By: Brian G. Hedges
Shepherds feed sheep. And the main way we feed sheep is by teaching and preaching the word of God. This means that the planning and delivery of sermons is one of our highest priorities. But it’s easy for preachers to fall into unbalanced patterns that fail to feed the flock with the full scope of God’s revealed word.
We do this when we’re always preaching on our favorite theological themes (justification by faith, the sovereignty of God, or the incarnation of Christ) while avoiding more difficult or less familiar theological topics (the Trinity, the wrath of God, the ascension of Christ). Or take practical issues in preaching. Maybe you’ve preached three or four sermons on pride and humility in the last few years. But have you ever preached a sermon on gluttony?
If you’re an expository preacher (and I hope you are!), do you spend all of your time in Paul’s Epistles? Confession: early in my present pastorate, I preached a seventy sermon series from Ephesians. (No, that wasn’t a typo!). It was very Lloyd-Jonesian of me, and I enjoyed it immensely, but by the end some of my people were probably thinking, “Are we still in Ephesians?”
When was the last time you preached from one of the Gospels? Or an Old Testament historical narrative? Or a Minor Prophet?
The problem is that just as water flows downhill, so we tend to take the path of least resistance. Sermons take time to prepare and without intentional planning, we’ll end up choosing texts, topics, and themes that we’re already familiar and comfortable with.
Here, then, are a few ideas for helping you prepare a balanced diet for feeding the flock.
1. Preach through books of the Bible.
Sequential exposition of biblical books is one of the best ways to ensure a balanced diet for the people. Preaching through an entire Gospel will help you address the historia salutis (the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus), unfold important theological themes (eternal life, kingdom of God, new birth, eschatology), and teach on nitty-gritty matters of Christian discipleship (money, marriage/divorce, prayer). Preaching through selections of Psalms will give ample opportunities to address the life of faith, with its attending struggles, trials, and doubts. However, when preaching through long books (or, if you tend to take short sections of text for your sermons), it may be wise to take just a section of a book. When I preached through the Gospel of Mark, I broke it up into three segments that were interspersed with other sermon series.
2. Alternate between Testaments and genres of biblical books.
If the whole bible is Christian Scripture (and it is), then we should be feeding the flock with both Testaments. So consider alternating between the New Testament and the Old. In a typical year, for example, you might preach five or six series. Your calendar could look something like this:
- January – March – A 12-week series through a section of the Gospel of Mark.
- April – June– A 10-week series on the life of David.
- July – August – 8 weeks in one of Paul’s shorter epistles, like Colossians or Philippians.
- September – December – 6 weeks in the Psalms, followed by a topical series on the Attributes of God using passages from both Old and New Testaments, and then a short series appropriate to Advent. (I’m assuming, by the way, that even in series of topical sermons, our actual messages will be expositions of Scripture.)
3. Expand your reading.
Let’s face it, we can only preach what we’re familiar with and all of us have some gaps in our knowledge of Scripture and theology. That means we need to push outside of our comfort zones in our reading and study.
So, if you haven’t tackled a series on an Old Testament narrative, try taking the next year to read Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching, Dale Ralph Davis’s The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts, and Steven Matthewson’s The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. You might also consider studying devotionally through an Old Testament book at the same time, using a good commentary to help you get your bearings.
4. Solicit feedback from your staff, elders, and church members.
Sometimes others will have a better sense for what’s missing from your preaching than you will. A couple of years ago I was discussing sermons with our Associate Pastor and he commented that I hadn’t done any preaching from the Gospels in a long time. Sure enough, I looked and it had been quite a while since I’d preached a series from one of the Gospels. That led directly into an 8-week series on chapters 4-9 in the Gospel of Luke.
5. Set aside time for looking back and planning ahead.
It’s also a good idea to periodically assess where you have been, where you now are, and where you are headed in your preaching. I recommend doing this a couple of times a year. Schedule a half-day retreat for planning your preaching calendar. Spend time in prayer, asking the Lord to guide your thinking by his word and Spirit. Then get into ideation mode. Look over your sermons from the past six months. What passages have you preached on? What areas of doctrine have you covered? What practical issues have you addressed? Make a list of what you’ve covered in each category.
Then prayerfully think about the congregation. What are their current needs? Think about systematic theology. What areas of doctrine need to be taught? Jot down ideas. Outline a book of the Bible you haven’t yet preached through and think about how you’d break it down into preaching units. Write outlines for possible series. Some of your best ideas will emerge from these planning sessions.
6. Pray for guidance and remain sensitive to the Holy Spirit.
With all of this said, it’s important to remain sensitive to the guidance of God’s Spirit. You won’t always stick to your planning. In my last study leave I started planning a series of sermons on Exodus, with the goal of starting this fall. But I ended up co-teaching a series on Acts 13-20, and am now doing a series on the Holy Spirit. Exodus is still on the horizon, but I think the Spirit has led in these recent series, even though they weren’t part of my plan.
7. Finally, don’t forget that you’re feeding sheep.
Spurgeon once quipped that Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, not his giraffes. We must never forget the people themselves, who need not just to be instructed, but fed with the heart-nourishing, soul-satisfying good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church and the author of Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change and Licensed to Kill: A Field Manual for Mortifying Sin. Brian and his wife Holly have four children and live in South Bend, Indiana. Brian also blogs at www.brianghedges.com and you can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.