Perhaps on TV or in a movie you have seen airplanes catapulted from an aircraft carrier. One second the plane is standing still on the deck of the ship. Suddenly the catapult fires hurling the plane from zero to flying speed in a burst of seconds. As I watch, I wonder what that must feel like from inside the airplane. Simply patching the launch is enough to give me whiplash!
While I’ve never been hurled from a deck in an airplane I have been catapulted into the middle of sermons. The preacher begins with the reading of the text. Then, suddenly, I find myself listening to the body of his sermon. I have been moved from zero to sermon in seconds flat as the preacher skipped any kind of introduction and launched abruptly into the main body of his sermon. It is a sermon without an introduction and its enough to give you homiletical whiplash!
Good sermon introductions prevent whiplash. Rather than catapulting listeners immediately into the body of the sermon, a good introduction moves them into the sermon.
There are many reasons why good sermons require good introductions. Let me mention two.
First, good introductions are important because people are not natural listeners. Television and media have transformed Americans into visually oriented watchers rather than listeners. Media has shortened attention spans of the average listener. You must remember that people do not come into your sanctuary ready to listen. They are watchers, not listeners.
Second, good sermon introductions are important because many of our people’s lives are filled with the hazy static of life. Getting ready for church that morning they had a fight with their teenager, husband, or wife. They come to church worried about their health or the security of their job. They are thinking about homework or projects that are due. They are thinking about the beautiful day and what they will do that afternoon following church. Worse, they are thinking about all the other things they could be doing that moment on that beautiful day rather than listening to you!
Haddon Robinson described well what many people are thinking as you step into the pulpit. “When a minister steps behind the pulpit he dare not assume that his congregation sits expectantly on the edge of the pews waiting for his sermons. In reality they are probably a bit bored and harbor a suspicion that he will make matters worse.”1
Your sermon introduction will either make matters worse or cut through the static of your people’s minds. Good sermons require good introductions. Without a good introduction you will be preaching to the choir and even some of them won’t be listening! The goal of your introduction, then, is to cut through the haze.
Many of your listeners are distracted. Others are bored. Through your introduction you seek to reach your listeners like radar through the fog of their lives. Therefore, developing a good introduction requires your careful thought, time, and imagination.
For that reason I believe it is important for you to consider your introduction a separate block of your sermon. Many preachers consider the conclusion an important block of the sermon. It certainly is. The conclusion wraps the sermon together. Think of the introduction as the unwrapping of the sermon. It draws the audience into the sermon. For that reason the introduction is one of the most important parts of your sermon. If the conclusion is the “feet” of the sermon, your introduction is its head. Your sermon may have a good pair of feet, but be headless!
What makes a sermon introduction good? How do you know one when you hear one?
Because your goal is to reach your people through the haze of their lives, your sermon introduction must accomplish three things. First, the introduction arrests the listeners’ distracted attention. How do you capture the interest of your audience? A good place to begin is with the sermon idea itself. Suppose for the sake of example that your sermon idea is: “Faithful gratitude is the acceptable response to God’s grace in your life.” That sermon idea raises many possibilities for your introduction. You can present that idea to the congregation asking them to remember when they received an unexpected gift as a surprise. They may have felt obligated in some way. That is, they may have felt the need to do something in return; a thank you note, a gift in return, something.
TV may provide you with a good introduction. I would refer to a recent episode of Frazier where just such a thing occurred. Daphne knitted Frazier’s dad a beautiful sweater. Upon receiving it, Frazer’s father complained he had nothing to give to Daphne in return and the free gift ended in an argument. “We have trouble accepting something for nothing just like Frazer’s dad, don’t we? That’s especially true when that ‘something’ is God’s free grace….”
Such an introduction can cut through the haze and land directly in their lives. The first task of your introduction is to capture your listeners’ interest.
Second, the listeners must understand why this message from these verses is worth their attention. In this portion of the introduction you answer a simple question. “Why must I listen to this sermon?” Your introduction must show your people that there is something in this sermon for them. Dealing with this portion of the introduction I often ask myself these questions: “Why is this message from these verses important to my people? What difference do these verses make for their lives?”
You must be clear when you answer those questions. They will transform the inattention of the listeners into purposeful attention. Your listeners will realize there is something in this sermon for them. While your listeners may be interested in the Bible they will need to be shown how this text is necessary for their lives at that moment. Dealing with the felt needs of the listeners establishes empathy between you and your audience. They realize that rather than preaching at them, your are speaking with them.
Let’s continue the fictitious sermon idea noted above. Once you have captured your listeners’ attention you need to press further by addressing their felt needs. “We have trouble accepting something for nothing, especially from God. We feel unworthy of the gift of grace. Or we feel we must achieve the honor as we would earn a grade in school or a promotion at work. The ‘freeness’ of the gift, that’s what overwhelms us.
“We think, ‘Is this really for me and really free?’ The resounding answer is, ‘Yes, it is absolutely for you and absolutely free!’ The only thing you can do is to receive it and say thank you.”
So then, you have gotten the attention of your listeners. You have shown them there is something in this sermon for them. There is one more thing. Your sermon introduction must orient your listeners to the Biblical text. The Biblical text, after all, is the point of the sermon. If your introduction does not move the listeners into the text it has failed its purpose. You will have the attention and interest of your congregation but you will have no meaningful answer! Let’s continue our fictional introduction. How could we orient our listeners toward our Romans text?
