Preaching and Those Few Key Sentences

How many hundreds of sentences are used in a sermon?  And they all matter.  But they don’t all matter as much as a few of them.  I suppose I would suggest the following sentences as worthy of extra effort:

1. The Main Idea. Hours might be spent crafting and honing the main sentence for a message.  That would be hours well spent.  The main idea is the boss of everything in the message, it is the filter through which much extraneous “good stuff” is sloughed off.  It is the burning hot focus that is to be seared into the heart and mind of the listener.  It brings together understanding of the passage with emphasis on the life-changing relevance for the listener.  The main idea really is all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s absence will only confirm that billing!

2. The first sentence. It’s great to start the message with an arresting introduction.  Instead of beating around the bush until you get into your stride, much better to start with a bang.  It may be a startling sentence.  It may be an intriguing sentence.  It may be a contemporary paraphrase of that infinitely powerful sentence, “once upon a time . . . ” (narratives do grip listeners fast!)

3. Transition sentences. I think transitions are oft-neglected.  A good message with poor transitions will lose people.  Give some extra effort to transitioning slowly, smoothly, safely.  Keep your passengers in the car when you take the turns.

4. The final sentence. That last sentence can ring in the ears as silence descends and you move to take your seat.  Despite the best efforts of over anxious worship leaders or people chairing meetings, the final sentence can resonate in a life.  Don’t fizzle to a halting stop.  Stop.  Clear.  Precise.  Having arrived at your destination.  Having achieved your goal.  Having parked the message with exactly the final sentence you determined.

Preaching may involve hundreds of sentences, but a few of them are worth extra careful crafting!

Make Two Key Times Count

I just saw a chart showing that there are two key times in any presentation.  I’ll describe the chart for you.  On the vertical axis, from 0 to 100%, is the scale of attention and retention.  On the horizontal axis, it reads “beginning … middle … end.”  The chart consists of a U-shaped curve.  Attention/retention are highest at the beginning and the end, but dip significantly in the middle.

This poses some concern for me as a preacher.  If this is true, then we need to consider whether we’ve packed the best meat in the middle of the sermon.  Surely we wouldn’t want to give a “meat sandwich” of a sermon if our listeners miss significant amounts of good meat, but take in all the white bread at the start and finish?  Perhaps we need to give more attention to the bread of the sandwich.  Too many sermons are fine steak in the middle of dry cheap white sliced bread.  We need to give more time to preparing our intros and conclusions (so the bread is a higher quality homebaked wholemeal something or other).

Ok, enough of the sandwich analogy, I’m starting to get distracted by my own hunger.  When we preach, let’s think carefully about how to maximize the value of our introduction – not just grabbing attention and building rapport, but also raising need for what is to follow and moving powerfully into the message in order to protect against an excessive dip in attention and focus.

Let’s think carefully about how to make the most of our conclusion – not just fizzling to a faded flop of a finish, but finishing strong, driving home the main idea, encouraging application of it and stopping with purpose.

If attention and retention are highest at the beginning and end of a message, let’s make these two key times count.

(If you want to see the chart and the suggestions given in that post, just click here.)

The Challenge of Introducing a Series

When you start a new series of messages from a book, the first message is a challenge.  Not just because you want people to be motivated for the series, but because the first message has to stand in its own right.  Simply presenting the background information like the notes in a study Bible is not expository preaching.  But if you give the background and then preach the first section, you may end up with two messages or too little time to really preach that first section.  What to do?

Option 1 – Don’t give any more than brief background awareness and concentrate on the first section.  This keeps you earthed in the text rather than the historical study notes.  It may fall short on giving people awareness of the book as a whole, but if that first section is preached well, people should be motivated to hear more (background information can and should be given throughout the series).  Often the first section serves as a very effective introduction to the themes and issues that will follow in the book.

Option 2 – Give background (author, date, occasion, etc.) and overview of the book’s structure, highlighting the main idea of the book and it’s initial application for the listeners.  The important thing in an overview introduction like this is to make sure you have a main idea that comes from studying the text and make sure it is applied, otherwise you don’t have an expository sermon.

