On November 21, 1980, more than 350 million people around the world to watch the season premiere of the prime time TV soap opera, Dallas. Why the extraordinary global audience?
People wanted to know who shot J.R.
The previous season of Dallas ended in March of 1980 with the show’s loveable villain, J.R. Ewing, shot by an unknown assailant. It was the ultimate television cliffhanger – viewers were used to waiting until next week now had to wait next season to find out whether J.R. would live or die (though, given his pivotal role in the show’s popularity, living seemed likely) as well as just who had pulled the trigger. During the intervening summer of 1980, the mystery took on a life of its own, as Who Shot JR? entered the American lexicon not only in speech but on T-shirts and bumper stickers and stand-up comedy routines.
By the time November 21 rolled around, the viewers from all over the world found themselves drawn into the saga and drawn towards their televisions. The “reveal” that night was a surprise: the shooter was Kristen Shepherd, the sister of J.R.’s wife, and the former mistress of … J.R. himself. CBS, apparently, laughed all the way to the bank. The network and the show’s creators had devised an ingenious way of ensuring that people had to know what’s coming next and it worked in spectacular fashion.
And a good sermon series does for preaching what Dallas did for television: heightens anticipation, creates a common language, and in some cases even takes on a life of its own. I believe that series preaching taps into how listeners’ minds already work and, when done well, provides a vehicle to enhance both innovation and effectiveness. If you want to simplify the message and multiply the impact of your preaching, designing, crafting, and delivering sermon series is an essential art and skill in the pastor’s toolbox.
Now: I did not always know this. Like most of my United Methodist colleagues, I was trained in what my homiletics professors called lectionary preaching. The lectionary is an ecumenical, calendared approach to preaching texts, as each week contains three potential sermon passages: Old Testament, New Testament, and Psalter. The great advantages of lectionary preaching are twofold: 1) it forces the pastor to engage with a variety of Scriptures he or she would not otherwise; and 2) the pastor preaches in company with colleagues from all over the world who are drawing from the same texts. I entered full-time preaching ministry (Mt. Carmel Church, 1990, see Chapter One) fully embracing lectionary preaching.
And within six months abandoned it.
The people of the church had no real awareness of either the lectionary’s existence or its purpose. They were not moved by the fact that I might be preaching from the same Scripture as peers from down the street or around the globe. And even more significant: the preaching and the hearing that resulted was disconnected. Each week was new, the larger narrative was missing, and preacher and preached alike wandered. I know this is not the experience of all lectionary preachers, but it was my experience.
So I remember my first series: Proverbs. How’s that for a clever title? Proverbs. Soon I had expanded that into A Vision For The Church (predictable), Minor Prophets (I still remember one of our most committed leaders saying, “I didn’t even know there was such a thing), and eventually Constructing A Christian Character. Slowly but surely getting a little bit more innovative in theming and titling.
Now at Good Shepherd, our sermon series have in many ways become our calling card. Through trial and error, some rewarding successes and embarrassing failures, our team is now able to conceive and execute sermon series that are memorable, impactful, and, happily for me, book worthy. All because we have tapped into how people’s minds work, how to capture their attention, and, most critically, how to keep them wondering, “what happens next?”
Beyond those reasons – all significant enough that I will return to them shortly – something else lies behind the role of series at Good Shepherd and other churches I know. It’s this: a good sermon series has the potential to turn into much, much more than a series of sermons.
The above is an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Mutliply The Impact, published by Abingdon Press and available wherever books are sold online. To know the rest of the story, pick up a copy soon.