How you get your sermon started matters. While there is lots of room for error in the body of your sermon, there is little room for error in your introduction. It can be the difference between someone being on the edge of their seat or slumped in their seat, between using their phone’s Bible app or fantasy football app.
If you hook them with your introduction, you will have their attention for the entire sermon. If you lose them early on, it can be hard to get them back. Here are ten ways you make it easier on your church to check out.
1. Not having an introduction. Everything in life has an introduction. Buildings have lobbies and homes have foyers. Movies have initial scenes that acquaint us with the characters and plot. Books have forwards, prefaces, and an introductory chapter. Songs have four or eight measures of music before the lyrics kick in. When you propose to your girlfriend, you get down on your knee. Sermons are no different. Have an introduction of some sort.
2. Not hinting at how the sermon is going to impact their lives. I’ve heard many sermon introductions in which the point of the text was made crystal clear, but the pastor never acknowledged the people he was speaking to. (I may have preached a couple sermons like that myself.) If our introductions don’t clearly show our people how the Bible is going to help them love God, follow Jesus, and be led by the Spirit, we haven’t given them a reason to listen to us. Let’s not introduce our sermons as if God’s word is only profitable for teaching. Let’s give our people a preview of how it rebukes, corrects, and trains in righteous, too, right from the start.
3. Using two illustrations. Doubling up your illustrations is confusing. Either you will illustrate two different points, which makes your audience wonder which one is the main one; or you will illustrate the same point two different ways, which will make them wonder how they are supposed to think and feel about the topic your passage addresses. Pick the best one, and file the other one away for another sermon.
4. Setting up the passage you are going to preach on with another passage or verse.Like using two illustrations, this confuses people. Which passage is he preaching on?If you have a juicy cross-reference, save it for the body of your sermon.
5. Dumping in too much context. I’ve seen this mistake made most often when a team of preachers are sharing the load for a sermon series, but lead/senior pastors are culprits, too. The preacher rightly feels the burden of setting up the context of the book, author, and recipients, but dumps in everything he read in his commentaries into the intro of his sermon. Too much bogs down the flow of your sermon. Provide the context necessary to simply introduce your passage, and then save the rest for when it is relevant to a point you are making in the body of your sermon.
6. Going too long. The net effect of numbers 3-5 is that you end up with an introduction that is 20% of your sermon. When the intro goes too long, people check out or get antsy for you to move on. Also, you may be already forcing yourself to shorten your last point, which may result in an anti-climactic finish. Better to err on the shorter side for your intro.
7. Using a happily-ever-after illustration. One of your main goals in your introduction is make your congregation aware of a spiritual problem. Since happily-ever-after illustrations convey the idea that everything is okay, they don’t work very well for raising needs. Instead, opt for an illustration that is rich in conflict, and then demonstrate how that conflict is analogous to something they experience, whether they realize it or not. Happily-ever-after illustrations are, however, great for conclusions.
8. Neglecting to warm up your church. I was actually against this for a long time, until I read Preaching by Calvin Miller. Miller writes:
“‘The speech before the speech’ is step one in audience bonding…The most important issue of bonding has to do with the first words out of the preacher’s mouth. These should not be the first words of the sermon’s introduction…These words are the warm approaches to the audience…These words reference the little things in life: the weather, the Super Bowl, the choir which has just sung, the tragedy that has filled the newspaper for the week…Without it, you say to your audience, ‘As I see it, what I am about to say is more important than our friendship’” (pp. 186-188).
Just like a spoonful of small talk helps the small group discussion go down, so also a brief word, pastor to congregation, prepares your church relationally to hear what God has given you to say. It’s especially true for millennials, but basically true for all people, that when they see the real you first, you gain credibility and they open themselves up to listen.
9. Failing to address the spiritual issue at hand in the passage. It is very easy to raise an emotional or pragmatic need in your introduction. It is more difficult – and less common – for a preacher to drill deeper into the sinful and idolatrous responses to the emotional and pragmatic problem we face in life. It’s the difference between inspirational speaking and biblical preaching.
10. Waiting until the body to point your people to the text. I’m a stickler on getting to your passage in the intro, and not waiting until the body of the sermon. The reason for this is that I don’t want to accidentally communicate that our agenda drives how we go to the Bible. Instead, I want to convey that the Bible raises the issues, and we are simply following where it leads. Going to the passage earlier helps get that across.
Notice that I didn’t say being uninteresting. It’s too much pressure to be interesting. I’ve heard plenty of less-than-spectacular introductions that got the job done and made me want to listen. It’s much better to have an average introduction than a bad one. And when we try too hard, we usually end up with a bad one.