“I believe the idea of God’s free grace overwhelmed Paul, too. He realized his only response to God’s free grace was worshipful gratitude. Look, you see it in the verses we just Read…” Now you have their attention. The listeners realize there is something in this sermon for them. You have them with their noses planted in the verses.
Your sermon introduction must remain lean and concise. It should avoid emotionalism and sensationalism. I understand that someone once asked Abraham Lincoln how long a man’s legs should be. His supposed response was that they should be long enough to reach the ground. Your introduction must be long enough to get your audience from inattention in their pews to looking into the text and listening with interest. Make it no longer than that!
Take care to remove from your sermon introduction any extraneous thought that does not fit into the threefold purpose: Get their attention. Show them there is something in the sermon for them. Get them into the text. Then and only then should you move into the body of your sermon.
This threefold purpose looks good on paper. How does it preach? I have provided three sermon introduction examples. First, I provide a “non-introduction” which simply launches into the body of the sermon. Rather than words of introduction, the preacher catapults his listeners into the main body of his sermon. I also provide a sample introduction to the same sermon that follows the rules provided above.
EXAMPLE 1 (Text: Ephesians 6:10-18)
Non-Introduction: “As we think about these verses and the reality of the evil, I think it’s important to understand our enemy…”
Introduction: (Getting their attention.) “When I was growing up my family would often vacation for a week or so on the New Jersey shore. We were one of many families who went “down the shore” in Jersey. One of the things I would do on the beach was build sand castles. As you know, building sand castles by the waves is a losing battle. As the tide came in, down went my castle. No matter how quickly I made repairs, the in-coming tide always won. It was hopeless.”
(What’s in it for them?) “I suppose there are times we Christians look around this world and wonder if we might be fighting a losing battle against the in-coming tide of evil. As we think of the events around our nation it is easy to feel disillusioned, saddened, even hopeless by the reality of evil and its accomplishments. At times evil can seem to us an overpowering force in this world.”
(Orienting into the text) “Is our cause lost? Are we standing hopelessly as castles in the sand? No! Evil is indeed real and as malicious as ever. But God has already won the war. We must do what Paul urged his people to do. As God’s people we must recognize the reality of evil and stand firm in our hope. Evil is real. We’re on the side that has already won!…”
EXAMPLE 2 (Text: Psalm 150)
Non-introduction: “This Psalm begins by reminding us of the reason we worship God. It begins with the “why” of worship. Our reason for worshipping God is simple. We must worship God because he alone deserves it. We must worship God for his glorious (greatness…”
Introduction: (Getting their attention.) “Have you ever gotten into an argument concerning the appropriate way to worship God? You probably have. Maybe not an argument, but at least a serious discussion! Usually that discussion pits traditional folks against contemporary folks. You have the hand raisers on one side verses the quiet sitters on the other. Who’s right?”
(What’s in it for them?) “As you think about those discussions even now your stomach may be tightening and blood pressure rising. Worship is to be quiet and respectful! Worship is to be free and expressive! How can they sit there so quietly and sing those dusty old hymns? How can they make so much noise with those praise songs? Should worship be quiet and traditional or should it be free and expressive? You’ve been there, haven’t you?”
(Orienting into the text) “If you are looking to Psalm 150 to endorse your preferred style for worship you’re looking in the wrong place. Why? Because this psalm shows us that worship is not a matter of style. It is a matter of your heart. Appropriate worship flows from your heart to the throne of God. True worship is a matter of your heart, not style…”
EXAMPLE 3 (Text: Mark 10:2-12)
Non-introduction: “The Pharisees considered divorce a mere legal matter. It was something allowable under the correct circumstances. They argued among themselves about those circumstances. When they asked Jesus the question about divorce these Pharisees were out for blood. They knew the answer to their question. They wanted Jesus to say something they could use against him…”
Introduction: (Getting their attention) “When we were living at home both my brother and I tended to park our cars on the street in front of our home. One morning we discovered that someone had tapped our cars causing one to role into the other, locking our bumpers. While we were separating our cars I noticed one of our neighbors walking over to us. Thinking he was curious I said, “Some jerk hit our cars and locked up our bumpers!” A sheepish, embarrassed expression overtook his face. He said, “I’m the jerk!” Oops! I felt slightly embarrassed when I realized I just called a good neighbor a jerk!”
(What’s in it for them?) “I have a similar feeling in covering these verses this morning. Divorce is a sensitive issue. Most of us here this morning have been touched by divorce. Some of you are divorced. Some of your kids are divorced. If divorce has not touched your immediate family, it has touched your friendships. Some of you have been in the difficult position of trying to maintain a friendship with a couple whose marriage has dissolved. Divorce has touched everyone of us, some of us very painfully.”
(Orienting into the text) “Divorce was a painful subject in Jesus’ day, too. There were some people who tried to put Jesus on the spot with this topic of divorce. I imagine as the Pharisees presented their question to Jesus, people leaned forward to hear his answer. What is his answer? How do we live Jesus’ answer in our lives?”
Notice the examples of non-introductions. Your listeners have not been given time to transition into the sermon. On the other hand, introductions move the audience into the body of the sermon by capturing the listeners’ attention. They show the people there is something in the sermon for them. Each introduction finishes by orienting the listeners into the text.
Good sermons require good introductions. Your sermon introduction is a crucial block of your sermon. The attention of your audience hangs in the balance. Get their attention. Show them there’s something in the sermon for them. Put their noses into the text. Follow these rules and your listeners will follow your sermon!
1Robinson, Haddon, Biblical Preaching, The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), p. 160

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