We preachers spend a lot of time crafting the opening moments of our sermons.
Or, if we don’t, we should.
Because it is in those moments that you either capture your listeners’ attention or lose it. In the opening you either establish common ground with the congregation or you create distance from it.
At the start, you’re either interesting and likable or boring and distasteful.
No pressure, right?
So here are five ways to design effective sermon starters:
1.Me of the ME WE GOD YOU WE outline. In Communicating For A Change, Andy Stanley of Northpoint Church in suburban Atlanta recommends a standard sermon design that weaves from speaker’s life to congregation’s experience to Scripture’s teaching on that experience to one point conclusion to “what would it look like if we all got this right?” I would estimate that on at least 50% of my Sunday messages, I follow that general pattern. Sometimes the “me” is quite brief; other times (I guess if I think “me” is especially interesting), it meanders a bit. Years ago, I remember an opening riff on what it’s like to grow up with a name like “Talbot” (not easy, in case you’re wondering) which led in to the power of names, which led rather naturally into Philippians 2:5-11.
2.With a demonstration. This past Sunday, for example, the message began with the day’s prop: a door. (Thank God for carpenters in the church.) I moved from there to talk about how we treat people differently depending on whether or not we know them beyond the door (the people we NEED) or behind the door (the people we LOVE). The added sound element of closing the door added to the impact of the demonstration; I sensed at all three hours that people were quickly engaged in what was going on because they live what was going on. Here’s what it looked like:
3.With an anecdote or witty story. In my younger days, I regularly opened my messages this way. On rare occasions, I still do. However, opening with a “joke” has many pitfalls, not the least of which is what happens if it’s not funny? In my case, I realized about 15 years ago that I had become predictable and the best sermon humor is that which emerges organically from the message itself and the preacher himself.
4.With a simple statement that coming in a little bit you are going to tell them something that they will feel they cannot live without. Much appreciation to Andrew Forrest for helping add this effective piece to my sermon opener arsenal.
5.With the Scripture itself. More and more I am realizing how enjoyable it is to preacher and congregant alike to open a message by reading the Scripture passage and stating simply, “well, THAT didn’t make it into my illustrated children’s bible; did it get in yours?” Prime examples are drunk, naked Noah from Genesis 9:18-29 and all the unanswered questions stemming from the murder of Abel by Cain in Genesis 4:1-17. When you open with Scripture, you will want to make sure that the congregation immediately feels the “what in the world could this mean?” tension AND that you then carry the crowd on a shared journey of discovery. I always feel like I have accomplished something meaningful if the people of the church can get a sense of my own joy in deep bible excavation and explanation.