I often say to my first year preaching students that you can write the best sermon in the world, but if no one understands you then the excellency of your message really does not matter. This has everything to do with delivery. However, most people decide within the first 30 seconds if they will listen to you for the next minute or two. Then, within the first minute or two, they decide whether they will listen to you for the next 30 minutes. This has everything to do with your introduction.
Therefore, your introduction has everything to do with your sermon being heard. My colleague, Dr. Jerry Barlow, who is now with the Lord, said that an introduction to a sermon is like the front porch. You cannot get into the front door of the house without going across the front porch. And, a bad poorly constructed front porch has prevented many preachers from getting people into the house of their sermons.
So we need to know how to construct front porches. In this article, I want to share with you five tips that I use to assemble a strong well constructed introduction so that, hopefully, I get people into the body of my sermon every week.
First, I Usually Write my Introduction Last.
This is not always the case. Occasionally in my sermon preparation process, an idea or the genesis for an introduction that holds up will come to me as I study the passage throughout the week. However, this is not the way I plan it. Often, what my original thought for an introduction ends up serving as, or the catalyst for, my conclusion. I actually plan to write my introduction last.
Why? The reason is quite simple. You must know what you are introducing before you know how or the best way to introduce it. Think of it this way. I serve as Dean of Chapel at NOBTS. As a part of my job, I sometimes preside in chapel and introduce guest preachers. In this capacity, how silly would it be for me to plan an introduction for sometime next April before I even know who is going to be speaking on that day? Similarly, we have to see our sermon before we can plan an introduction that will get people into the house the most effective way possible. As such, plan to write your introduction last.
Second, I Plan Out Precisely What I Say in my Introduction . . . Especially the First Few Words.
It is amazing how impactful a few words can have when they are carefully planned and delivered in a timely manner. I see this regularly played out in my first semester preaching students’ in-class sermons and presentation. There is a phenomenon that occurs in this setting that I have not noticed anywhere else that sermons are delivered. It is how they are all tempted, and usually succumb, to begin their messages even if they have immediately been informed to avoid the practice. Seven out of ten students, begin with either “alright so” or “so.” It is an amazing and perplexing occurrence.
Furthermore, most do not believe it is a big deal. Several students have a difficult time understanding or imagining the difference beginning this way, versus beginning with design, purpose, and intentionality can have in a sermon. That is, until they hear and witness for themselves the difference. Then they realize the profound impact the first words of an introduction can make if they start with a powerful quote, a crisp illustration, or an intentional statement flawlessly communicated. Designing and sticking to the precise statement of your first words in an sermon introduction is consequently different than beginning with “so” or “alrighty.”
Therefore, I do not manuscript out word-for-word my entire sermon. However, I often will do this for my sermon introduction because I believe it is that important and affects first impressions of the message immensely. So, at a minimum, plan out what you will say in your introduction precisely and then stick to that plan from the word go.
Third, I May Not Start Directly with my General Subject but I Do Not Take more than a Few Turns to Get There.
It is not unusual for me to begin my sermon not talking directly about the main idea or intent of my sermon. Perhaps it is because the subject matter is foreign to my audience. Something familiar may help them to see the continuity to the unfamiliar. In this case, I may choose to begin with an analogy that is not the thing, but is like the thing.
Or in another situation, I may believe that a direct approach to the theme of the passage and thus of my message, may not connect with the audience immediately or draw the amount of interest that I think is necessary. Perhaps this is because my congregation does not understand the subject matter’s relevance to their lives. An anecdote or personal interest story may help them understand the reality of this situation in their lives. In this scenario, I may choose to share an example that contains a common element that then can be used to introduce the sermon’s theme or idea.
For instance, I may plan to talk about the goodness of God but I want to begin with something that draws them in. So I can start by talking about how every year on my birthday my wife makes me a homemade chocolate cake. I have just introduced them to the general idea of “goodness.” Now I need to begin to transition toward the specific subject matter of God’s ultimate goodness. But in doing so, I should not and cannot play six degrees of separation. I need to get there, and I need to do so quickly and efficiently. Only one or two “degrees” is necessary and tolerable. So, create understanding and interest in your introduction but do not make more than two or three “turns” to do so.
Fourth, I may Not Read my Text First but Doing so Will be an Integral Part of My Introduction.
In text-driven expository preaching you and I are not the hero nor ultimate authority. God is. Furthermore, the goal of expository preaching is explaining and applying Scripture and communicating “Thus saith the Lord.” Therefore, you should orient your hearers to God, not you, and the text, not your creativity. In your introduction, get people to the text as quickly as possible!
Finally, I State My Main Idea or Sermon Proposition Explicitly Most of the Time.
The sermon idea, proposition, or ESS should be clearly stated near the beginning of most sermons. Doing so does more than a few important things for your congregation. It cues your audience on how to listen. It previews what is to come. It orients your hearers to your sermon and your explanation of the passage. So, in doing so, it orients them toward your text. Furthermore, it focuses you on your message and helps you trim the fat. And, it unifies the entire message.
Stating your proposition may not be the practice for beginning every sermon. There are exceptions to the rule such as passages that are more inductive or narrative by nature. However, orienting your listeners always and stating your proposition in deductive sermons should be the regular practice in deductive messages.
Let me offer you an example from an introduction of one of my recent sermons. This past Sunday I preached Jesus’ parable of “The Unforgiving Servant” in Matthew 18:21-35. To begin, I wanted to set-up Peter’s initial question, which, although is not ultimately the question that was answered, led into Jesus giving the parable. So, my goal was to illustrate the point or form the idea in the listener’s mind of some concepts being closely connected to other concepts that are profoundly important, even though this connection is not naturally seen.
To accomplish this, I began by talking about my love for golf despite not being very good at the game. From there, I quickly transitioned into a discussion on the gold swing. But where I eventually settled was how a person’s stance is related intimately to the percipient of his swing. In other words, the gold swing is built from the ground up. From there I transitioned to how this is true for the life of the Christian. And Peter asked a question that is important, but that question is related closely to something else that is even more paramount for the believer. From there, I transitioned into the first scene of the text.
Now, I did not show the concept in question until I arrived at verse 35 near the end of my message, because that is when it becomes clear and arises in the text. However, from the reaction of the congregation and the level of interest to listen and willingness to proceed with me through the sermon which appeared obvious in the room, this approach seemed to work well.
Remember the goal through all of this is to build a great front porch that the people want to get across and that leads them into the house. In other words, your aim in the introduction is helping people decide to listen so the text will be heard. My prayer is that something I have written here this week, my tips and examples, aids you in being a better preacher of the Word so people will listen to you “Preach the Word!”