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Struggling to Begin

May 23, 2007

I wrestle with sermon introductions – I really do. Whenever the spiritual gifts were being handed out, the gift of “Sermon Opener” was not bestowed upon me! While the senior pastor in my church is consummate at “striking oil in the first five minutes”, I cannot say the same. To the contrary, I write and rewrite. I scrap and start again. I spend a hugely disproportionate amount of time on the first two sermon pages alone.

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I also vacillate between extremes in terms of content. Sometimes I use a very crafted introduction, pulling upon a contemporary event or a personal story which leads me to my main point. On other occasions I may open straightforwardly and simply. Frustratingly, I’m often not sure which works best or why. And even when I do ‘get it right’ a similar approach may not work the next time!

So what have I become sure of with regards the sermon introduction?

1. Sermon introductions need to wake up the listener and keep their attention. A sermon intro should function rather like your alarm clock: it should wake people up and make sure they don’t go back to sleep! I find that sometimes the theme is already so gripping that there is no need to raise interest. Given the subject, “the theme of the message today is that God hates divorce” may suffice. At other times, a passage is so familiar to the congregation that it almost begs for a more provocative opening. Last Sunday evening I proceeded with: “Preaching is an ineffective and outdated form of communication.” There was a collective sigh when I added, “At least that’s what some people say.” I could then explain that some people write-off preaching by deeming it a ‘monologue’, and then challenge the assumption with the parable of the sower (i.e. the interface between the preached word – “seed” – and the listener’s heart “soil”).

2. Sermon introductions need to clearly lead to the main point. The most common reason why I need to scrap a given sermon intro is not because it isn’t gripping; it is rather because it isn’t leading unswervingly to the main point. An illustration on a general theme (eg. love) won’t do; I need to find the specific nuance and bring that out in my intro (eg. love for Jesus always leads to obedient action)

3. Sermon introductions need to be brief. One of my favourites quotes about this is from John Broadus. He once said that listeners don’t want “a porch on a porch.” They want to fairly quickly move into the warmth of the house! If I find my opening illustration building yet another extension, I need to check myself and cut things back to the bare minimum. If I’ve already gained attention and surfaced the main point or question, any further introduction is but stealing time from the main body of the sermon.

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8 comments

  1. 1. Amen
    2. Amen
    3. Amen


  2. I’m with you on this one, Colin. The content of the main body almost always seems to flow, but only once I have set the tone in my introduction. And that is where I share your struggle. What will help?


  3. I think Rob Bell’s (yes, that Rob Bell) rule for sermon introductions is … there are no rules. :)

    Meanwhile, helpful reflections! (And good work on del.icio.us, btw! Hope it works out.)


  4. Some of the best advice I ever heard on a sermon introduction is not to worry about it too much. Most listeners are willing to give you a few minutes of attention anyway, so the best thing you can do is simply get into the lesson. In fact, if your introduction has too much punch and impact (especially if it’s not part of the lesson itself), it may be giving the listeners a false sense of what’s going to follow.

    The introduction to a sermon, like the introduction to a written essay or work of fiction, gives clues to the listener or reader on how to interpret what’s to follow. For that reason, hard-hitting illustrations from outside the Bible are generally not a good way to begin an expository sermon. Again, just get into the text. For that reason, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying something like, “This week in our study of Mark’s Gospel we’ll be looking at challenges to Jesus’ authority.” No doubt a preacher ought to be able to do better, but knowing that a straightforward, unsensational intro is always an option ought to take the pressure off and help us come up with something a little stronger.


  5. As a punter who listens to many a sermon I like an introduction that primary tells me why I should keep listening. It needs to be like an intro to a piece of music not to long, introduces the themes and is not predictable.


  6. I am a long time reader, first time commenter. I appreciate all the work you put in to help equip pastors to preach.

    I think the introduction may be the most ignored aspect of sermonic development. I would have to respectfully disagree with Milton, few people will tune in without a reason to do so. Far to many preachers don’t give their listeners a reason to listen. In an age of 15 to 30 second commericals and segemented media, preachers are forced to gain their listener’s attention in a brief moment.

    What I try to keep in mind is that the introduction must build tension, in the form of a question, a common struggle, an unresolved problem, etc. The listener needs a payoff for giving their attention. The sad state of affairs in preaching today is that preachers spend their time answering questions that the audience isn’t asking. The introduction brings the audience into the question, desiring to see how the text will speak to their lives.


  7. Greg is right on target about the need to create tension (or what some call “disequilibrium”) in a sermon. If we’re going to answer questions for the hearer, we’d better make sure they’re ones they care about.


  8. I think preachers (read “I”) are sometimes afraid to reveal their full hand of cards at the beginning of the sermon….but Jay Adams’ advice is good I think. He says many preachers end where they should begin…what he means is that we should get some good applications (I use questions a lot) in at the beginning…we need to be careful of course that the sermon doesn’t run out of steam, but equally we should be more interested in spiritual impact that homiletic structure and beauty. I’ve found it useful to type up a summary of my sermon structure….but actually leave the introduction until the very last stage…that way I know what the main thrust is going to be…I incorporate that main thrust then into my introduction.

    Asking questions is perhaps the best way of engaging the listener…they can’t avoid as it were becoming part of the sermon then.

    JP



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