When President Calvin Coolidge returned home from church one Sunday morning his wife asked what the preacher had talked about. Coolidge responded “sin.”
“What did he say about it?” his wife continued. Coolidge finally muttered, “I think he was against it.”
I think I’ve heard that same sermon. What’s more, I’m afraid I’ve preached it.
Too often, I have shaken hands attached to confused faces — faces searching for a lighthouse of destination in the fog of sermonic rambling. Frequently, the lighthouse could have led to safe waters, if only it had been visible at the beginning of the voyage.
Thanks to a few friends in the pew who saw through my futile attempts to gain their attention before meandering into the substance of the sermon, I offer in this article what I think my homiletics professor had in mind when he proclaimed, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” What my friends tactfully told me consisted of the fact that my sermons ended well, had “meaty content” in the middle, but had little to do with what I started talking about.
In this article I offer a method to introduce a sermon that focuses the introduction on the application of the sermon’s thesis. From start to finish, the sermon can and should aim at the response desired from the listener. First, however, let me propose a madness to this method.
It’s no wonder that Sunday dinner conversations, Monday morning staff meetings, and even Thursday night “discuss the sermon” groups struggle with knowing the precise topic of last week’s message. Sermons on prayer begin with a story on commitment. Messages calling for repentance start with a humorous yarn about marital harmony. The preacher introduces a sermon on giving by quoting a poem on the importance of farming.
To make matters worse, the pastor’s opening words on a routine Sunday morning beg for diversity. We almost train our congregations to listen only when the opening remarks have passed.
Frequent fliers never “tune-in” to that infamous speech on air safety. In fact, the flight attendant’s dream is that first-time flier who is genuinely concerned about oxygen masks that drop and seat cushions that float. The attendant’s pre-flight plight is not uncommon to the preacher who every Sunday morning, fifty-two times a year, looks over the passenger list of “frequent fliers.”
For most people, variety really is the spice of life. Standards such as “Take your Bibles and turn to ….” “This morning we continue our series in ….” and “Thank you for that lovely ministry in song ….” have resounded as the first words from the preacher’s lips with a predictability that rivals the sun’s rise. If all television dramas began the same way, we’d turn on the set five minutes after the hour instead of on the hour. I wonder when people really “tune-in” to our sermons.
Homiletics texts offer several options for the preacher’s first words: familiarity — a comment on a matter of common knowledge; suspense — a challenging rhetorical question or series of questions; intensity — use of colorful wording or a forceful quotation; startling statement — that which may arouse opposition or suspicion; or humor — a witty remark, a real-life incident. These devices, though fruitful and commendable, are designed to gain attention.
Certainly, gaining attention is a worthy part of any sermon introduction, but it is only a part. Once people are listening to us, what are we going to say? Do our words in the opening of the sermon really introduce what follows? Not only do we want to gain attention, we want to focus that attention in the direction of the point of our sermon.
Communication theorists tell us that a public speaker’s opening and closing words are typically his or her most remembered. Yet introductions require brevity. The introduction to a sermon has far more significance than its length would suggest. We live in a get-to-the-point world.
I’m not suggesting that we “tell all” in the introduction. People don’t come to a restaurant to look at the menu. On the other hand, the menu takes them to the main course for which they came. So should a sermon introduction.
Despite the preacher’s normally grandiose expectations, most people nestle into their seats at “sermon time” thinking “Preacher, I know you and you know me and we’ve all been through this many times before.” So the preacher has to earn his audience weekly.
Parishioners come asking two fundamental questions and the sermon introduction must answer both: (1) What are you talking about? and (2) Why should I listen? This article poses a perspective that the best way to inform people of what we are talking about includes a simultaneous hint of what difference this sermon may make in their lives.
Listeners sometimes have their own answer to the question “Why should I listen?”: “Because the speaker is entertaining.” “Because kickoff is only forty-five minutes from now, and I can endure anything for forty-five minutes.” “If I don’t look attentive, he’ll come visit me again.” “Because this is what you’re supposed to do on Sunday between 11:25 and 11:55 a.m.”