Option 3 – Genuinely preach the whole book.  Obviously with most books it is not feasible to read the whole text.  However, it is possible to preach the flow of thought through the whole book, highlighting and applying the main idea, just as you will with the individual sections later in the series.  Historical background may be only briefly mentioned, but preaching the book can be a powerful introduction to the series.  Again, as with the similar option 2 above, it is critical to have both main idea and application of that idea.  You will need to selectively read verses from the book in order to underscore the biblical authority for your explanation.

Stage 8 – Message Details: Introductions

First impressions matter. In the first moments of a message, listeners are making numerous decisions about the speaker. Some of those are conscious, many subconscious. Is this worth listening to, can I trust this person, does this person know where they are going, is this going to be relevant to my life, etc. So once the message is mostly prepared, it is time to work on a compelling introduction. Robinson succinctly puts it like this, “the test of a good introduction is whether they want you to carry on once it’s done.” Many speakers tend to ease into their message, rather than having a strong and decisive start. Work invested in the introduction will pay off throughout the message. It may be only a few brief minutes of the whole, but these are critical minutes.

Previously – There have been numerous posts on introductions. Here I will point back to a few. Recently we saw the importance of starting strong, but not until you’ve paused purposefully to gain attention. While it is good to start strong, you don’t want to overpromise in the intro. Way back at the start of this site’s history, we had two posts covering the essentials of an intro – the essential ingredients and the focus of the intro. Once the basics are grasped, there are ways to move beyond default, always remembering that some things are best omitted. Finally, Don Sunukjian’s explanation of an effective intro is well worth a review, even if you don’t accept it is the only way – see here.

Set Off With Strength

Once you have your message mostly prepared and you begin to focus on your beginning, craft carefully.  It is worth setting off with strength into your message, it is worth beginning with a bang.  That first sentence should command attention and usually set the direction of the message.

Too many of us ease into a message.  It is tempting to take time with introductory humor or nice opening remarks.  “Nice” is not a great compliment, more a vanilla description.  Inexperienced speakers, in any context, tend to begin with a variation on “thank you for this opportunity” or “it gives me pleasure to address . . . ” or similar.  Dull.  Wasteful of these key moments.  Don’t.

I would make two suggestions, depending on context:

If you are in your own culture, begin with a bang. If you have some type of compliment or praise for the listeners, interject it later in the message where it will feel genuine rather than trite.  Give the impression that you intend to waste no time, but rather have something important to share.

If you are visiting another culture, provide a purposeful adjustment phase. I find it is helpful when speaking in a foreign context to begin with a few brief comments expressing my appreciation of their welcome, the heat in comparison to my cold country, or whatever.  I don’t want to undermine my message by beginning with excessive power that might suggest a foreign arrogance.  Neither do I want them to miss the important opening statements as they adjust to my accent.  This introductory phase is limited, purposeful and carefully designed.

The opening sentence of a sermon is critical.  Prepare it carefully, polish it purposefully and practice it repeatedly.

Keep Drums Out of the Introduction

The first few minutes of a sermon are important. They provide the opportunity to get the attention of the listeners, surface a need for what is to follow and move them into the passage and message. During this relatively brief movement there is a temptation that we probably all face to one degree or another. There is the temptation to lay unnecessary foundational blocks (and thereby promote a personal theological agenda).

Recently I was not preaching and so had the opportunity to listen to a visiting speaker. I was not the only one to notice the significant theological agenda being pushed in the extended introduction. Our task as preacher is to bring the message of our preaching text, not to use the text to bang on our favorite doctrinal drum.

Next sermon, let’s be careful to evaluate the background we give. Do we give enough? Do we give too much? Is what we give relevant to the understanding and application of the passage? As I suggested yesterday, in one sermon we cannot achieve everything. Over time people should get the whole canon, but it’s not our task to achieve that in one message on one text. Perhaps you decide to preach the whole Bible’s message in one sermon – great, but be honest about that and don’t give the impression it all comes from one particular text.

Our responsibility is to faithfully preach the specific text before us. Give whatever background is necessary for the communication, explanation and application of that passage. But don’t abuse the introduction by banging your favorite theological drum.