Sermon Titles: So Tricky

Over three years ago, when this blog was first beginning, I wrote a post about sermon titles.  I called it “Tricky Little Things” and for some reason it was the post that consistently got the highest level of hits in the couple of years that followed.  So I thought I’d revisit it today with some tweaks.  Let’s think about sermon titles:

I don’t find it easy to write a title for a sermon. Actually, I do . . . a bad one! I don’t find it easy to write a good title for a sermon. So what makes a title tick?  Even before we get to that question, let’s consider a preliminary question – what is the point of the title?

Defining purpose for sermon titles is a worthwhile endeavour.  You have to consider your own situation.  Will the title be advertised publically?  Will it be announced to the church?  Will they only see it as they browse the notice sheet at the start of the service?  Some situations will demand more of the title than others!  Nevertheless, what makes a title tick?

A bad title illicits a yawn, an expectation that the message will be boring, irrelevant or distant. “Joseph’s Journey to Egypt.” Can’t imagine people purring with anticipation for that one. There have been times when I’ve sat through an introduction in which the preacher posed a question, “So what must be present in your ministry if it is to count for anything?” But I sat there unmoved by the “tension” because the bulletin had already told me the title – “Love – 1Cor.13:1-3.” I like the title Alexander Strauch used for an article on that text (and I believe, a message), “5-1=0.”

A good title stirs interest and piques curiosity. A good title gets the listener on your side. They already want to hear what you have to say before you start your introduction – bonus! So the big idea in a deductive sermon might make a good title, as long as it is going to be stated in the introduction and it leaves people wanting to know more. “I wonder what that is supposed to mean? The preacher will need to explain that!” But if the sermon is inductive, then don’t give away any tension in your title. That would be like your uncle who always gives away the punch line in the introduction to a joke, “Did you hear the one that ends with her saying, ‘no, but that’s a really nice ski mask!’… ?”

Titles are little things, but they’re not easy to write.  The keywords to keep in mind are intrigue, interest and relevance.

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4 thoughts on “Sermon Titles: So Tricky

  1. Hi Peter,
    thanks for your latest posts. Very thought provoking.

    Could I seek some clarification?

    In a recent post you said this:
    “Adding Affect Smacks of Rhetorical Trickery. Distinctly adding in content, or manner, or anecdote for the purpose of stirring response from listeners feels to me like the rhetorical trickery of the professional speakers of Paul’s day. There are ways to generate response, to stir emotion, to manipulate feelings. What place do these have in a ministry of integrity? Hopefully none.”

    Above you have said:
    A good title stirs interest and piques curiosity. A good title gets the listener on your side. They already want to hear what you have to say before you start your introduction – bonus! So the big idea in a deductive sermon might make a good title, as long as it is going to be stated in the introduction and it leaves people wanting to know more. “I wonder what that is supposed to mean? The preacher will need to explain that!” But if the sermon is inductive, then don’t give away any tension in your title.

    And quoted “5-1=0” as a good title.

    My perception is that this is a small contradiction as the title above has nothing to do with the text and could be considered as “added for effect” given your previous post.

    Could you just clarify the difference between the two? In as much as when would you consider a title, anecdote etc as not being added for effect.

    Many thanks
    Alan

  2. Thanks Alan. Let me try to clarify.

    5-1=0. I think this title is referring to the “If I…” statements at the start of 1Cor.13 (see previous example in the post). So I would see this as being an intriguing title, but not falsely “affective.” Remember the goal of the title is to intrigue and motivate the listener to come and listen. It can be as effective as you are creative (but if you happen upon a stunning title, make sure the message doesn’t under-deliver . . . i.e. promising relevance and delivering mundane nothingness!)

    It is important to distinguish between “affect” and “effect.” I would encourage preachers to seek to be effective as communicators. But the “affective” I was writing about was the adding in of affective/emotive to a sermon, rather than really entering into the genuinely affective/emotive content in the passage (which should come through the sermon if a goal is to preach that passage).

    Let me know if you still think my posts contradict each other and I’ll have another go at communicating more effectively!

  3. I am starting to see that a good title can also be your main thought of “the Sermon” so people know what they should be listening for and why and how you got there.

    Also this creates a reason to listen.

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