I just completed a very satisfying week of teaching Doctor of Ministry students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. That’s my excuse for not creating a blog post last week. The track is called, Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible. Pastors and professors from all over the world made up the class and, as always, the final day or so is devoted to hearing them preach.
I was amazed at how many, regardless of where they were from or who trained them, chose to begin their sermon with some kind of attention-getting device. And in all cases, their opening stories or illustrations were effective in gaining attention and initial interest. But that’s not enough.
Over and over throughout the day I repeated and restated the same thing:
“Try telling us why we need to hear your sermon. How does this Scripture function for the Church?”
Homileticians sometimes refer to this as surfacing need in the introduction and I believe in the practice for the following reasons:
- it shows our listeners in the opening minutes that the exposition of Scripture is relevant. This is critical because there are expositors who will begin their sermon and preach several minutes without ever telling their listeners that this affects their lives.
- it’s an opportunity to clearly state how we will worship God as a result of hearing the exposition of Scripture. This keeps expository preaching from being a history lesson about the Text. This reminds us that preaching is an act of worship when we respond to the revelation of God.
- it allows us to begin the process of application in the introduction instead of waiting till the end of the sermon or near the end of major points in our outline.
So, before Sunday, start with the “why?”, and not just the “what?” of your sermon so our Lord receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).
P.S. Some of you might be thinking that starting with “why” is giving too much information in the introduction. Some practice a much more inductive approach. My answer is that I want my listeners to know why this information/exhortation is being given from the start so that they can remember the purpose for our being together throughout the sermon.
We have our work cut out for us if we are going to keep congregants worshiping when the sermon starts. Think about it.
Who leads worship in your church? When people hear the term, worship leader, who do they think of? In most churches, most people now equate worship with the singing, not the preaching. In most churches, the sermon follows the music and singing. If parishioners equate worship with singing, what do they think is happening during the sermon? Years ago congregants were asked what segment of the worship service made them feel closest to God. The number one answer was moments of silence. Last place went to the sermon. As I said, we have our work cut out for us.
Several months ago I decided, in light of this reality, to tweak my approach to sermon introductions. My goal was to help people realize that the teaching time is a time for worship, too. Actually, I started with my prayers that I say prior to our public reading of Scripture. In that prayer I ask God to help us worship during the sermon. I ask Him to help us move from knowledge to appropriate response. Worship is, after all, the Believer’s response to the revelation of God. Then, I decided that most Sundays, after the public reading of the preaching portion, my introductions would begin with some variation of: “This is God’s Word. We worship this morning by responding to (fill in the blank with a summary of the scene in Luke’s Gospel, for instance).” At the end of the introduction, I’ll state the response that the preaching portion is intended to create.
For instance, in Luke 9:1-9 we read Jesus’ ministry description He gave to the original Twelve. So my introduction might begin with: “This is God’s Word. We worship this morning by responding to Luke’s record of when Jesus sent out His first official disciple-makers.” (Note that responding is different from learning about.) Then, my intro might end with: “This is a time for us to evaluate whether Jesus is accomplishing His mission in the world through you and me.” Throughout the sermon and especially at the end, we’ll talk about the small, but vital part we’re playing in God’s disciple-making program. We’ll make sure everyone is urged to join this ongoing mission.
I don’t want worship to stop when the preaching begins. I know you don’t, either.