I occasionally attend my brother's church on the weekends, and I've found that I feel like I'm missing something. Each time, the sermon makes complete sense and I leave with knowledge and intent to act on what I've learned, but I haven't heard the previous sermons in the series and won't hear the following sermons, so it seems I missing out on the cumulative effect that the series is meant to have. I'm not growing with the series like everyone else.
This along with a few other things I'm working on and reading has convinced me that teaching should be less like individual episodes removed from any past or future events and more like chapters in a larger story that builds with complexity, mystery, and plot development.
It is similar to the difference between a Seinfeld episode and a 24 or Lost episode. Seinfeld episodes are self-contained and require no previous knowledge of the plot; they also don't lead anywhere in the future. Episodes of 24 or Lost make no sense without knowledge of past episodes and seasons. They are suspenseful and open-ended so that viewers want to return and see what happens next. The story grows, and the viewers return.
In a similar way, Learning should move us forward. It should lead students from a place of ignorance, apathy, and neglect to understanding, caring, and action. Good sermons and lessons already operate this way, so why can't whole series be approached this way also?
Vacation Bible School materials are the one of the few examples I know of that work this way. The curriculum assumes children have no knowledge of God or his word and moves them through a week-long study to repentance and belief.
Some pastors and teachers achieve this effect by accident, usually by preaching and teaching through books of the Bible (my preferred method). Why isn't this intentional and normal?
I think the biggest barrier is that it requires much effort, planning, and work ahead of time. It would take a lot of study in advance to find out what a book or letter says as a whole and in detail. It would take careful planning to discover the best way to preach or teach for progressive growth. It would take time.
Here's An Example.
James is a letter to scattered Christians attempting to move them from empty faith to fruitful lives—it is written to inspire people who give salvation lip-service to evidence their redemption with their lives.
A normal series on this letter would use one lesson for each section of verses. Each lesson would describe what the passage says and appeal for action.
A series with the goals I've described above, might begin with lessons aimed at building knowledge and understanding. Application might be memorizing some of the key passages that address faith and works or identifying and listing the differences James describes between the recipients lives and the lives God wants. Middle lessons could focus on the attitudes and beliefs that the letter denounces (favoritism, greed, arrogance) and praises (patience, self-control, wisdom, humility, generosity) as those attitudes appear in the learners lives. Application for these lessons might include focusing on repentance, prayer, and attitude-change. The last lessons in the series might focus on putting feet to the new understanding and attitudes. Application for this could include plans and actions to serve orphans and widows (1:27) or to rearrange family finances to be generous (5:1-6).
*Knowledge, attitudes, and actions don't have to be separated quite like they are above.
**This method can still allow preachers and teachers to move through the letter from beginning to end, verse-by-verse.