Introduction

Calvin Miller likens the naming of a sermon to the naming of a baby. In an article devoted to sermon titles, he writes:

In times past, I have fallen in love with next Sunday’s sermon as early as Monday. My enthusiasm for the coming homily was rampant. I sensed the Spirit moving all through my study. My preparation seemed imaginative and Spirit-driven. But on Friday, by the time the bulletin went to press, Monday’s infernal brainchild still did not have a name. Secretaries and office associates gathered around and badgered me to name the little pulpit waif, but alas, no name seemed worthy. Finally, out of time and in terminal desperation, I would rip off the “Baby Miller” sermon title and call it something mundane just as the laser printer was chomping at its chips….We name babies and sermons to give them identity and significance. Unnamed anythings are harder to love and harder to file (this is truer of sermons than babies). Furthermore, it is almost impossible ever to be proud of anything unnamed.[1]

A child without a name is still a living, breathing human being; however, names give reference to specific people and become a part of each person’s identity. The same is true of sermons. A sermon is still a sermon without a title; however, a title creates reference to a specific sermon and it becomes a part of its identity. Sermons titles do not create a sermon or make a sermon great. In an interview with Hershael York about sermon titles, he stated, “A really good sermon can overcome and bad title, but a good title cannot overcome a bad sermon.”[2] Therefore, being in agreement with Dr. York, the purpose of this paper is not to argue that sermon titles make better sermons; instead, the purpose of this paper is to understand the value of a sermon title, to understand what makes a sermon title compelling, and to provide developed principles by which preachers can develop sermon titles well.

The baby needs to be named, but the baby has to be born in order to be named. The very fact that a person bears a name is based on the fact that he or she is living and breathing and in the world. The same is true of the sermon. It must be named, but the hard work of writing a good sermon must be done first in order to develop a title that is compelling and serves the hard work of the sermon that has been created. When the hard work of sermon writing has been completed, it is only then that the sermon title gives added value to the sermon.

The Value of the Sermon Title

Although the sermon title cannot turn a bad sermon into a good one, it can bring value to the sermon. The sermon title has the potential to create wonder in the mind. It has the opportunity to capture the attention of a potential listener. Rick Warren writes, “Like the cover of a book or the first line of an advertisement, your sermon’s title must capture the attention of those you want to influence.”[3]

The sermon title does not function within the preaching moment; instead, the title functions as a means of advertisement and identification for filing purposes. Scripture can even be used for filing and retrieval purposes; therefore, the greatest function of a sermon title is advertisement. It provides an opportunity to gain the interest of future listeners, even before they sit in the pew. This is the value of a sermon title.

In an article written by Brian Mavis, he gives an example of how content does not have to change, but a title can change the interest level of a subject. He writes, “A Virginia high school offered a class called ‘Home Economics for Boys.’ It generated little interest. The next year it was renamed ‘Bachelor Living.’ The result was tremendous. 120 boys eagerly enrolled. The curriculum didn’t change, but the image did. It needed a new identity before the boys would identify with it.”[4] The old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” may be true, but the reality is, books are judged by their covers each and every day. There is a reason book publishers hire talented graphic artists and spend time tweaking titles of every book that is to be placed on a shelf. People grab books off a shelf and inspect them based upon their appeal, and the appeal is found in the title. Nothing is more intriguing than walking by a book and having to pick it up because the title captures the mind’s imagination and wonder. The sermon title has this same potential.

David McClellan uses an image of fishing while discussing creating suspense in the sermon. In relating sermon titles to bating the hook, he writes,

A final tool for preaching with suspense is the sermon title. Typically, this is the congregation’s first glimpse of the message. If they see “Five Ways to Improve Your Marriage” or “God’s Passion for Good Marriages,” they already know the topic and tone and can probably guess what the conclusion will be. Little curiosity is aroused. On the other hand, a title like “What Marriage Seminars Will Never Teach You” starts to build suspense before the preacher utters a word. A suspenseful title leaves people wondering what they might miss if they don’t “tune in” on Sunday.[5]

The sermon title has the potential to function as a pre-introduction to the sermon. It is through the introduction of the sermon that the preacher works hard to gain the attention of the listener. A good sermon title has the potential to create an interest, even before the preacher stands to preach.

