“The entire sermon is important!” I know some of you had that instinctual reaction to the title of this article. I agree. The entire sermon is important. Each part is connected to the others and is a part of a greater whole. I am on board with you. But I want to argue that one part of the sermon is more important than the others.
A good joke has several parts, but if not told correctly, will not have its intended affect. It’s not the punchline that makes a joke good, but the setup. If you botch the setup, the punchline will fall flat. Likewise, in a sermon, the most important part of the message is not necessarily the gut-punching gospel truth you are sharing, but the introduction of the sermon that leads to it. Of course I believe the gospel is what has the power to save, not the introduction; however, if your listeners jumped off the train before you arrived at the station, it will be of no reward that the station is beautiful. It is precisely because I believe the gospel is the all-satisfying truth that Jesus is Lord and saves sinners by His grace that I want to insure we actually carry our listeners to it.
I had a seminary professor once say, “You have to begin in Nashville before you head to Jerusalem.” His point was that if you do not meet listeners where they are and engage them where they live, you will have a hard time getting them to the truths of the Bible, and more particularly, to the relevance of the cross of Christ for their lives. The introduction of the message is what helps listeners know where you are going and whether or not they want to go with you. In this regard, the first five minutes of your message may be the most important of all of them. In light of that, I want to give you two areas to focus on as you prepare and deliver your sermons.
Present a Problem
The best sermons are the ones that offer a solution to a vexing problem. Because we are sinners, including our listeners, we have an array of problems we can appeal to when looking to apply biblical truth to their lives. If you are working on a sermon on God’s love, you may consider several different introductions that pose a problem your sermon will solve.
You could present the problem Augustine highlighted when he said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in You.” In this scenario you are appealing to our restless hearts and how we search for meaning, joy, and satisfaction in so many things. But in reality, our hearts were made for the love of God and until we find it, we will remain restless. Our sermon shows how restless hearts find rest. Or you could highlight the problem of our doubting the love of God because we are sinners and unworthy. Your sermon then demonstrates that not only God loves us, but demonstrated it by dealing with our sins at the cross, ensuring our return to relationship with Him.
These are only a couple of examples of how we present problems in order to setup the truth our sermons seek to communicate. When you present a problem that people can identify with, you commit them to seeking the solution you propose to offer. Take the time necessary to establish a compelling problem you and your listeners can connect to so you can lead them to the throne of grace and see how Christ provides the solution to all we need.
Know Your Introduction
Not only do you need to have a good problem to solve in your introduction, you need to be able to set it up without being chained to your manuscript. I am not suggesting you memorize your introduction—though that is certainly fine if you can—but you must be familiar enough with it to not need it. It is important to be untethered from your notes for the introduction so you can focus on engaging the congregation. It is in that first five minutes that people are deciding whether to listen to you or begin their grocery list. It is in that first five minutes you are either hooking the listener or loosing the listener. If you are looking at your notes and trying to find your way around the content, they will find it okay to look around, check their phone, and tune out. But if you are walking the stage, passionate, scanning the congregation with your eyes, and speaking confidently about what you are about to preach about, they will be sucked into listening.
Our congregations do not owe us their attention. We could pout about it and extol the virtues of those who would listen simply because the Bible is being taught, but it is on us to give them a reason to listen. Before you get them to the Place of the Skull outside Jerusalem, you must first meet them inside the city where they live. If we do this, then we can extol the glories of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who alone speaks to everything they face in their lives.