Ernest Hemingway said that his most anguishing hours as a writer were spent deciding how to begin a novel. After he had developed the plot, story line, the main and supporting characters, he would sit with a blank page before him wondering how to start in a way that would grip his readers.
Finally, he would sit in front of the fireplace with an orange in his hand. He would carefully peel the orange and let the peelings drop into the fire. As the blue flames sputtered and flickered, Hemingway tried to focus on the one thing he wanted to communicate. When that was clear, the opening paragraphs formed in his mind; and he was ready to return to his desk and fill the blank page, and hundreds of pages after that.
As preachers, we can certainly empathize with Hemingway’s stress over getting started. I can remember many Tuesday afternoons (when I write my sermons) sitting at my desk with everything in an outline completed except the introduction. The sermon had been planned the summer before while I was on study leave. Ideas and illustrations had been gathered in the subsequent months. Monday and Tuesday morning had been spent on indepth research and Bible study. Now it was time to write the sermon. How would I begin?
The purpose of this essay is to share what I have discovered over thirty-six years of Tuesday afternoons spent waiting, praying, and sometimes pacing until the most effective introduction to the sermon came. And when it did, I knew it was the gift of the Holy Spirit, the result of a lot of hard work in the preparation of the main points of the body of the sermon, a profound love for my listeners, and a longing to communicate with them.
The first three minutes of the sermon determine the effectiveness of the whole message. Whether we preach twenty minutes or a half-hour, during these three minutes of the sermon it is crucial to “set the hook.” What we write in the first two pages of a ten to fifteen page manuscript will either win or lose our audience.
The introduction of a particular sermon must be consistent with our purpose in preaching. The sermon is our part of an ongoing dialogue with our people. It arises out of listening to them and to God in our study of the Word and prayer. We listen to our people in conversation and counseling with sensitivity to what is going on in them, their relationships, and their struggle with the soul-sized issues of justice and righteousness in our society. We need to know their deepest needs and most urgent questions, their greatest hopes and hurts. I have found it helpful to do a yearly survey of what is on my people’s minds and hearts.
Listening to our people helps us live on the “growing edge” with them. This does not mean that people’s expressed needs limit the preaching of the full gospel or the full counsel of God in Scripture. When we feel led to preach on an aspect of the gospel that has not been articulated in these expressed needs, that too gives us a springboard for our dialogue. If we have taken time to really know our people, we will know when an unasked question about discipleship, evangelism, or social justice exposes an even greater need.
Planning a whole year’s preaching ahead of time in our summer study leave enables us to be sure that, having listened to God in our prayers and Bible study, we have included messages for both their expressed needs and those we have discerned beneath the surface. In our introduction to the sermon, we can establish in words and attitude our empathy, caring, and how the message is going to make a difference in people’s lives.
The next thing I have learned about effective introductions to sermons is that they should be written out after the outline of the sermon has been completed. During my research, I have three sets of paper handy: one for the introduction, one for the body of thought, and another for the conclusion. On the introduction pages, under Roman numeral “I,” I put “A — Opening paragraphs to be completed later.” Then under “B,” I write out a statement of the purpose of the message. “C” is for illustrations, stories, or anecdotes that may be useful in writing the introduction when the outline of the body of thought and the conclusion have been fully assembled.
The purpose statement, “B” of the outline of the introduction is strategic and of primary importance. Leslie D. Weatherhead, for years distinguished preacher of the historic City Temple in London, said:
It is my practice, when I am trying to make a sermon, to write out at the head of a sheet of paper the aim of the sermon — what I hope the sermon will achieve. It is a good thing for the preacher to keep that in mind lest he preach a sermon of interest, and perhaps, usefulness to himself, but to very few others. Let him set down in black and white what he expects his discourse will do.1
Without that kind of clarity and purpose, the sermon will aim at nothing and hit it. The lack of a clear purpose statement will also make writing the introduction very difficult. The goal of an introduction is to state the purpose of the message in the most effective and varied form.