The value of the sermon title is its potential for creating interest with listeners before the preaching moment takes place. To some, sermon titles might seem irrelevant because the average preacher does not print his sermon title in the local newspaper as used to be normal practice. However, the argument can be made that, within the digital age in which is now present, sermon titles hold much more importance, as there are many opportunities to advertise sermon titles throughout a week prior to Sunday mornings, or whenever the preaching moment is taking place. A church website provides an opportunity for advertisement. Facebook provides an opportunity for advertisement. Twitter provides an opportunity for advertisement. Most churches still publish a bulletin or something similar for Sundays. Publishing the title within a publication such as this provides advertisement for the sermon, even if it is a short time before the preaching moment. Curiosity and thought is being created in the mind of the future listener.

The value of the sermon title is its potential to advertise the sermon creatively, with hopes of causing a curiosity and a necessity for people to have to hear the sermon. A sermon title is not necessary; however, it has value—a value that cannot be nullified. To not take advantage of the sermon title is not in the best interest of preacher and the sermon he has worked to prepare. The hard truth, however, is that not all titles are good or compelling. In order to truly take advantage of the value of sermon titles, it must be understood what makes a sermon title compelling.

A Compelling Sermon Title

 To this point, the term, sermon title, has been used generically to identify the title given to a sermon. However, it is also at this point that specificity must be made. As mentioned by Miller, a name given to a sermon may come in haste, and it may not be compelling in the least. The preacher’s desire is to not hastily produce a sermon title that gives no warrant for listening. Instead, the preacher’s desire should be to create a title—based upon the sermon—that is compelling, warranting a reason for someone to need to listen. In order to create compelling titles, certain ideas must be in the mind of the creator in order to understand what constitutes a compelling sermon title.

A Compelling Sermon Title Creates Curiosity

A compelling title will captivate the desire of a future listen. Another way of saying this is that, a tension will be created for the future listener, and the only way he or she might have this tension resolved is to hear the sermon. In answering a question about curiosity within the sermon title, John Ortberg states”

A title also needs to have clarity, so that people get the concept. They need to know what the message is going to be about and feel that this is a topic they would like to hear more about. Even so, it must have an edge. If this title is bland, it suggests to the people that the talk is going to be predictable and bland. Why should I come to hear this? I’ve heard it before. If you just say you’re going to talk about “Prayer,” the average person has heard messages about prayer before. There’s no promise in that title that says they’re going to learn something they don’t already know.[6]

Tension is necessary in sermon titles in order to create curiosity. It is through curiosity that the value of the sermon title is increased, because now a future listener has a desire to hear the sermon.

Jesus created curiosity in His listeners many times. Jesus understood that curiosity caused people to wonder and ask questions. Jesus did this through His teaching and by the way He lived His life. A story recorded in the Gospels is of Jesus eating with a man named Levi and tax collectors. Luke writes:

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:27-32).[7]

Curiosity caused the Pharisees to ask question of Jesus. Although they scoffed at His choice to eat with tax collectors, they were still curious as to why exactly He was making this choice. Through their curiosity, they learned that each person in this world is sick and needs a doctor; however, unfortunately, the Pharisees did not recognize the disease of sin in their lives. This does show, however, how curiosity causes questions, and Jesus understood this. We must understand this, too, when creating compelling sermon titles. Curiosity is much like hunger; it must be fed.

