I’ve been preaching to this congregation for 21 years now. Though I never expected to remain in the same pastorate that long, I have found there are outstanding benefits to longevity in a pastorate. I know them and their concerns; they know me and my commitment. I’ve seen them walk through all the ups and down of life and they’ve seen me do the same. We know very well that trying times come, and they’ve seen my faithfulness in sticking with the task even when it gets difficult.
There’s a special joy in preaching to people you know, love, and understand. But there is one intensely difficult liability to longevity in a pastorate. It’s the difficulty of remaining fresh in preaching.
We have both morning and evening worship services, and nearly 70% of our members attend every morning service; approximately 50% every evening service. I preach about 70% of the worship services in each calendar year. That’s a lot of sermons, on a lot of texts, to the same folks!
How can a preacher remain fresh under those circumstances? At 70-75 sermons each year, won’t he slip into the tried-and-true? And then won’t his messages become as predictable as a McDonald’s menu? I do a lot of my preaching in series, but after 20 years how can a preacher come up with series that don’t sound like the same thing they heard four years ago?
The Word of God may have unlimited resources, but no preacher is immune to the danger of becoming stale. I live with the fear of losing freshness.
What’s Fresh?
Freshness is a hard-to-define commodity. It’s certainly not the Athenian appetite to spend “their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21) for we have a commitment to the changeless truth of God. I have no right to change the message to make it sound fresh. I have an even bigger task — speaking the same changeless truth in a fresh way. But what is freshness?
Freshness is the absence of some things and the presence of others. It is the absence of predictability. If any of my hearers feel they can predict exactly what I’ll say about a passage of Scripture, how I will approach it, and where it will come out, they will have little motivation to listen well. Freshness is also the absence of overused themes. We all have themes and issues in our ministry that we like to keep coming back to. Those themes would consume at least 50% of our preaching if we’re not careful. But, too much of that and they’ll be thinking, “Oh, no, not this again. He talked about that last month, and the month before that….” And their next thought will be “why listen” or “why come?” So predictability and sameness are two of the big enemies of freshness.
Achieving freshness means including three preaching virtues. The first is convincing my hearers that I have stepped into their world and there will be something for them in what is going to be said here. I haven’t studied this passage from an ivory tower far above all the whirl of life’s experiences. I’ve walked where they walk and felt what they’ve felt. My references, my language, and my illustrations will have to convince them of this.
The second is the selection of passages and truths that impact their felt-needs. There may be technical biblical matters or deep theological niceties that I’d enjoy exploring in a sermon, but if there isn’t something to encourage, correct, comfort, and direct them in their Christian walk they at best will find it only mildly interesting, and at worst will consider it irrelevant and boring, hardly worth their time and effort.
The third is the ability to find ways to explain age-old truths in a manner that holds their attention. I’ve seen the beautiful countryside, the hills and trees and flowers zillions of times in my life, but every once in a while something causes me to take notice of it in a new way. I see things I’ve never quite noticed before. I consider it a profound achievement when I can present some Christian truth or promise in such a way that someone says, “I never quite saw it that way before; that was a good new insight for me.”
That involves research, study, and reading that will help me look at old passages from new angles. It also involves constantly working with my vocabulary and increasing it in size while keeping it tuned to their thought-world.
And so the longer the pastorate, the greater is the need for such freshness. Sensing the need may be the first step but it won’t accomplish the task of achieving it. I have found I need the assistance of others, and there is one recent experience that illustrates so well how others have helped me in achieving greater freshness.
A Suggestion That Grew
The process began during conversations with others about my preaching ministry. Our Board of Elders meets monthly, and periodically I will raise questions with them so they have the freedom to engage in an evaluation of recent preaching.
During one of those sessions, I asked, “what sermons are needed, and what issues must be addressed, for preaching to effectively meet the needs of this congregation at this time in its history?” One Elder suggested that I consider a series of messages on the different stages in life that we experience. “That might be interesting and helpful,” he said. And I thought, “and very challenging!” So I put it into my “incubator” of ideas for further consideration. It wasn’t long before the idea grew on me that this was a suggestion that I needed to act on.
I meet regularly with one of my staff colleagues to plan the worship and preaching schedule for several months at a time. This suggestion was certainly on the agenda for that meeting and it captured us as a suggestion with great possibilities.
We resolved that a series of messages would be planned that (1) would address the unique experiences of each stage in life from childhood to the senior years, (2) would be based on the insight and challenges that the Bible gives for each stage, and (3) would aim to create a better community by helping those in one stage to understand the needs and concerns of those in other stages.
Planning Gives Shape
As we made our plans, we decided that the series of messages should probably include six categories. I further clarified it by deciding on four age-categories: childhood, adolescence, parenthood, and post-parenthood, and two experience-categories: singleness and approaching death, The entire series was entitled “The Chapters of Life”
We also decided that as the sermons were being prepared, I needed to be in dialog with others in the various stages of life. I obviously was living in only one of those stages and could not be expected to fairly represent the needs and concerns of all other stages. So we arranged a series of “talk-to-me” groups to meet during the week. Ten to twelve persons from each chapter were selected and personally invited.
We selected the participants on the basis of their maturity, ability to express themselves, and the level of insight we could expect them to provide. I led each of the discussion groups and told them I intended to listen, not talk. I wanted to pick their minds so that I could learn how best to address the needs and concerns of their age group in preaching.
