Preaching is one of the most important responsibilities of the pastor in a small church context. It’s important not just because it is the most visible function of a pastor, but because it is one of the primary tools for discipleship in a small church. The most effective discipleship in a small church often happens relationally, one on one. Occasionally there’s a discipleship element to small groups or various programs that the church offers. But the time we have behind the pulpit is the most consistent tool we have to inform, inspire, and equip people for Christ-likeness.
Over the years, I have developed a process that helps me be more intentional about using preaching as a discipleship tool. Like many pastors, I have found that an annual preaching calendar helps me to prepare a consistent spiritual diet for our congregation. Our church also uses the “big idea” approach, so that small groups and children’s ministry is able to track along with the weekend messages. Being able to get with our all-volunteer ministry team and see where we are headed from the pulpit a couple of weeks or months down the road helps us to stay on the same page. So here’s what I do…
l keep a note file of ideas for messages. I use a tool that I can sync between my phone and my computer to log them. These ideas come from my personal devotions, or inspired by what I’m reading, and even from listening to other pastors. (It is amazing that as I’m feeding my own soul, how God’s Spirit often uses a co-laborer to help me see something in a new way or prompt a thought that deserves additional contemplation). I collect these ideas whenever they come and file them away. Then sometime in late October or November, I pull those ideas out along with unused ones from past years. The next step is to look at those ideas and inspirations, and “pray them through,” asking God which ones are most relevant for the upcoming year. Once I start to narrow down the list, I begin to apply the following filter.
To present a well-balanced approach to discipleship from the pulpit, I assign my sermons series for the year into one of four categories: theological (who God is), doctrinal (what we believe), practical (Christian living), and cultural (what is happening around us that is on everyone’s mind). Applying these filters allows me to look at what I’m communicating and how I’m discipling from the pulpit. Each year, I try to do 2-3 series from each of these categories.
Now many series could fall into more than one category, depending on how you approach it. For example, consider a series on worship. It could be theological, focused on worshipping God because of who He is. It could be doctrinal, explaining the different approaches and expressions of worship, or the physical responses of worship (clapping, singing, etc.). It could also be practical, helping people to understand that worship is the way we live our lives, not simply an element of our Sunday liturgy. Even the Christmas season offers multiple ways to approach our preaching. In one year, you may do a theological series on the miracle of the incarnation, or a doctrinal message based on the names found in Isaiah chapter 9, or a cultural approach such as using well-known holiday movies to illustrate biblical truths.
Once the sermon idealist begins to shape up for the year, I then look at the calendar for practical instruction. For example, could I use tax time and April 15 to teach a series on stewardship? In my context, we have found that the Thanksgiving season is the best time for us to talk about living life missionally, looking at our engagement in outreach and missions as a response of gratitude to God. I also think about other calendar-related items; is this an election year? Is there an anniversary of an event that needs to be acknowledged? What are the weekends that tend to be larger, and which ones are smaller?
Having considered these factors, I then begin to plug in the sermon series ideas into the calendar (I use a spreadsheet). Once inputted, I assign each sermon or series a category: theological, doctrinal, practical, or cultural. This helps me see if I have similarly purposed series grouped too closely together. (In full transparency, I rarely get the entire calendar mapped out. I don’t often get past the summer and Labor Day, which for me is OK because it has given me time to adjust as the year moves along). This list then goes to my ministry team for their review and comment. Lastly, I spend one day a year (usually sometime in November or December) with three other pastors to review our preaching calendar plan. Each pastor gets two hours to present and receive feedback. Since none of us has a big staff, we are able to help shape some of the ideas for each other and learn from each other.
I hold the love I have for the privilege of preaching in tension with the obligation I have to the time people give to listening and the responsibility I have to make disciples. I have found this approach helps me become more intentional about discipling the congregation from the pulpit. Let’s make the most of those thirty minutes each week.