Last week I wrote about how we can best conclude our sermons. I thought it might be helpful to consider introductions.
As a freshman in Bible College, I was introduced to John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching. This is an older book (and by the way, you can get the Kindle copy for 99 cents!), and it had, uh, seven laws for communicating life-changing content within a Christian teaching context. It’s not about preaching, but it is certainly relevant to preaching.
Gregory’s first law was one that I have kept in mind for decades, and applied it not only to the classes I taught and the groups I led, but to preaching. It went something like this: “Gain and sustain the attention of the student.”
Wouldn’t it be great if we got up to preach, and every ear was open and people were leaning forward with anticipation? But that’s not how it works. In most cases, anyway. Our people lead highly distracted lives, and when the sermon begins, they know they are a good part of the way into the service and what they have planned for the afternoon is not far from their minds. In addition, people aren’t used to someone standing in front of them doing a monologue for 30-45 minutes. That our people are willing to listen is commendable! So we need to gain and sustain their attention. That’s the purpose of the sermon introduction.
What makes for a good sermon introduction? Different preachers may have different opinions. For example, I think a good introduction is usually short. But there have been rare occasions where my introduction was up to one-third of the sermon. In cases like that there was something about the topic or about the passage that needed explanation. But that shouldn’t be the norm.
Some pastors feel free using videos or music to introduce their sermons. I’m not going to pass judgment on that, but I like to lean away from anything that is entertaining. People who are entertained expect more entertainment. That’s just the way we are. While I think humor has a place in our preaching, my preference was not to tell a joke during the sermon. I preferred other kinds of humor that were quick and not likely to distract. So for me, the classic joke seemed out of place. And entertainment for the sake of entertainment shouldn’t be a part of your preaching repertoire.
Generally, though not always, an introduction will be a story. Jesus was a master at using a story to set up his points. So let me make some suggestions that will not only help with introductions, but may help with illustrations you use during the sermon.
First, make sure your introduction connects with the subject of the sermon.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s possible to have a great story or some other content that connects only tangentially. You don’t want your congregation wondering why you said what just said while you’re moving on with your sermon. Make sure the introduction leads into what comes next. Similarly, illustrations should be clearly connected to what you’ve just said or what you’re about to say.
Next, don’t write your introduction first.
It’s just best if you wait until the sermon is finished or you at least have your main points down before you come up with your introduction. You want the sermon content and application to guide both your introduction and conclusion. If you develop these before you write your sermon, you may find that the reverse is true. If that happens, you may fudge on how you communicate the content of the passage because you have what you think is such a great introduction.
Third, write your introduction out in full, even if you preach from an outline.
I always wrote a manuscript, either in paragraph form or as a developed outline. Then I condensed it onto several 9×6 sheets (so they fit inside my Bible) and preached from that outline. I found it most helpful to write my introduction and conclusion out in full. If used a story, which I did often, I wanted to be precise in how I told it. If you hem and haw while you’re trying to open your sermon, you’ll lose people. The same is true for illustrations during the sermon and for the conclusion at the end.
Fourth, don’t be afraid to tell stories about yourself or your own experiences, but NEVER be the hero.
The longer you live, the more opportunities you have to mess up or to do dumb things. In no way did most of my sermons start off by telling a story [about me], but I wasn’t afraid to share an experience I had as a way of connecting with the congregation. But what I said about not making yourself the hero is so incredibly important. You want your congregation to relate to you, not view you as a superstar who gets it right all the time and loves to tell about it. They’ll be playing tick-tack-toe with the person sitting next to them before you get ten minutes into your sermon. Or maybe hangman.
In 40 years of pastoral work, plus just living as long as I have, I’ve had some funny things happen. I’ve met some unusual people. I’ve experienced some great and some not-so-great moments in life. And the longer you live, the same will be true for you. So if you have the stories that don’t distract, use them.
I remember several years ago when I had stopped at a grocery store to get ice cream and a few other things, and the couple in front of me were debating the price of a bag of Hershey Kisses with the cashier. They were on sale after Christmas, and the customer obviously had the right to get their item for the right price, but they were debating pennies. PENNIES!!!!!
I stood there watching my ice cream melt and finally said, “How about I pay the extra dime so I can check out my ice cream before it melts?”
Moment of silence.
The wife said, “You’re rude. Why don’t you go to the 7-Eleven if you’re in a hurry?” Then, while the cashier was calling the manager for help, the husband came up to me and said, “It’s not about the money for us. What if some little old lady wants to buy them and she has to pay more?”
I’m thinking “Right.” But I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. You have every right to get the correct price. But this has been going on for a bit and I just want to pay for my stuff and go home. So I’m willing to pay the difference.”
Apparently the sale price of Hershey Kisses was a big deal, because by the time they moved out of line and I had paid for my stuff, they were still going at it with the manager. And the fact that they were going on and on about this made me all the more satisfied that I had dropped my killer line.
Now before you judge me, you KNOW you’ve always wanted to say something like that. Go on, admit it!
I felt a wonderful sense of satisfaction as I left the store. I got to say what most people in the store would have wanted to say. In fact, I had stood up for every poor soul who had ever had to stand in line because someone was being dopey. I was their champion! The day was mine! So I got in my car and started to drive away.
And then it hit me. “What would happen if they showed up in church tomorrow?”
Now I had no problem telling that story during a sermon. It was a little longer than I might normally prefer, but it connected with a point I was making; it drew people who had drifted back to listening, and it underscored what should be obvious – their pastor could blow it too.
If you’ve got a story where you learned a lesson that applies to the passage, tell it. Write it out, keep it brief, and don’t be the hero.
Sometimes the best introduction is just a statement, carefully composed, of why the passage is important.
Sermon-crafting is very personal. We each have our own methods and procedures, though we learn from others (sometimes without realizing it). You may want to start your sermon with Scripture and then explain the relevance or the reason the theme of the passage is so important. You don’t always need a story, of course. Depending on your personality and life experience, you may not have a reservoir of personal illustrations.
That’s cool. But a good sermon introduction will draw your people into the sermon and give them the sense right at the start that what you have to say is worth listening to.
Someday I’ll tell you about the time when I . . . .