I have another answer. When those minds in the pew ask “Why should I listen?” (and every mind does), I want them to hear “because this message paves your road and can change your life for the glory of God!” In order to give that answer to my listener I have to aim at application in the introduction. Get to the point — or at least hint at it — right up front. A good sermon introduction is like a travel brochure — full of colorful photos that say “Picture yourself here!”
If ever there is a time for the preacher to have a one-track mind, it is during the sermon’s introduction. Like a sermon, an introduction must be a bullet, not buckshot.1 If, in seeking attention, I wander from my subject, scatter the thoughts of my listener into a recent event that has nothing to do with the topic of the day, or announce next Sunday’s church dinner, I have done nothing to introduce and nearly everything to confuse. The point of the sermon zeroes in on an issue of decision. God’s Word faces people with decisions, so I write with the premise that sermons should do the same.
The introduction to a sermon must provide a hint of the issue of decision without giving the details, illustrations, and complete expected response. Immediately, a listener knows what we are talking about and why they should listen. Thus, we can aim at one point and avoid stories that are followed by that familiar comment “That has nothing to do with what I’m talking about this morning, but I thought I’d share it.”
Assuming that we will focus on the sermon’s main point or thesis in both the body and the conclusion of the sermon, the message gains unity, for we finish, having talked about what we said we were going to talk about. As a result, the introduction provides a realistic expectation that this sermon can meet. In addition, the audience is challenged immediately with the truth of God’s Word.
Let me visualize this rationale. No matter what the precise outline, most sermons approximate the organization found in figure 1.
I suggest that we modify this organization slightly to give a sneak peek at the point of the sermon, during the introduction. In doing so, we do not tip our hand, we merely hint at how strong the cards are. Notice Figure 2 (on next page). Thus, a sneak peek at the point.
So far, I’ve cited several benefits to sermon introductions that aim at application. These benefits include:
– correlation with the sermon’s content
– emphasis on expected response
– a clear focus on the issue of decision
– unity in the sermon
– immediate audience identification and attention
– anticipation that God’s Word will supply the answer.
If you don’t want to preach with these benefits in view, stop reading! If, however, you desire such advantages, let me suggest three steps to take so that next Sunday’s introduction will aim at application.
Face the Listener with the Issue
When the preacher faces the listener with the issue of decision he provides a reason to listen based on personal need. People have all sorts of needs, and we spend much of our time fulfilling them.
The sermon’s issue of decision becomes clear when a human need becomes focused in a particular question that calls for some sort of resolution. The preacher may implicitly or explicitly state this question, but the body of the sermon must supply the answer.
Both the need and the answer emanate from the biblical text. For example, if my text is Psalm 73, and my subject is envy of unbeliever’s wealth, I may wish to mirror Asaph’s reflections. The issue of decision in the form of a question might appear something like this: “What do we do when we look around and see all the luxuries of this earthly life that other people enjoy, and we begin to doubt God? What do we do to remove the doubt?
Some of my hardest work in sermon preparation comes in the grappling with the need my audience has for this sermon’s central idea. Long before these thoughts become words on a sermon manuscript or outline, they kick around in my head like a pinball. That’s because I want the listener to know almost immediately that this sermon touches his or her need(s). It’s that relation of God’s Word — what it says — to my listener’s life — what he or she needs — that’s crucial from the word go! And for me, at least, that takes work.
Create anticipation. If we view the body of our sermon as the answer, then our introduction provides the question. I’m not suggesting that we “create” a need for our audience. They have enough needs! Rather, we must demonstrate the authenticity of the listener’s need for this sermon. Where does the idea of the sermon make contact with the listener’s need?
When we begin speaking, the audience may not have been thinking about its need for this particular sermon. By the time my sermon introduction is finished, they should see clearly, perhaps even feel, their need. The heart of the listener who is directed to his or her need for God’s truth is a heart sitting on the edge of its seat.