We preach in a day of “media bites” and secular television communicators who have polished the art of capturing and keeping people’s attention. Lengthy, rambling introductions to our sermons that might satisy our own need for rapport with our people will not work today.
A parishioner described his pastor’s introductions to sermons in a colorful way: “Ever see a bull at a bullfight when it’s getting ready to run head-long toward the matador’s red flag? It moves about nervously, sniffs and snorts, rakes the ground with its front hooves, then finally focuses on the target and goes for it with gusto. Well, our pastor is like that in the first minutes of his sermon. Once he gets going, it’s pure gold, but oh, the agony of the beginning — for him and for the congregation!”
This pastor’s proclivity distracts from the content of the body of the message. Chances are that he has not topped-off his extensive research with a carefully prepared introduction.
This will require both writing and memorizing the introduction. Writing is the expression of refined and polished thought. Memorizing our introductions frees us to look our people in the eye and establish communication. It need not be word for word, but repeated readings of it plus saying it out loud will fix it in our verbal memory patterns.
So, the content of the introduction should clarify the purpose of the message, establish empathy, hold out the promise of what the “take away” from hearing the message will be; and it should be one of a variety of different types.
Predictability is the preacher’s bane and the congregation’s boredom. A preacher who always starts with an anecdote, three points, and a poem deserves the “ho-hum” attitude he eventually receives from his congregation. To avoid this, it is good to actually keep a log of the types of introductions used and be sure they have been rotated. Here are the types I have found most effective:
1. A personal story from my own life pilgrimage, followed by application of the biblical text and statement of purpose.
2. A real-life story that gets to the essence of what you feel called to preach, followed by the purpose of the message and the biblical text.
3. An anecdote or parable from contemporary life or history that exposes the central issue of the biblical text. Then state the purpose and press on with the thesis and points of the body of thought.
4. A direct statement of the biblical text and what it promises for our contemporary life.
5. A sympathetic reference to a need expressed by many in the congregation and how the biblical text offers a promise to meet that need.
6. The dramatic retelling of the story line of a biblical account with “you are there” intensity and sensitivity. State the purpose and, with empathy, hold out the hope that what happened then can happen now.
7. The straightforward statement of a contemporary problem, moving to the biblical text and the idea that the truth therein is the solution to that problem.
8. Asking questions that get to the core of a human need. These “Do you ever …” questions should be followed by an “Of course, we all do,” kind of empathy, and then the statement of how God can meet the need and how this message will help explain what He is ready to do.
9. A clearly stated paragraph of the essential truth which the entire message will elucidate. Then break down into the points to be covered and press on.
10. Recounting of a current news item that is on people’s minds, dilating the contemporary focus for the biblical text to be preached. This opens the way to show how the Bible speaks today, answers our “why” questions, and meets our deepest needs.
As you can see, all of these types of introduction prepare the way for biblical exposition. A verse or portion of Scripture must always be the basis of the sermon. Even topical preaching must be rooted to the authoritative Word of God. Though we draw from the rich biblical passages to illustrate the basic verse or paragraph of Scripture on which the sermon is based, we should thoroughly explain the primary position with which we are dealing. This provides lasting biblical education as well as inspiration for our people.
When we do a series of sermons or move through a book of the Bible, verse by verse, focusing on a verse or paragraph each week, it is best to do the transitional explanation prior to the reading of the Scripture rather than at the beginning of the sermon. The continuity lines like “Last week we considered” or “Today we move on in our exposition of __________” will become cumbersome and ineffective in the introduction. A sermon is to be a focused laser beam that begins its penetration into the listener’s mind and heart from the very beginning.
In any and all the types of introduction to a sermon I have listed, there must be a note of urgency, authority, and vulnerability. A congregation needs to know that the sermon is crucial for their lives, now and for eternity. Since we are not simply proclaiming our views but God’s good news, we should communicate a “thus says the Lord” sense of intrepid conviction.
At the same time, we must indicate that the truth we are about to proclaim has had an impact on our own lives. Thus we do not stand over or above our people, telling them something they need to know which we have long since digested and are living to perfection. Rather we stand with them as mutual recipients of what the Lord has to say through His Word.
