“Don’t jump out from behind the same tree every week,” once said a wise preacher. His point is simple. In the same way that variety is the spice of life; variety is the spice of a compelling sermon introduction. Therefore, like a gourmet chef, who uses a diversity of spices to enhance the appetizer, we as preachers need to use calculated variety in our appetizers – the sermon introduction. Specifically, how can we put more variance into our leads? Sheree Bykofsky, Lynne Rominger, and Jennifer Bayse Sander, in their book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles, have seven recommendations:
1. Penetrating questions.
“When you ask a question you expect a answer. By asking a question in your lead, you’ve personalized the lead to the reader by asking her a question. It’s as if you wrote the piece with the reader in mind.”
For instance you might open by asking, ” Why do you get out of bed in the morning? What is your purpose for existing? Do you know why you are here?”
Now why are questions such an important tool in the arsenal of a preacher? Greg Lewis and Ralph Lewis in their book Inductive Preaching say that questions allow the listener to “jump in and take part of the sermon”. In other words, questions help get the audience involved in your message.
Did Jesus, the master preacher, use questions? He sure did (Matt 17:25; Matt 8:12; Matt21: 28; Matt 22:42; Luke 10:36; Luke 13:2; Luke 13:4).
2. “Just the facts, Ma’am”
In this introduction, “You give the reader who, what, when, where, why and how things came down. You entice the readers with the bare minimal in the hopes of engaging them and keeping them reading.”
For example, you might lead by saying,” He launched a movement, baptizing “many thousands” of people, probably tens of thousands. He started about seven hundred churches. He ordained over one thousand priests. What’s even more impressive, is that he accomplished all this amongst a group of people whom the Romans labeled “unreachable”.1 His name? St. Patrick. Today, on St. Patty’s day, we are going to look at the example of St. Patrick and gleam lessons on how we can reach are “unreachable” generation.”
3. “Descriptive lead”
“In the descriptive lead, your writing provides the reader a mind movie, projecting across the brain’s screen the five sense of the experience.”
To illustrate, you might begin by saying, “The scene was bleak. Havoc and restlessness abounded. You could see the flashing red and blue lights. You could feel the hopelessness in the air.”
Paul Scott Wilson in his book the Four Pages of the Sermon says, “Listeners can visualize something if we give them visual clues, such as Grey hair or the elegance of movement. In general, we should be as visual and sensory with the Bible as we are about current events, when we speak of someone today wearing jeans (name the color and the specific label) and a t-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe or of a hospital room with a single birthday card on the window ledge, for these small details paint bigger pictures of individual lives”. In other words, when you’re painting the scene in the readers mind use a fine tip brush, not a broad one. Be specific. Give details, details, and more details.
4. “An astonishing lead”
“An astonishing lead shocks the reader with an unexpected event, word, or anything else that grabs interest.” The authors give this example. Imagine opening up an article and reading this phrase, ” ‘Walk here and die’ the reader will want to know where not to walk and will read on.”
Why does the astonishing lead get people’s attention? We have an information filter in our mind called the RAS. The RAS screens out all information it deems unimportant. Think about this. We are bombarded with thousands upon thousands of bits of information coming at us every day. If our brain were to process them all it would explode. To illustrate, You’ve probably been in an audience listening to a speaker when they have pointed out a buzz in the air conditioner. Why is that you didn’t hear that hum until the speaker pointed it out? The RAS screened it out. However, there are three things that get the attention of the RAS. What are they? 1. Things we value. 2. Things that are unusual. 3. Things that threaten us.2 These are the ingredients you want to sprinkle into your astonishing lead.
5. A staccato lead
“With the staccato lead the writer uses fragments and short sentences.”
For instance, Bill Hybels used the staccato lead in a sermon called “All About Earnings” when he said, ” We got to schools to become equipped to earn it. Then we spend the rest of our lives, 40 to 60 hours a week, actually earning it. We invest countless hours of thought and discussion on how we are going to spend it. . . Arguments over it are among the leading causes of marital disintegration, business partner break ups, and government shutdowns. Despair over losing it causes suicides. The obsession with getting it causes many of society’s crimes. The absence of it causes many of society’s nightmares. Some call it the root of all evil. Some call it the means for great good. But we can not afford to ignore the reality or the importance of . . . MONEY”.
6. A parody lead
“People love parody leads. Parody leads play songs, lyrics, literature, and any cultural item that is easily recognizable. Parody leads take puns one step further. Example: “Take me out to the mall game. Take me out to the store. Perhaps it’s the new cry of thousands of women nationwide, as recent statistics show that shopping is the favorite pastime of the fairer sex.”
7. A direct quotation lead.
“One of the forceful leads available is the direct quotation. You immediately offer your reader an eavesdropping opportunity because quotes are someone’s actual words.”
An example of this opener is as follows. “Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ,” said Ignatius of Antioch as he begged the Romans not to prevent his Martyrdom.3 Here is a man that put his whole life on the line for Jesus. What are you willing to put on the line for Jesus? Our text today is . . .”
This week as you are preparing the feast for your congregation – the sermon – remember to “jump out from behind a different tree.” In other words, put some spice of variety in your lead. As the word is stewing and simmering in your soul, take off your chef’s hat and contemplate. Ponder how you can put variety into your message up front, sprinkling a tad of seasoning and a pinch of flavoring. Because just as a good appetizer wets the taste for what is to come – the main dish; a good introduction does likewise.
Steve Larson is senior pastor of Community Celebration Church in Byron, Minnesota.
1 Hunter, George. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West . . . Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
2 Warren, Rick. How to Communicate to Change Lives: Teaching and Preachinq that Make a Difference. Seminar.
3 Yamauchi, Edwin. Ignatius of Antioch. Ed. John D. Woodbridge. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.