A Compelling Sermon Title Has Clarity

 While tension creates curiosity, the tension does not need to create ambiguity. Ortberg brings about this point, even as he discusses tension within the sermon title. He says, “A title must have clarity, so that people get the concept.”[8] The desire is not for someone to sit in the pew on a Sunday morning expecting one particular subject to only walk away thinking, “That sermon was nothing of what I thought it would be.” This is not the point of a sermon title. Trickery is not the purpose of the sermon title. The sermon title should point the listener to the sermon, causing him or her to have a good understanding of what the sermon will be, while the tension is found in developing a thought on a subject that is unexpected or uncommon to the potential listener. Trickery will only cause the preacher to lose the trust of the listener. If someone chose to read a book, believing the book was about a particular subject based upon the title, only to learn after fifty pages that they had been tricked, the reader would be frustrated and would feel slighted. This is no different for the preacher and the listener. The title cannot cause the listener to believe that the sermon is on one subject, while it truly is about another.

In discussing clarity within a sermon title, Rick Warren writes:

I also ask myself, “Will this title stand on its own—without additional explanation?” If I read this title on a cassette tape five years from today, would I instantly know what the sermon was about? Unfortunately, many compelling evangelistic messages are hampered by titles that are confusing, colorless, or corny.[9]

Being able to have a clear understanding of what the sermon will be is necessary to creating a compelling sermon title. Clarity is a must.

A Compelling Sermon Title Is Relevant

 Scripture is relevant; therefore, it is useless to give a sermon a title that is not relevant. A good sermon is comprised of application that not only shows the relevance of Scripture, but makes the Scripture relevant in a person’s life, as he or she seeks to live a life holy and pleasing to God. That which was applicable in the life of a man in 1950 is not necessarily applicable to a man in 2016, and vice versa. In 1950, the horrors and struggles of internet pornography were not conceived; however, in 2016, internet pornography is one of the largest business industries in the world. Scripture speaks about sexual immorality; therefore, it is relevant for our day, but understanding how sexual immorality is manifested in 2016 is necessary in order to be completely relevant. Just as application within the sermon seeks to be relevant, the sermon title, too, must carry as much weight in being relevant.

This idea is most crucial in advertising the sermon to those who are not of the church—those who do not believe that Jesus Christ is their Lord. Rick Warren writes:

Will this title capture the attention of people? Because we are called to communicate truth, we may assume unbelievers are eager to hear the truth. They aren’t. In fact, surveys show the majority of Americans reject the idea of absolute truth. Today, people value tolerance more than truth….While most unbelievers aren’t looking for truth, they are looking for relief. This gives us the opportunity to interest them in truth. I’ve found that when I teach the truth that relieves their pain, answers their question, or solves their problem, unbelievers say, “Thanks! What else is true in that book?” Showing how a biblical principle meets a need creates a hunger for more truth. Titles that deal with the real questions and hurts of people can attract an audience, giving us an opportunity to teach the truth.[10]

Relevance is found in the struggles and pains of people. Most people are interested and want to know how to resolve that which is causing conflict or struggle in their lives. Titles should be created with the needs and struggles of people in mind. Through the realistic struggles of humanity, relevance will be found.

Jesus was very relevant in His teaching. He dealt with the issues of His time in such a way that was relevant for His time. Matthew writes, “’You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven’” (Matthew 5:43-45a). Jesus took a phrase that was completely relevant and used it to teach truth to His listeners. Jesus was a master teacher, and His relevance is undeniable throughout the Scripture. If the preacher seeks to preach in a way that is relevant, he must seek to title the sermon in such a way that it is relevant, which leads to a compelling sermon title.

Warren writes:

Does the title relate to everyday life? Some people criticize life-application preaching as shallow, simplistic, and inferior. To them the only real preaching is didactic, doctrinal preaching. Their attitude implies that Paul was more profound than Jesus, that Romans is deeper material than the Sermon on the Mount or the parables. The “deepest” teaching is what makes a difference in people’s day-to-day lives. As D.L. Moody once said, “The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge but to change our lives.”…Using sermon titles that appeal to felt needs isn’t being shallow; it’s being strategic. At Saddleback, beneath our “how-to” sermon titles is hard-core gospel truth….We have the most important message in the world. It changes lives. But for people to be attracted to it, the titles of our sermons must capture their attention.[11]

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important message in the world. Why would a preacher not want to attract as many people as possible to sit in front of him to hear this most important message? This is the value of a relevant sermon title. Relevant sermon titles will draw potential listeners to come hear the greatest message they will ever hear, which leads to the final thought about what makes a compelling sermon title. 

