Short Books and Long Books
Gregory the Great preached a series on the Song of Solomon that contained 86 lessons. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 lessons…on chapters 1 and 2 alone! Perhaps they are all wonderful messages. Truthfully, I’m not likely to put the time into finding out. How long of a series on a short book is too long? It really depends on the teacher and the listeners.
There are certain books of the Bible that lend themselves well to shorter studies and series. Church members also find some longer books tolerable for lengthier studies, especially when they are mostly narrative like Genesis, the Gospels, or Acts. But what about the other Biblical books that are not in arrangements that flow like a story, or that are simply too long and complex to approach in a verse by verse format? There are theologically rich books that our people probably wouldn’t be enthused to stay in for a couple of years, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Proverbs, Revelation, or even Hebrews, to an extent. How can we be sure the messages from these larger books are being heard by the people of God?
Simpler Approaches to Complex Books
I want to share some approaches I’ve used that have helped me to incorporate larger books in my preaching and teaching, but in ways that have not exhausted my listeners. When I have done a series on these books, I have kept them to one quarter, about 13 lessons. This is generally long enough that I feel I’ve done justice to the book, but it’s also stayed fresh enough that my people have indicated they’ve felt engaged with the study and that we haven’t gotten bogged down.
General Advice As You Begin
- Begin with a calendar, make a list of how many weeks you want to commit to this study, and have them clearly laid out.
Howeveryou decide to sort the material for teaching and preaching, designate on your calendar what your general section/topic is for the week, and force yourself to stick with the plan. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t say everything you wanted to say this week. Next week you move on as planned with the next section.
- Provide your people with a list of topics/Scriptures and dates in the form of a handout or bookmark so they can keep up if they want to. Larger books are good for inviting people to go deeper in their own
reading,if they desire. If they know your game plan and exit strategy, they are more likely to go there with you.
- By doing this, you make your work easier and more well-rounded, because you can compare all the weeks and the areas of emphasis you are going to make. It allows you to reduce overlap and to hone in on what will make each lesson unique in how it contributes to the larger study.
1. Use a Thematic Approach
One useful approach is to teach the major themes that occur within a large book, rather than trying to teach every passage. Similarly, you could identify a particular lens through which to approach the book. Two examples of how I’ve done this:
I did extensive preparation work on Isaiah, reading commentaries, scholarly treatises on how to understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, theological summaries of Isaiah, etc. As a major part of my effort, I created a large scroll printout of the text of Isaiah, which I went back to and read multiple times, each time using different colored highlights and labels to show the various sections. The end result of this was that I gave a large overview of the whole book for the first sermon (See the video below), and each subsequent sermon was about either a really prominent plot point or a prominent theme throughout the book. For each theme, I would preach from whatever one or two passages I thought summarized it especially well.
I preached through the book of Acts through the lens of the Holy Spirit. Rather than preaching every passage, I first studied the book, looking only at places where actions of the Holy Spirit are described. I then put together a study of Acts that I called Keeping Up With The Spirit. By looking at what the Spirit was doing and how the church was trying to keep in step, it provided a helpful engagement with many, though not all, of the narrative sections of Acts, but also a more robust theology of the Holy Spirit that was rooted in Scripture.
Another great thing about using a particular lens to study a book is that I could preach Acts again in the reasonably near future from a different lens, and whether I used mostly similar or different passages, it wouldn’t feel like repetition because of the nuance that drove the selections and applications. Your lens doesn’t even have to be a theological theme. It could be as simple as “Looking at Jesus through Peter’s eyes.” Or “Outsiders in Acts” from the perspectives of women and Gentiles and their engagements with the early church, for example.
2. Use a Dual Emphasis Approach
When a book has extensively more content than you would want to try and preach or teach through in consecutive weeks, you might be able to find a life-giving way to use two different emphases at the same time.
Returning to my study of Isaiah, something that was really wonderful was that for each week, I had lined up the people presiding over communion to share their devotional reflection from an assigned passage in Isaiah.
For my sermons, I chose to use the passages and themes in Isaiah that had the greatest application for the community of faith. For the communion devotionals, I assigned passages that had the heaviest emphasis on the Messianic anticipations of Isaiah. This meant that each week, between communion and the sermon, we were having two meaningful engagements with the texts of Isaiah. Functionally, this meant that in 13 weeks, we covered 26 chunks of content rather than merely 13. It was a rich engagement that I would highly recommend.
For us, it worked to use the sermon and the communion to create spaces of emphasis. But you could consider other times. What about your call to worship? Do you have any sort of Shepherd’s prayer or blessing as part of your service? With a little extra planning and recruitment, this approach can go a long way.
3. Make Multiple Points of Application
When a book has lots of content, you may be able to create more than one engagement, using efforts that extend outside of worship times. For example, I am presently preaching from Proverbs. It is a phenomenal book whose structure gives me two problems for trying to preach it: 1) It often states things so succinctly that to restate them seems superfluous and 2) Large sections of the book are not in a format conducive to preaching through.
Having spent time working through it, I noticed that the earlier chapters in the book are longer essays, with some parts that are more narrative in nature and therefore conducive to preaching. The latter sections of the book are collected wise and pithy sayings for the most part. They are good to throw in as illustrative points, but not easy to teach sequentially.
One option would have been to use a thematic approach similar to what I described above, but I decided to use a more expository approach for the early chapters while incorporating the latter chapters into a separate effort that I’m calling The Character Challenge.
So each Sunday in worship I preach a sermon from Proverbs as part of a series. But in our bulletin, I am also providing a card stock handout that has 5-6 verses from Proverbs that I have selected around a particular theme. I also created an email list for anyone wanting to get a weekly update with all the contents of the card, plus a brief devotional video on the same theme to watch on their own time. I made extensive efforts to encourage people to find a partner to study these with, which helps to push deeper engagement, application, and also evangelism.
I am happy to have been able to work some larger books into my preaching and teaching. When done well, it is a delight to the congregation, who knows they ought to be more familiar with these kinds of books, but who might also be intimidated by the size, historical contextual considerations, and other factors that make them hard to approach.
- What has helped you bring larger books into the minds and hearts of your listeners?
- When someone has taught you a larger, more complex section of Scripture, what has helped it to make sense for you?