporate values together, discussing how the values should be interpreted (and hence applied), and then integrating them into our processes and culture. A year later, we’re 21 people and growing, and our team still references these values multiple times a day. (Amelia Friedman, “How to Establish Values on a Small Team,”HBR, Apr 2018)

Whatever your ministry or organization, it’s likely to “grow”–even if growth in your context means training volunteers or engaging parishioners. It’s easier to reflect and shape culture early on, before it becomes an entrenched harmful culture, so taking the time to do so when small can save heartache and hurt down the road.

Key steps from the rest of Friedman’s article (which I highly recommend):

  1. Develop your corporate values together
  2. Give folks the opportunity to reflect and contribute thoughtfully.
  3. Get all ideas out there. And then organize them.
  4. Collaboratively identify a shortlist of values.
  5. Discuss interpretation
  6. Integrate your values

Reflect and share…what have your successes or lessons learned been when developing shared values within a small team? 

Meal list
Image: Jon-Eric Melsaeter (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Jesus, How Long Are You Going to Keep Us In Suspense?!? (John 10:22-30)

Imagine you’re sitting on an outer porch of the Jerusalem Temple during the time of Jesus. You’re at one end of a massive stone structure, as large as six football fields. And, you’re on a height, nearly ten stories up in the air. Just sitting and watching as the religious come to mark the eight-day feast of the Dedication of this very temple.

You’re sitting at the edge of a particular porch named for Solomon, famous for his wisdom–a place where people would come to teach and discuss the Torah. Jesus, the teacher and miracle-worker so many have been talking about over the past year walks in. Immediately people gather around him to ask him a question, now that he’s putting himself out there to teach in such a place.

You overhear them ask Jesus, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?”…”tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

And you think, yes, I want to know too. Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense…guessing, wondering, and having doubts about….”

  • what you’re doing in my life?
  • why it (whatever “it” is) is so hard?
  • why are there people who suffer so much? and what I’m supposed to do to help? or why I can’t seem to do anything to help?
  • why I’m hurting?
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Image: Dannielle Blumenthal (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0

Many, if not most, of us have questions that we feel like we’re waiting on God to answer. And, if you’re anything like me, you just wish that God would make it plain, and quickly!  at that. Make it clear. Give me the sign that explains everything, so that I can be at peace, knowing how it all works out.

To my fill-in-the-blank question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me waiting on ____________?” Jesus’ answer is nothing and everything, all at the same time.

Speaking of those who believe, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-30)

There are three promises here for those who believe Jesus is the Savior:

  1. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

    Notice that this isn’t a statement of causality, but of apparent fact. And “hear” is a continuing present tense. Even when we feel like we’re in suspense, stuck wondering. In the same ten minutes of prayer, I can start off venting, in sadness or frustration, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?!?” and still hear God, sense God guiding me in other aspects of my life. In this promise, I don’t receive an answer to the question “how long will you keep me waiting?” but I receive a promise that I’m still going to be one of God’s “sheep,” while I’m in suspense. I’ll not be abandoned, forgotten, ignored, put in a corner, or left-behind. God will be speaking to me, guiding me–even as I wait.

  2. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

    Blessed John Henry Newman explained that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Be honest with God. If you need to come to the Lord in prayer ten times a day to say, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense about ________?” it’s okay. Those questions of prayer aren’t going to take you out of Jesus’ hand. Maybe Jesus gives us eternal life because in earthly time it indeed would take an eternity to answer all of our questions of longing, suffering, and frustration. Know that no matter how long–weeks, months, years, decades–you say to Jesus in honesty, “how long are you going to keep me in suspense?”–Jesus will not let you, his precious and beloved “sheep” perish. Waiting is not the same as perishing.

  3. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.”

    A final reiteration of the three promises that are truly one. God the Father, the Creator of the universe is “greater than all,” over all things. Even outside of time. What we are in suspense about, God our Loving Father is not only aware of, but preparing us for. He’s speaking to us, guiding us through other people, through the words of Scripture, through the counsel of others…so that when the answer to our question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?” comes–we’ll be ready.

As we listen to these promises, they are clear. Jesus has told us the biggest, most cosmic truths, plainly. But the details? Well, those are another story. As long as we’re human, I think the aspects of suspense, of wondering and guessing, are always going to captivate us. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Share it with Jesus. Be honest about what’s keeping you in suspense. Yet never lose sight of the big picture–of the promises made good through the Cross–these promises will last through eternity, where we’ll never be waiting again!