A Compelling Sermon Title States Good News

There is so much negative in this world, and preachers have the greatest message in the entire world to preach. Although there are grave realities that must be preached throughout Scripture, the hope of Jesus Christ is always a reality and a part of the message, even the hard sermons. Therefore, the best, most compelling sermon titles shimmer with the hope of the Gospel. Warren writes:

Is the title good news? In his first sermon, Jesus announced the tone of his preaching: “The Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me to preach good news” (Luke 4:18). Even when I have difficult or painful news to share, I want my title to focus on the good news aspects of my subject. For instance, years ago I preached a message on the ways we miss God’s blessing because of our sinfulness. I titled the sermon, “Why No Revival?” Later I revised the title to “What Brings Revival?” It was the same message, only restated in positive terms. I believe God blessed the latter message in a far greater way.[12]

In the case of Warren’s sermon title, he was still able to preach the same message, but the second sermon title, stated positively, allowed him to preach against sin, but it also allowed him to easily point the listener to applications that have the potential to bring about revival. The first title seems to say, “Let me tell you how you have failed,” while the second title seems to say, “Let me tell you how you can have revival in your life and beyond.” There is such a great difference between the two. The second is much more compelling. Everyone wants to hear good news. Allow the sermon title to create a belief that good news is exactly what will be heard.

It must be said that not every sermon title will encompass each of these traits all of the time. There will be times that clarity trumps curiosity. There may be times that not being directly relevant creates curiosity, or vice versa. The desire, though, is to understand that these four elements create compelling sermon titles; therefore, if one of the elements is not present within the sermon title, let it be a result of intentionality, not haste or laziness. These four elements, too, are not exhaustive; however, a foundation is created through these elements that allow a sermon title to function well and to be compelling. Thinking through these elements as one writes the sermon title, and in analysis of the sermon title after it has been written, will lead to stronger, more compelling sermon titles. These elements describe compelling sermon titles, but in order to create compelling sermon titles, the preacher must work through a process and different possibilities to finally have a created title.

Principles for Creating Compelling Sermon Titles

Too often, creativity is made to seem as an “aha!” moment. When in reality, most creativity comes from much work and effort. Most creative geniuses of history were creative because they constantly worked to create and develop different ideas.

The average person, when faced with a problem, begins to think reproductively about the problem, meaning because they have been taught to think a certain way about certain ideas, their minds immediately revert to this way of thinking.[13] Michael Michalko writes, however:

In contrast, geniuses think productively, not reproductively. When confronted with a problem, they ask themselves how many different ways they can look the problem, how they can rethink it, and how many different ways can they solve it, instead of asking how they have been taught to solve it. They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional, and possibly, unique….With productive thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can, considering the least as well as the most likely approaches. It is willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one.[14]

In order to develop compelling sermon titles, the preacher must be willing to work through different thoughts in order to look at all the different options available. By the end of the process, instead of trying to determine one title for the sermon, the preacher may find himself with multiple title options and having to pick what he believes to be the best. This is a better option than giving a title to a sermon with no real thought.

The following portion of this paper will present different ideas and filters through which preachers can develop compelling sermon titles. This is not an exhaustive set of ideas for creating sermon titles; however, these ideas will allow the preacher to begin to develop a creative process that is natural for him to create compelling sermon titles.

Create the Title after the Sermon Is Written

As stated previously, sermon titles hold the purpose of capturing attention and advertising the sermon; therefore, the sermon title should represent what the sermon is about. However, if one is not careful, a crafty sermon title can come to mind long before a sermon is ever written. This leads to the title becoming the subject of the message, which will be a topical message at best. This is not the point of the sermon title.