Explore the need. Seldom have I achieved such a sense of anticipation by merely announcing my subject or even declaring that it is “relevant.” Rather, we have to explore the need a bit, so as to demonstrate that the message will be relevant. Often, rhetorical questions, hypothetical (but realistic!) situations, or a personal illustration suffice as means to relevance. Understanding the topic is not enough. Pertinence is the goal.
Orient the Listener to the Subject
In addition to pertinence to their spiritual needs, a listener wants to know precisely what it is that will meet these needs. If a sermon introduction does nothing else, it ought “to introduce” the subject of the sermon. But how do we do that and yet aim for application? How do we orient to the subject without losing the listener’s sense of need? We can introduce the subject of the sermon as we raise the subject and register the subject’s relevance.
Raise the subject. Viewing the sermon’s thesis as a subject (what we are talking about) and complement (what we are saying about the subject), the thrust of the sermon is usually embedded in the complement. One way of exploring the audience’s need is to state the subject and then raise the question which the complement is designed to answer.
Suppose the sermon’s thesis is: “When you don’t feel like praying, worship God, then petition God.” We could explore the implications of prayer, and the sermon should address them at some point, but the introduction will aim at relevance only if we explore what it means not to feel like praying. After all, the sermon is going to answer the question: How do I pray when I don’t feel like praying? Merely to state that prayer is commanded and prescribed for our spiritual vitality, and that there always will be days when we don’t feel like praying is not enough.
Register the subject’s relevance. Subject stated is not subject registered. Pause with the subject. Let the audience savor it. For instance:
When do we not feel like praying? When one child wakes up with the flu, Dad finds his car has a flat tire when he is already five minutes late leaving for work, and little jenny’s teacher calls to request a parental conference — all before 8:00 a.m.
Or, perhaps it’s at the other end of the continuuum.
Dad comes home with news of a promotion, all three toddlers take two-hour naps, and an unexpected investment dividend comes in the mail. No need to pray then, right? just go out for dinner!
Only when we explore the subject does it register with our listener. Why is the question a relevant one? What difference will the answer make? When we preachers orient the audience to the subject of the sermon by exploring their need, we not only tell them what we are going to talk about, but declare what difference it can make in their lives. A trifle better than “This morning, my subject is …. and may the Lord bless it to our hearts.”
Entice the Listener with the Answer
The attention we are after is attention focused ultimately on God and His Word. If we have begun to answer the listener’s question “Why should I listen?”, we can point to a new question: “What does God have to say to me about my need?” The need you are pointing out is, in the final analysis, a need for God. By the end of our introduction, our listener should visualize a big sign on our sermon that says “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” To provide such a warranty, we have to identify the issue clearly and to direct the listener to God’s Word for the answer.
Clarify the issue. Introductions should entice the listener with God’s answer. The body of the sermon delivers the answer, but the introduction creates a hunger for it. In the process, the issue of decision, subject, and need may easily become confused. There’s no time for explicitness like the end of the introduction.
In most introductions, there is not a sequence to gaining attention, raising a need, orienting to a subject, and facing the listener with the issue of decision. But by the time our introduction concludes, the listener must have his or her two questions answered: What are you talking about (subject) and why should I listen (need and issue of decision)?
Order of sequence should vary from introduction to introduction, but the spiritual thirst for application is essential. Often, rhetorical questions focus on the answer from God’s Word. Let’s consider again our example of praying when we don’t feel like it. We might ask: “How do we pray when we don’t feel like it? How do we go to our knees when life is full of discouragements? Or, when our world is caving in, how do we fit in conversation with God?”
Direct the listener to God’s Word. The answer to these questions is found in God’s Word. We can be that explicit. “When we want to come before God and yet we just don’t feel like praying, Matthew 6 points the way.” Only when we point to God for the answer can we introduce a sermon that aims at application. This may be a good time to supply the necessary context or historical background that our biblical passage requires. When we arrive at the actual answer, we have already equipped our listener with the background that promotes understanding.