Now, let us go over the types of introductions I listed and consider some examples of each of them. The actual wording of some of these types will appear in bold type:
One of my favorite stories is about the Episcopal priest who went out into the chancel of a cathedral and spoke the traditional words, “The Lord be with you,” to which the people were to respond “and with your spirit.” Since the nave and the chancel were divided by a distance, the priest was totally dependent on the public address system. The congregation had not heard his opening remarks because two little wires in the microphone were disconnected. Catching the eye of a fellow priest in the chancel, he banged the microphone in his hand. As he did, the two little wires were reconnected and what he said to his fellow priest was broadcast loudly throughout the sanctuary. “There’s something wrong with this microphone!” he shouted. And the people, with rote, patterned response said, “And with your spirit.”
This story then can be followed by something like these transitional lines: All of us at times have something wrong with our spirits, our dispositions, and moods. You and I have a mutual problem: sometimes our dispositions contradict what we say we believe. But what do you do when you feel down or have a rotten disposition? I know from experience that trying to talk myself into a new attitude with glib thought conditioners doesn’t work. Know what I mean? I know you do. We are cut from the same cloth, you and I, when it comes to wardrobing the future.
Often we panic, blame others or circumstances, react with fear, or pretend we’ve got it all together. It’s then that we need grace, the grace of the Lord Jesus, and His Spirit to transform us. Paul’s final benediction in his letter to the Galatians is more than a traditional postscript. Backed up by a living Lord, it is a promise that we don’t have to stay the way we feel. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” We are offered a grace-captivated disposition! Now let’s discover what that really is, how we can receive it fresh every day and how we can become communicators of grace.
The use of true stories of other people can be very effective as an introduction. The story should exemplify the essence of the main point and purpose of the sermon. If the account is of a contemporary person, be sure to get permission, and if historical, be sure to get the facts straight.
A couple allowed me to use the account of a turbulent counseling session with me before they were reconciled and began a new life together. The account opened a sermon on Christian marriage:
The couple sat on the couch in my study. They sat as far apart as the arms on the two ends of the couch would permit. The husband went on endlessly in a tirade about all that his wife refused to be for him in their marriage. The woman, feeling unjustly accused, sat in stony silence until she could endure it no longer. She leaped to her feet, walked to the other end of the couch, and burst out in anger: “What will it ever take to satisfy you?”
That’s the essential question, isn’t it? What would it take to satisfy you in your marriage? Sooner or later we are forced to discover that only Christ can satisfy our deepest needs. And when He does, we are set free to serve our mates rather than keep a running account of the deficits of what he or she has not done.
One Easter I opened my sermon by telling about a man who had received the risen, reigning Christ as Savior and indwelling Lord. The shocker was that he had been a church member for years and had been to forty-five Easter services in his fifty-five years of life. His story led into the basic theme: “For Resurrection living there’s Resurrection power.”
A woman I will call Julie gave me permission to share what happened one Sunday morning. It provided a personal account of forgiveness for the opening of a message on God’s indefatigable love. The introduction went something like this:
As I greeted the congregation streaming out of the sanctuary, a woman named Julie shook my hand and urgently asked if she could talk to me after I finished. I knew something was wrong when I was finally able to talk with Julie that Sunday morning. She threw her arms around me, sobbing compulsively. Then I looked into her lovely face that drugs and hard living had plowed with furrows beyond her years. Her eyes were filled with pain.
“Lloyd, I stumbled! Is there hope for me?” Julie sobbed. She had slipped back into her addiction in a two-day binge. Since then she had been staying away from church because she couldn’t imagine that the Lord would forgive her, or that she would be accepted by her new Christian friends.
Well, you be the judge. Is there hope for Julie? Or for you or me, whatever we’ve done or been? Is there ever a time when God stops loving us or offering us forgiveness?
Accounts of historical characters also provide a launching-pad lift to an introduction. The sources seem endless. Excavating the treasure of these accounts comes from reading extensively in biographies and autobiographies as well as general history.