Hershael York made it clear in his interview, “Once I’ve written the sermon, then I seek to name it.”[15] The following two ideas will deal with how one can use certain portions of the sermon to develop a title, but in order to use the sermon, one must first have the sermon. Trying to the name the sermon before it is ever written is creating a trap, because now the sermon title is dictating the sermon, when the sermon should be dictating the sermon title. Allow the creation of the sermon title to be the final step in the sermon creation.

Consider the Big Idea of the Sermon

Haddon Robinson argues that every sermon should have a big idea. There should be one overarching, driving point to every sermon that is preached. He writes:

If we preach effectively, we must know what we are about. Effective sermons major in biblical ideas brought together into an overarching unity. Having thought God’s thoughts after Him, the expositor communicates and applies those thoughts to the hearers. In dependence upon the Holy Spirit, the preacher aims to confront, convict, convert, and comfort men and women through the proclamation of biblical concepts. People shape their lives and settle their eternal destinies in response to ideas.[16]

What’s the big idea? Too often sermon title creation is difficult because the preacher is not entirely sure what the message is specifically about. At this point, creating a sermon title may help the preacher, because if there is no big idea to the sermon, giving the sermon a title will prove to be difficult.

Hopefully there is a big idea to the sermon that is ultimately the big idea of the sermon text, and that idea can help in the creation of the sermon title immensely. This is where clarity can truly be found. A question might be, “How can I point the listener to the big idea in a compelling way?” The big idea of the sermon should definitely be in the mind of the preacher during the creation of the sermon title. If it is not, there is a potential that the listener will walk away from the sermon feeling as though their expectations were not met.

Consider Illustrations and Applications

While the big idea of the sermon must be in the mind of the preacher during the process of creating sermon titles, there are other elements of the sermon title that need to be considered, as well. Thinking through the illustrations and applications of the message can create helpful ideas in creating the sermon title. Heshael York says, “Using secondary illustrations to develop the sermon title allows the titles to be more catchy or current.”[17] Illustrations are used to shine light on a difficult idea. An illustration allows the listener to, hopefully, understand an idea with more clarity. Therefore, good illustrations, usually, are relevant to the people listening to them, because the relevance helps bring about clarity. Thinking through the illustrations and applications of the sermon can help develop relevance for the sermon title.

Heshael York preached a sermon at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Within the sermon, he used Katy Perry as an illustration of one, who—at one point in her life—claimed Christianity but is now singing songs such as “I Kissed a Girl and Liked It.” As a result, the title of the sermon was “I Kissed a Girl and Liked It.” This illustration was laced throughout the message; therefore, it made sense as a title.[18] It was certainly compelling. The chapel was full on that day. The title accomplished its task. It was compelling, and through advertisement, it created curiosity. The title was fair to the text and the sermon itself.

Examining the illustrations and applications of the message can prove to be beneficial within the process of creating the sermon title. There is a warning that must be stated, however. Be sure that the illustration points to and serves the big idea of the sermon, because if not, the sermon title will not point to and serve the sermon. Here, again, lies another positive aspect to the creation of sermon titles. Understanding the big idea is a must, and if the illustration does not seek to help clarify and present the big idea well, then it certainly does not need to be included in the title creation process. It should probably be cut from the sermon, as well.

Think about Culture

 What is happening in the culture is known by everyone in that culture. Questions arise as a result of what is taking place within the culture. This can be a great advantage to the preacher when thinking about sermon titles. As a preacher thinks about the big idea of the sermon, he can then begin to think, “What is happening around me locally, nationally, and globally? Are there any correlations that can be made between the big idea of the sermon and culture?”

Brian Mavis writes:

Connect to what people are watching and talking about. For example, play off the Survivor phenomenon with a series—“How to Survive Work,” “How to Survive Parenting,” etc. Or you can have titles like “Protecting Your Torch,” “Creating Peace in the Tribe,” “Getting Eternal Immunity.” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” titles could be “Is That Your Final Answer?,” “Are You Ready for the Hot Seat?,” “Who’s Your Lifeline?,” etc. [19]

Consider television, movies, books, hot topics in the news media, magazines, popular music. There are so many elements within culture that may correlate to the big idea of the sermon. By doing this, relevance and curiosity are created immediately. The preacher must be careful to not develop something that is corny through this process; however, there are so many possibilities for sermon titles that can be developed when thinking about surrounding culture.

