The easy way to plan your sermon series is to open your Bible, mark up your main section divisions, and go with those. But that’s letting someone else plan your series for you. So here’s what you can do instead.
First, get to know the book well enough that you get a feel for its main contours and flow, the really dense parts where you’ll need to go slow, and the parts where sped is your friend. This is the baseline, and nothing else can replace it. Know your book inside out.
Find some friends. Get as many translations and commentaries that you trust, and mark out where they put the main and minor divisions. Most commentaries have a page or two where they summarise the structure in a diagram. I lay out a number of columns, one for each translation or commentary, and indicate their decisions with a horizontal line. That gives me a good visual clue as to where most people have thought the issues lie. It also flags up major decisions I might have to make. For a series on James, which is notoriously hard, I needed to do more, so I drew the columns, which looked like this:
And then I did a mind map of the structure from each of the main commentators, which looked like this (this is Sophie Laws’ commentary):
Use the pens. I’m still finding that a book does this bit better than a screen: get a wide margin Bible, and scribble all over it. I don’t mean underlining your precious verses – this is a working Bible. I grab highlighters and pens and scribble and mark my structural notes all over the text. Its worth having one Bible just for this purpose. This is what my scribble Bible looks like, for a series on Nehemiah:
Check your speed. As your mind turns to the series, how much can your folk take in? How many weeks is sensible? (I was once told my sermon series on Job was too long. I think it lasted five sermons). Are you going to give yourself or them indigestion some weeks? Are there any sections which are so important you want to slow down right and look at just one verse?
Choose your rhythm. There’s a wealth of questions in the background of any biblical book, and the less familiar it is the more you’ll need to give. When is a good week to do some biblical theology? Or history? Are there critical theological issues, translation problems, or verses that are just plain weird? If you identify them, remember you don’t have to deal with them explicitly. Put more information on the back of the notice sheet – links to a website, a map, an introduction to the letter. It’s there if they want it, and it doesn’t eat into your time.
Make it a prayer. Someone suggested to me this week that once you’re ready for the series, summarise it in a prayer that you can use as your prepare, or that you can give to the congregation as they read and pray. I like that (thanks, Nathan Buttery).