OK. Maybe not exactly in half. But I’ve listened to lots of sermons over the years, and I’m worried about the way we begin sermons. I have to say that about 3/4 of these sermons would be dramatically improved if the preacher started about two pages (or about 3-5 minutes) into the sermon. I don’t know what it is, but most of us love the “wind-up,” not realizing that we are not baseball pitchers; sermon wind-ups are usually sermon “wind-downs.” Here are the most common “wind-up/wind-downs.”
1. Re-hashing the biblical text.
The preacher in this mode drags the listener through a long, expanded or “imaginative” re-hashing of the text. No. This is not an exposition or interpretation. I’m speaking about a non-interpretive re-hashing of the bits and pieces of the text. Sometimes this never ends and lasts the entire sermon. The preacher forgets to have anything to say to us—or what is commonly called a “message”—and seems to assume that we’ll “get it” if we hear the old, old story re-iterated.
2. The sermon “set-up.”
In this mode, the preacher spends a few minutes exegetically framing the biblical text—providing what the preacher considers useful background information—some interesting tidbits, mostly exegetical by-products.
3. Touring the cutting room floor.
In this approach, the preacher tells us how he or she arrived at this message—strolling us around the room and pointing out all of the fascinating options left behind on the cutting room floor.
4. Climbing to higher ground.
In this mode, the preacher tells the listener all of the ways she or he has heard this text preached in the past—leading us to the superior ground of their own interpretation.
5. The rapport story.
In this mode, the preacher decides to tell a personal story. This is not a story told about someone or something else, narrated through the lens of the preacher’s experience, but a story about the preacher’s experience (of self, other, family, sports, memory, life, etc.). This story might contain a catchy thematic hook designed to capture our interest. Often, the story goes on interminably. No matter what they are supposed to be illustrating, these wind-up stories seem to be saying something else, namely: “Welcome to my world—please like me and be my friend while I preach this sermon.” When this occurs over and over, genuine sermon content is sacrificed to a rather contrived rapport-building exercise.
6. The message grope.
In my experience this is the most common “wind-up/wind-down.” When beginning to write the sermon the preacher didn’t really have a clue what to say. The preacher just started writing or speaking, hoping a message would pop out. By the time a message finally arrived, several minutes had been wasted groping one’s way toward it, and most of the energy of the sermon had evaporated. For whatever reason, rather than removing this material, it is kept.
Anton Chekov’s famous advice to writers comes immediately to mind: “Tear out the first half of your story; you’ll only have to change a few things in the beginning of the second half and the story will be perfectly clear.”
This is serious and solid advice for many preachers. Once we’ve written the sermon, or organized it and preached it through a few times extemporaneously, it is a good idea to ask ourselves whether, in fact, the sermon would be better if we started it further in—on page two or three. If we did this on a regular basis, I believe we’d avoid many of the “wind-up/wind-downs” that currently sap the energy at the beginnings of our sermons.