In the full process, we face the listener with the issue of decision by creating an anticipation for a fulfilled spiritual need. We orient the listener to the subject and allow the subject to register with relevance. Finally, we entice the listener with the answer from God’s Word.
No one example of a sermon introduction can illustrate the strength of this method completely, but to offer a tool without an example is like handing a four-year-old the keys, pointing out the ignition, and then saying “Now, drive to China.”
The example below utilizes two scenarios to face the listener with the issue as well as orient the listener to the subject. The issue of decision in this sermon was: “What do we as believers do when we face the kinds of trials that require a decision and no plausible solution is in view?” The objective was: “A response from the listener of prayer and earnest trust in God when he or she encounters a trial in which he or she does not know what to do.” The point, or central idea, was: “When we encounter those inevitable situations that have no apparent solution, we should ask God for wisdom and expect Him to give it.”
[Scenario One]: The bills keep mounting. You’re doing everything you can do so as not to live above your means. You don’t like living week-to-week, wondering if you’re going to bounce a check and get one of those annoying fees charged to your account. You realize, like everyone else, that our economy has become oriented toward two-income households. But you think one of the parents should be at home with the children [Explore the need]. You have made the choice that Mom will remain home with the children, so that she can instill the Godly values that you so earnestly desire for your children [Explore the need].
The expenditures, however, keep coming — insurance premiums are up again, groceries keep climbing, the car has needed tires and shocks for several months, and now the dentist says that little Julie needs to have braces within the next year [Register the subject]. What are you going to do [Create anticipation]? Will Mom have to go to work? Will you move into a less-expensive home? Will you try to do without one of the cars? What can you do [Face the listener with the issue]?
[Scenario Two]: You come home from work, decided to head straight for the couch. From out of the ceiling, you suppose, come “the children!” They are excited about their Dad being home. Like any children, or any person, they want attention. But you’ve given people your attention all day. [Register the subject].
The truth is, you’d rather do what you’ve done every other night for who knows how long — sit in front of the television for a nice relaxing evening of escape. After all, the new shows are on, and you have to make your selections.
Everyone wants you and everyone wants your time! What do you do [Face the listener with the issue]?
What do you do when you don’t know what to do [Face the listener with the issue/Orient the listener to the subject]? The last two Sundays, we have been thinking about trials [Clarify the issue]. They are inevitable. They come because of God’s purpose for us. We need to recognize that God purposes trials in our lives, and react accordingly.
This morning, we focus on a particular kind of trial — the trial that requires a decision, when no answer seems plausible [Orient the listener to the subject].
What do you do when you don’t know what to do [Clarify the issue]?
Apparently, the Christians to whom James wrote his letter differed little from you and me [Direct the listener to God’s Word]. They faced this same question: What do you do when you don’t know what to do? And so God directed James to answer this question.
James’ answer is concise, to the point. If you don’t know what to do, take three steps: (1) ask God for wisdom, (2) believe that God will give you the wisdom, and (3) watch Him do it!
Let’s look at the verses to see exactly what James had in view when he issued these three directives for what to do when we don’t know what to do [Clarify the issue/Direct the listener to God’s Word].
When the introduction concluded, the person in the pew and the person in the pulpit faced the same issue. The listener assumed that trials include those situations when no plausible answer to a tough decision is apparent. The listener also discerned that God’s Word gives directions for knowing what to do when he or she encounters one of those trials.
Sermon introductions should lay a one-track course to the application desired in the listener. Sermons that begin by focusing on a different topic than that on which they end confuse the listener and hinder application. In order to aim at application from start to finish, we must begin in the introduction to face the listener with the issue, to orient the listener to the subject, and to entice the listener with the answer from God’s Word. In following these steps, we provide the spiritual import to what we are talking about and why God’s child should listen.
1. Hudson W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 33.
When President Calvin Coolidge returned home from church one Sunday morning his wife asked what the preacher had talked about. Coolidge responded “sin.”