I presented the same questions to each group: “is this stage of life what you expected, or different than you expected? If different, tell me what is different than you expected. What is the best part of this stage in life? What is the hardest and most frustrating part of this stage in life? If you could wave a magic wand and change anything you wanted about life, what would you change? If you had a chance to tell a preacher what he should say in a sermon that would help guide people in your stage of life, what would you tell him?”
The response was very encouraging. The attendance was good. Discussion flowed very freely. And I gained a wealth of insight! It made writing those sermons far more interesting and challenging! The group participants appreciated my willingness to be open to their input before writing the sermon, and they surely came to worship with a deeper set of expectations. I had received help from others, but I knew they also were going to hold me accountable.
To make these sermons meaningful, they had to be surrounded by a worship service that reflected the experiences and persons of that chapter in an integrated way. The readings, the prayers, the songs, and the ministry of music all were to reflect that. We aimed to have lay members from that chapter involved in worship leadership in each service.
The Series That Resulted
It was very clear to the congregation that these services had been prepared with the assistance of multiple persons. The “Talk-to-me” groups were noted in the bulletin. I was careful in each message to report and comment on some of the insights that others had given in those groups. And the inclusion of others in worship leadership gave it all greater integrity.
The result was a series of six worship services on Sunday evenings that received an exceptional amount of attention and positive response. Folks began looking forward to the next week when another chapter would be presented. Those in one chapter were commenting on how much better they understood the needs and concerns of others in another chapter.
I believe we made a valuable contribution to a sense of community in this effort. While it’s easy to look at people in another chapter and question or criticize them, it’s so much healthier to understand them. Here’s how the series finally took shape, The four age-categories were arranged chronologically; the two experience categories were inserted at the point where they seemed most appropriate.
1. “The Joy of Being a Child” (Psalm 139:13-18, Mark 10:13-16)
In my message I focused on the wonder of being a special product from the hand of the Creator, and the object of special attention from Jesus (who contradicted other grown-ups who seemed to believe that only “big people” are important). The songs of the service all reflected the world of a child. A number of children were involved in singing and in reading several passages of Scripture. The Intercessory prayer of the service focused on the joys, experiences and needs of a child’s world.
2. “Getting Wisdom and Understanding — Those Teen Years” (Proverbs 4:1-27)
I took the time and opportunity to explain to the congregation the comments made by teens in our talk-to-me group since many teens easily feel they are not listened to. The message set forth the concept of wisdom and understanding, and pointed out that there is no greater achievement than its acquisition. Teens joined me in leading the service, both with prayers and readings. The Intercessory prayer focused on the opportunities and the struggles of being an adolescent.
3. “Shaping A Generation — Parenthood” (Psalm 78:1-8, Ephesians 6:1-4)
We are a congregation with a large number of children, and so it was ideal to begin our worship with all the children of the congregation leading from the front in song. Visually it had a powerful impact, and immediately helped us all sense the great potential represented in a group of 140 young children.
The prayer of intercession for family needs was divided into three sections, one led by a child, one by a parent, another by a grandparent. We were careful to include prayers for families that are dealing with great pain right now. The message stressed the privilege and importance of parenthood, and offered encouragement from Scripture on how to fulfill the task well.
4. “Singleness and Trying To Find It Good — When You’re Unmarried” (Mark 3:31-35, John 12:1-3)
Singleness is too easily ignored and avoided in the church, especially in preaching. We addressed it straightforwardly, noting that some are never married, some are divorced, and some have lost a mate in death. The community of faith must never overlook the needs of such folks. We discovered Scripture has more to say about the matter than we normally think. And a greater sense of fellowship was achieved by looking at each others needs openly, and praying for one another.
Participants in the service represented those in each category of singleness. Singles of each category seemed to appreciate the willingness of the church to focus on their unique needs.
5. “The Time of Reassessment — When The Children Are Gone” (Selected Scriptures)
The focus of this service and message was the great readjustment that comes when mid-life and retirement loom. Not only does our schedule and responsibility level change, but we cannot escape questioning our values and purpose for living. It’s a major reassessment of ourselves and what we believe we should be living for.
A variety of Scripture passages gave us guidelines and tools for making that reassessment, and intercessory prayers were offered by folks in the middle of that process. I even included with the sermon outline a list of six “Reassessment Questions” for them to use in their personal reflections.
6. “Dying Well — When The Last Chapter Is Written” (Genesis 25:7-11; 49:29-33)
This was perhaps the most difficult of all of the services to approach. I had the conviction the subject needed to be opened up and we would serve the needs of many if we spoke openly about “how to die well”. The choir assisted us exceptionally well with some very appropriate and moving anthems. Three senior men from the congregation, all of whom had experienced a brush with death in the past few years, were willing to share their candid and genuine testimonies. It proved to be a very moving service. And by the close of the service we could celebrate our hope of eternal victory in Jesus Christ.
Serendipities occur from time to time in the ministry. This series was a serendipity. Out of the desire for freshness and the stimulation of others in worship planning, a series of worship services was born that was rich, deep, and warmly received by others. It took me into areas I might not otherwise travel; it created better community; it turned the spotlight of the churches attention on needs that we’ve too often ignored. And it all started with the suggestion of an Elder who had an idea he wanted to share!

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