A man asked his friend, “What color are your pastor’s eyes? He answered, “I don’t know. When he prays he closes his eyes and when he preaches I close mine.” That’s how a lot of people feel about a lot of sermons—an excellent place to get a good night’s rest. So much so, that as you approach the pulpit, they slouch down in their seats. They’ve already made up their minds that you are going to be dull and irrelevant.
That’s one reason you don’t have 30 minutes to get their attention. That’s how long you have to keep it. You only have 30 seconds to get their attention. If you don’t grab those first 30 seconds, their minds will quickly divert to the happenings of last week or the plans for next week. And furthermore, no matter how important what you desire to say is, it will not be heard.
How do you get their attention in 30 seconds? Four ideas are invaluable.
1. Do a passion check.
Are you stepping into the pulpit because you have to say something or because you have something to say? If you are not extremely burdened about the truth you need to share, it’s doubtful that your audience will feel burdened to listen to you. To be an effective communicator, that burden must be expressed with a passion. Your need to be passionate about the truth you are going to impart; it can’t be overstated. That passion can be seen in the way you step into the pulpit, your excitement and even your opening words.
2. Your first words are critical.
You might ask, "How can you make those first few words attention-getting?" Let’s say you are speaking to the issue of problems and use a particular text that addresses our problems and His solutions. Don’t stand before your people and begin, “Most of us have problems. In fact, we have so many of them we are at a loss at what to do.” I am tempted to yawn and begin my morning nap. But suppose your first words are, “All of us have them. Some of us have more than others, and some of us feel like every time they come, they come in a giant-sized package. But all of us have them.” I begin to wonder, “What is he talking about? What is he getting at?”
Then you continue, “That simple thing I’m talking about is that serious thing called problems. In fact, some of us have so many problems that pulling into the driveway at night is no easier than backing out in the morning; crawling underneath the covers is no easier than crawling out. A national magazine told about a man who would come home every night from work, only to be hit with the day's calamities by his wife. One night he said to her, ‘Honey, before you hit me with everything that has gone wrong, would you at least let me sit down and enjoy a good night’s meal?' The next night, as soon as he came through the door his wife said to him, ‘Honey, hurry up and eat, I have something terrible to tell you.’" You have my attention, and you got it in 30 seconds. Choose wisely what you say. Those first words are more than important; they are critical.
3. Strike a need.
What need are you speaking to? Beginning your message by saying, “Last week we were in I Timothy 2; this week we are in I Timothy 3” is not an introduction; it is simply a start. I sincerely don’t mean to be sarcastic, but the fact that you were in I Timothy 2 last week may be a good reason not to be in I Timothy 3 this week. Some may have felt last week’s message was pretty bad!
Instead, strike a need that causes me to say, “I need to hear what he is going to say.” That need may be struck by speaking to a subject that interests me: guilt, loneliness or death. Or it may be caused by asking one of several questions that relate to the subject I am about to address. For instance
“Have you wondered why the best of friends sometimes end up the worst of enemies?"
“Why does the raising of children have to be so difficult?"
“Why, when everything is going so well, does it seem that life is still boring?"
You might even strike a need by telling a story that I can relate to, that introduces the necessity of what you are about to explain. It has been said, “There are three kinds of preachers: those to whom you cannot listen; those to whom you can listen; and those to whom you must listen.” Strike a need, and you are someone to whom I must listen.
4. Talk my language.
Don’t make me feel like I am sitting in church. Make me feel like you are sitting alongside me at home. The language you use will help you do that.
Call a pew a seat, a hymn a song, and an epistle a letter. Refer to a paragraph in the Bible instead of a passage. That way you are speaking my language, not asking me to speak yours. “Church” language doesn’t communicate effectively to people.
How many times have you enjoyed a conversation with a friend and had him or her say, “You are so easy to talk to. I feel like we are on the same page.” Reflect on those conversations and I’m certain you will agree the language used made a difference. The “relatability” in your choice of words gets attention.
Once you have your audience’s attention, now the question becomes, how do you keep it? The answer is simpler than you might suppose. Some of the same things used to get their attention are the same things used to keep it. Three more ideas will be helpful.
1. Be enthusiastic.
The authentic emotion of enthusiasm breeds authentic enthusiasm. The opposite is also true. If you are not excited about what you are saying, I’m certainly not going to be; that’s why keeping a close walk with Christ is crucial. The closer you are to the Savior, the more excited you become about Him. But may I also mention how much you need to watch your physical fitness? Studies have shown that when you preach a 30-minute message, it is the equivalent of four to six hours of physical labor. Physical fitness affects your energy level, which in turn impacts your enthusiasm.
2. Stay relevant.
Jesus Christ was a master communicator. How many times do we read where the Scriptures say, “And He spoke to them a parable.” Put truth in the language of your audience and do it like Christ did it, through human interest stories.
Speakers who hold an audience’s attention use stories drawn from everyday life. A few of those need to be humorous. I’m convinced that Christ, being the effective communicator He was, said things that caused people to smile. While they were smiling, He made a point that impacted their lives for change. He was speaking truth and used humor to help make His point. When people are laughing, they are listening. Laughter is the universal language that not only does everyone enjoy, it also communicates.
Relevancy, communicated through language, stories, humor and numerous other ways, has to be a thread that runs through the entire message, not just the first 30 seconds. The Scriptures are written in the context of the people of that day. You, through a proper application and use of the Scriptures, have to know how that truth is relevant to the people of our day.
3. Entice me to hear more, not less.
The pressure a speaker places himself under to capture the audience’s attention in 30 seconds must be same pressure he places himself under to keep its length to 30 minutes. If you are committed to being an expositor, you will have more to say than can be said in 30 minutes. The Word of God is a buffet. There is always more food for the audience to digest from a particular paragraph of Scripture than you have time to serve. But the art of communicating is knowing what to take out of a message, not just what you leave in. Leaving an audience where they desire to know more is preferable to their wishing you had stopped sooner.
Truth, by itself, does not change lives when it is spoken. It only changes lives when it is heard and understood. If the introduction to the message does not make the audience sit up and listen, the message is not likely to impact their lives. Get your audience’s attention in 30 seconds, then keep it. Which would you rather hear as a speaker: “I can’t wait until the service is over” or “I can’t wait to hear you speak”?