Think about Your Audience

 Finally, when thinking about the sermon title, just as it is important to contextualize the sermon to the listening audience, it is also important to contextualize the sermon title to the prospective listening audience.

When interviewing Hershael York, I asked him if he would use the “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It” sermon title to advertise a sermon at his local church. His answer was, no. He knew his audience within the seminary, and admittedly, he was seeking to be clever, because he knew that was expected of him. It also served the sermon well. York made it very clear that the audience plays a major role in the creation of a sermon title.[20]

Age is a determining factor. If one is preaching to a multi-generational congregation, he must be careful not to title the sermon that only speaks to a fourth of his listeners. Demographics play a role. Gender plays a role. If one is preaching to a room full of pastors, he can be clever and use ideas that most average church attendees might not understand without explanation; therefore, his thought process will be different than if he is preaching to a more generalized audience.

The audience plays a major role in determining the sermon title. The preacher must ask, “Who will hear this message?” Knowing who will be present is helpful in the creation of the sermon title. Knowing the audience will always help with clarity. If the sermon title only speaks to a select few in the group, the test of clarity was failed.

Using these ideas will help to develop a process for creating sermon titles. Again, by using ideas such as these, one might determine multiple titles. If this occurs, then a decision will have to be made as to which title is most compelling and serves the sermon the best. Thinking creatively must be productive thinking. Being willing to think productively will create many more opportunities for sermon titles. These ideas for filtering ideas about the sermon title will prove to be helpful, only if one is willing to engage these ideas each time he seeks to name the created sermon.

Conclusion

Sermon titles do not make great sermons. A sermon does not have to have a title. However, the value of the sermon title cannot denied, and to not do the work of creating a compelling sermon title causes the preacher to miss an opportunity to reach out to potential listeners . As shown, too, developing a sermon title causes the preacher to evaluate the work of the sermon, which is helpful.

In a digital age that is driven by social networks, the opportunities are endless to advertise and make know what will be preached in the future. We have the greatest story to tell. Seek to reach out to a lost world and the church by creating curiosity, being clear, being relevant, and most of all, by pointing them to the good news of the Gospel. Naming a baby can prove to be difficult, but it is worth it, because a living, breathing life needs his or her own identity. The same is true of the living, breathing Word of God.

[1]Calvin Miller, “Naming the Baby” Christianity Today (1998), winter [on-line]; accessed August 23, 2016; available from http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1998/winter/8l1093.html; Internet.

[2]Hershael York. Interview by Landon Reynolds. Phone interview. Florence, SC, August 9, 2016.

[3]Rick Warren, “The Purpose-Driven Title,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, eds. Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 370-371.

[4]Brian Mavis, “Message Titles: Hooks, Line, and Thinkers” Outreach, [on-line]; accessed August 22, 2016; available from http://www.outreach.com/print/article.aspx?article_name=a-messagetitles; Internet.

[5] David McClellan, “Suspense: Why everybody—including your Sunday audience—loves a mystery,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, eds. Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 500-501.

[6]John Ortberg, “The Compelling Series,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, eds. Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 446-447.

[7] All Scripture is English Standard Version, unless noted differently.

[8]Ibid., 446.

[9]Warren, “The Purpose-Driven Title,” 371.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid., 372.

[12]Ibid., 371.

[13]Michael Michalko, Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2001), 2.

[14]Ibid., 2-3.

[15]York, Phone interview.

[16]Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 39.

[17]York, Phone interview.

[18]To understand how this worked in its totality, the sermon may be heard at http://www.sbts.edu/resources/chapel/chapel-fall-2009/discount-devotion-2/.

[19]Mavis, “Message Titles: Hooks, Lines, and Thinkers.”

[20]York, Phone interview.

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