An account of Bishop Jean Massillon’s funeral oration for Louis XIV gave me exactly what I needed to open a message on pride and the grace of God:
Notre Dame Cathedral was filled to overflowing in a spectacular moment in a secular age. The glorious, proud reign of Louis XIV had ended. His casket was placed at the center of the chancel with only one large candle beside it. That’s the way the king had arranged it in his will for his funeral. Massillon mounted the pulpit. The audience fell silent. Massillon announced his text from the Vulgate, Ecclesiastes 1:16: “I spoke in my heart, saying, ‘Behold, I have become great, and have advanced in wisdom beyond all who were before me in Jerusalem’.”
After a long pause to allow the text to have its full effect, Massillon said: “God only is great, my brethren; and above all in those last moments when He presides at the death of the kings of the earth, the more their glory and their power have shown forth, the more vanishes: then do they render homage to His greatness; God then appears all that He is, and man is no more at all than which he believed himself to be.”
Massillon finished his sermon and left the pulpit, walked to the casket and solitary candle. He snuffed out the candle and repeated: “God only is great!”
After a story like that, it takes only a few transitional sentences to get into the body of thought for a message on the greatness of God and our false pride!
One of the best introductions I have ever heard for a sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” was: An English preacher was holding meetings in northern Ireland. The preacher returned to his lodging and as he stepped into the room, a hand grasped the locks at the back of his head and swung him around the room in anger. The assailant was not a member of the IRA, but the preacher’s termagant, shrewish wife. The year was not in the later twentieth century, but around 1771. The woman’s name was Mary, but she went by the name Molly. And her husband’s name was John Wesley!2
Our ideas that our heroes and heroines had it all together is wrong. They, like all of us, hold the treasure in earthen vessels.
Life around us today is also filled with living parables. They are in newspapers, magazines, novels, and contemporary biographies and autobiographies, as well as other books on psychology and management. For example, Tom Peters’ best-seller on the management revolution provides a wonderful starting place for a sermon on pressure and stress. The book is entitled Thriving on Chaos. As Christians, we thrive in chaos; what a difference! From that concept, it is only a short step to introducing John 16:33 and Jesus’ promise of courage.
Another method of introduction to a sermon is the statement of the text and what it promises for contemporary life. Arthur John Gossip, one of the great preachers of Scotland in the 1920’s, often expressed a Scot’s directness by simply stating the text from the Scripture and then launching into his consistently magnificent exposition. His sermon, “That Queer Complex, Human Nature” is a good example. He gave his text from Luke 3:38, “The son of Adam, the son of God,” and opened by saying: “There you have it, thrown down bluntly and vividly for all to see, the littleness and the greatness of man, that baffling self-contradiction, carried to such unbelievable lengths … that stares at and confuses all of us. A son of Adam, a mere transient nothing; earthly and of the earth; and yet a son of God, with real unquenchable spark of the divine in him! How both? Yet, is it not so we are formed, and from the jar and noisy clashing of those two opposites in us there arise all our unrest and all our glory?”
You can be sure that opening paragraph did not come ad-lib and off-the-cuff. No, it was the result of polished writing and rewriting.
Congregations enjoy varied openings to sermons. After several weeks of sermons opening with stories or anecdotes, it is a welcome change for the preacher to begin by saying: “Let’s get straight to the point.” Then give a statement of the basic presupposition, the thesis of the message, and the biblical truth to be expounded. However, there should be a vivid illustration early on to give the people an opportunity to feel as well as conceptualize the thrust of the message. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was the master of this method.
James I. Packer, in an evaluation of Lloyd-Jones’ preaching, wrote this about his introductions:
He first announces his text, usually with some variant of the formula: “I should like to call your attention to ….” The formula means just what it says. Lloyd-Jones is an expository and textual preacher and the whole concern of his sermon will be to make us attend to the message which his text contains. Next, he begins to talk around some problem of life or thought today; or some issue arising from the congregation’s circumstances, on which the text will in due course be heard to speak; or perhaps he will point to the way in which some feature of the text or context exposes and questions us today…. The style of these opening minutes is conversational, informal and unstudied, yet at the same time serious and business-like. You are made to feel at once that Lloyd-Jones knows exactly where he is going and that his perception of life’s issues is such that he will be well worth accompanying.
