I suggest planning for both seasons at the same time to help the themes tie together and to save you time. This post focuses mostly on the getting-things-done side of planning, but of course, when planning services and writing sermons, when leading God’s people and proclaiming His Word, prayer can never be overlooked. Each step and option listed below presupposes prayer throughout.
If you’re in a larger congregation, a nice thing you may have is a larger budget for worship aids. Many Advent and Lent series are available, and the wonderful thing about these is that they provide not just sermon but also entire services. You can often add bulletin covers, calendars, and slides or slide backgrounds.
My current congregation is smaller than my first, which means I have a smaller budget to work with. Though I can’t always buy a fully prepared series, I still don’t have to do all the work for every service.
The past couple of years, the churches in my area have done a “preaching round-robin” during Advent or Lent. The pastors selected a larger, overarching theme. Then each pastor was assigned a specific text within that theme and wrote a sermon on it. What made this particularly nice was only having to write one sermon. Each week I would preach at a different church, but it would always be the same sermon. (Each pastor would still plan the worship service for their home congregation and do Ash Wednesday at their church.)
This was a terrific way to get to know some of the other LCMS congregations in my area. And the people loved it because it was a very visual way of our unity together, our koinonia. Also—important to note—since this was an intentional round-robin, it was agreed upon not to be paid as a guest preacher.
Another way a group could work, especially if the group is not in the same geographic location, is to plan a series together electronically, like through Facebook. Basically, one pastor asks if any others are interested in working up a theme together. Once the theme is fleshed out, each pastor writes a sermon about a selected text and then passes it on. In effect, it is like getting a sermon series because you are using the other pastors’ sermons. Of course, it might take some editing to tailor each sermon to your specific congregation, but it is still easier than writing all the sermons yourself.
The thing with planning is you must do it in advance. If you are waiting until November to plan Advent, or waiting until January to plan Lent, I would argue that you are cutting it too close. And I am pretty sure your stress level would agree.
Here are some tools that can help you as well. I use Worship Planning Book each year to plan services months ahead. You can also use LutheranCalendar.org to outline services or use the Planning for Every Sunday blog to get insights into themes, readings, and hymns for each service.
That’s right, summer, when the living is easy, should be when you sit down and start planning out special Advent and Lent services. I would advise having your major themes picked no later than June 30. Notice I wrote start. All you need at this time is your general themes.
Picking a theme means picking from an almost endless array of options. For example, the Six Chief Parts of Christian Doctrine, the Ten Commandments, The Words on the Cross, common heresies, famous or popular hymns for Advent/Christmas/Lent, and the journey to Bethlehem are all themes that are easy to sketch out into smaller components.
You will choose either two separate themes for Advent and Lent or one you can discuss in both seasons. For example, you might pick Journey to Bethlehem for Advent and the Six Chief Parts for Lent. Or you might pick the Ten Commandments and split them, covering Table One during Advent and Table Two during Lent.
After you select your themes, let them percolate in your mind a bit. This allows your unconscious mind to wrestle with them. It also gives you time to do any research you want into each topic, like by reading the Large Catechism. Or, if you come across something you think could potentially fit into the themes, you can file it away.
The first two weeks in September are when you should sit down and outline the individual themes. Use these weeks to select readings and special prayers. This is also a valuable time to pick Hymns of the Day or sermon hymns. And—really important here—do not feel like you need to reinvent the wheel. If you like to tie in your seasonal themes to Christmas Eve or Easter, use the readings for that day. Because of the different services on those days, there is a plethora of readings to select; just pick the one you like best.
The selection of various service options depends on a range of factors. One is the services’ historical uses. For example, Matins is usually used during the morning, specifically the early hours before dawn, while Vespers happens during the evening, more accurately, sunset. Does this mean you have to follow those exact times? Certainly not! Just use some common sense.
Midday or noon services can throw some people for a loop. Too late for Matins, too early for Vespers. I would suggest using Service of Prayer and Preaching or one of the Responsive Prayer settings.
Another factor is that Communion is historically reserved for a full Divine Service. In other words, the Daily Offices were not Communion services. Again, the liturgy police will not come knocking on your door. Just something to keep in mind.
By now, we have really started to get the ball rolling. Once the details start coming into focus, taking a long pause could derail your train of thought. So in the first two weeks of October, take time to finish selecting hymns. If you are a straight-out-of-the-hymnal person, one hymn is all you would need for a service like Vespers. But if you like to have opening and closing hymns, this would be the time to select those.
Now you have everything except the sermons . . . and probably choir pieces and other special music. But that is another story. With all the parts of the services planned that the pastor controls, you can send this information to your organist, choir director, handbell director, or musicians.
With all of the above done, it is time to turn your attention to outlining the sermons. Considering the scope of what you are working with as well as the many other things that are happening in the fall, it is important to give yourself time for this. Remember, this is just the outline. You are not looking to write all the sermons now, but to give the key points you want to touch on. And remember those weeks in the summer? This is the time to go back over any notes or research filed away and place them in the sermon outlines.
My suggestion is to outline the sermons for the first three weeks of Lent first, then outline Advent and Christmas, and then do the last half of Lent and Easter. This gives you some cushion room in case something arises and it keeps you from putting off Lent once you outline Advent.
Depending on your personal practice, your usual sermon length can affect this process a bit. For me, I try to have short homilies for midweek services (8–10 minutes), which means shorter outlines.
When it comes to writing sermons, I cannot do much ahead. This is the benefit of having the outlines and everything else completed. I can come in Monday morning, pull out the outline, and fill in the text of the sermon. Having so much done beforehand significantly cuts down on sermon-writing time.
Having a standard service for certain days during Advent or Lent helps with planning for not only you but also everyone else involved in assisting the congregation in worship. For example, Christmas Eve evening services happen every year. So why have a different service every year? Your sermon can change each year, the text you preach on too. But why stress about creating a different service? Is it not going to end in candlelight with everyone singing “Silent Night”?
Creating a standard service with the same songs and readings each year can save you a few nights’ sleep. The key to something like this is picking hymns people are familiar with. And, let us be honest, the twelve days of Christmas hardly give us enough time to thoroughly sing all those Christmas hymns!
This does mean that, at some point, you have to sit down and create this service. Doing a liturgy straight out of the hymnal and cramming in twenty different hymns probably will not go over so well. Tailor the service to your congregation. Get some feedback after the first time to see if you need to tweak anything. And then pull it out next year all ready to go.
This is what I do for certain services.
I use the same service every year. The 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. services are the exact same with the exception of special music. We print one bulletin and mark the special music and which service it is in.
Maundy Thursday: I use Divine Service, Setting Three each year with the lectionary readings, different hymns, and Christian Questions and Their Answers for the sermon. This sermon theme reinforces catechesis, clearly teaches scriptural doctrine, and gets my people back into the Small Catechism.
Good Friday: At my congregation, we do a typical Tenebrae service. There is no sermon. Like Christmas Eve, it is the same service every year.
Holy Saturday: We have a Saturday night service every week, and it bugged me that we would do an Easter service on Saturday. Plus, it was one more thing to plan in an already busy week. So I introduced the Easter Vigil, using the four standard readings and a short homily that is a nutshell of my Easter Sunday sermon. We do the service at our normal Saturday service time. This makes things much simpler and easier to plan.
I hope these ideas help reduce your stress as you plan Lent and Advent. By getting started early and making use of the resources around you, you’ll be able to get well ahead so these two seasons feel less frantic and more comfortable.
These downloadable charts can help you map out Lent and Advent services step by step for topics, readings, Hymns of the Day, service choices, and additional hymns. Two sample charts are filled in for reference as well.