The dramatic description of a biblical account, putting our listeners in the scene, is also an effective method. Some time ago, I did a message entitled “Drop That Stone!” in which I described the John 8:1-11 account of a woman caught in adultery from the accuser’s point of view. After a full description of the passage from inside the skins of all involved, I had four points about judgmentalism and forgiveness of others and ourselves. During the entire sermon I held a large stone which I forcefully dropped at the end of the message, while calling everyone to drop the stones of condemnation and unforgiveness they had been carrying.
Another effective way of opening the sermon is with personal questions. My professor, James S. Stewart, was a master craftsman of many different methods of introducing the sermon. I am indebted to him for the lasting, indelible impression of great preaching. In a sermon on the omnipotence of God, Stewart displayed the use of questions as the introduction: “What is the biggest fact in life to you at this moment? What is the real center of your universe? The biggest fact in life?’ replies one man. ‘Well, I reckon it is my home. That for me is the center of everything.’ A very noble thing to be able to say! ‘The main fact in life to me,’ says a second, ‘is, without any shadow of doubt, my work. If you take that away from me, you just take everything.’ ‘The central thing for me,’ declares a third, ‘is health and happiness. As long as I have that, I’m quite content. I can’t bear to be unhappy.’ But what is your answer?” In one brief paragraph, Stewart involved the listener and drew him or her into mental dialogue.
A concluding word about introductions to sermons must acknowledge that some of the best preachers of history differ greatly in how they started their sermons. Robert Murray McCheyne’s introductions were generally weak, almost nonexistent. He usually began with an exposition of words and phrases of his text and only occasionally did he make a statement of his theme. A contemporary of John Henry Newman commented on his preaching: “Three things impress us. First, the directness of the address. He gets to work promptly, drives straight at his mark, and closes with direct appeal.” Studying the sermons of Washington Gladden reveals that his introductions were always brief.
As an admirer of the sermons of G. Campbell Morgan, I was surprised to read a first-hand account of his introductions. Alexander Gammis, in Preachers I Have Heard, wrote: “Morgan appeared stiff and awkward at the beginning of the sermon. But once he had plunged into his subject, there was a wonderful transformation. The whole man appeared to palpitate with an uncontrollable energy.”3
Helmut Thielicke, on the other hand, gave a great deal of attention to his introductions. He used them to establish immediate contact with his audience and state the theme of his message. He established rapport with the contemporary mind and laid the groundwork for the theme of the message. Penetrating questions, which he answered in the body of the sermon, often served as the main thrust of the introduction.
Some who gave little attention to their introductions and could have been even more effective if they had given more attention to them, and the success of others was measurably increased because of time spent polishing their preparation for the strategic opening minutes of their sermons.
Now to summarize, allow me to put what I have tried to communicate into several positive admonitions for the introduction of the sermon:
– Vary the types of introductions.
– Write them out with great care.
– Prepare the introduction after your research is completed and the thrust of the sermon is clear in your mind.
– Be sure the introduction meets the five tests: arrests attention, establishes your empathy, states the biblical text, clarifies the purpose of the sermon, and promises what the “take away” will be for the listener.
– Memorize the introduction so you can give it, looking the congregation in the eye.
May it always be said of us what was said of Phillips Brooks after his preparation of the sermon manuscript was completed. “The sermon was now in Brooks himself, like a banked furnace waiting to break forth with heat.
1. Robert J. McCracken, The Making of the Sermon, (New York, Harpers, n.d.), 91-93.
2. John Pudney, John Wesley and His World, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 101.
3. Alexander Gammis, Preachers I Have Heard.
From A Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Michael Duduit, Editor. Copyright (c) 1993 by Broadman Press. Used by permission.

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