Great books often begin with great opening lines. Who doesn't remember the beginning of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"? What about the curiously blunt start to Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael"? Authors know that if you waste a person's time at the beginning, chances are they won't stick around to the end. What's true with books is also true with sermons.
A preacher's worst fear is that the congregation will stop listening. What is far more dreadful than this is if the people never were listening in the first place. When one takes too much time verbally meandering into the sermon, the temptation to tune out the preacher becomes all too real. If your words wander, minds will, too.
Preachers often make the naïve assumption that the congregation arrives to church brimming with enthusiasm to hear the message. Who hasn't imagined members going to bed early on Saturday night, eating a hearty breakfast in the morning, spending an hour in prayer, and calmly driving to church with a Bible, pen and notebook in hand—being sure to arrive 30 minutes early? Seasoned preachers know this is rarely, if ever, the case.
By the time attendees find a seat in church, chances are many people already have had an argument, made plans for the rest of the day or (most likely) had an argument about their plans for the rest of the day. As Wayne McDill has noted, when most people arrive, they "are preoccupied with their own personal concerns, tired, bored, and suspicious that the preacher is about to make it worse."
People may be in front of us, but that does not mean they are necessarily with us. Ears are like tractor-trailer weigh stations. Just because you see them doesn't mean they're open. Given this challenge, the preacher's task of gaining a hearing is critical to effective communication.
Sermon introductions are a lot like chess. Mess up the beginning, and you may have messed up the whole thing. Ramesh Richards has gone so far as to say, "If you do not have your audience yearning (within the first few minutes) for the rest of the sermon, [it] might as well go home." However, if you begin the sermon with a clear, confident, intriguing opener, it can draw people in instantly. It will assure them you are going somewhere worthwhile. It will pique their curiosity and compel them to follow along closely.
Granted, the opening sentence is not the most important part of the sermon. If the choice is between a good sermon opener and a clear, accurate exposition of the text, by all means jettison the opener. Nevertheless, if you lose your congregation at the beginning, you will have to work twice as hard to get them back by the end. Why not give your message the best possible chance to connect with people at the outset? Plan to start the sermon strong.
Whether it's "mama" or "dada," a baby's first words get a lot of attention. The preacher's first words should, too. Here's how to craft a memorable sermon opener that will give people a reason to sit up and listen from the very start.
1. Craft the opening sentence to be simple.
There is hardly anything more laborious and attention-squelching than a long, never-ending sentence that seems to drag on and on with exceedingly too many adjectives, as well as verbal tangents that go nowhere and continue along with virtually no conceivable end in sight. (Get my drift?)
Less is often more. This is particularly true with the sermon's first sentence. Bryan Chapell's advice about sermon introductions is wise: "Be direct. Be focused. Be specific." Likewise, Haddon Robinson suggests, "The minister should make the most of his first 25 words to seize attention." From the moment you begin to speak, keep it simple.
There is an old saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." What's true in life is also true in preaching. Bloviate at the beginning, and you likely will not draw in listeners. The start of the sermon also is not the time for stumbling around with "ums" and "uhs." Verbal speed bumps such as these tend to distract even the most sincere listener. To ensure the kind of clarity and brevity needed, it may be helpful to flesh out the sermon's first sentence or two on paper. Write it. Edit it. Rewrite it as needed. Make it say exactly what you want.
For instance, a message about the biblical foundation of marriage could begin, "Marriage is not just a good idea; it is a God-idea." That is not only true, but also very memorable. It is the kind of statement a person will scribble in the margin of his or her Bible and relate to friends.
"God cannot do everything." Such a statement certainly will attract the attention of skeptics and seekers. However, it also can serve as a powerful introduction to a message on Titus 2:2, "God, who cannot lie, promised long ago…"
A train conductor does not waste his voice by announcing, "Everyone needs to get on the train so we can commence our departure as soon as possible." No. All he needs to shout is, "All aboard!" and people listen. Just a few choice words confidently spoken can say it all. Make your opening sentence brief. The pithier the better.
2. Craft the opening sentence to be iconic.
Hollywood not only spends big bucks on producing high-quality blockbuster films but also puts a lot of time and money into movie trailers. Previews tease the audience by showing a glimpse of what can be seen in the feature presentation. It's the producer's way of saying, "You don't want to miss this!" A good opening sentence likewise can be a sermon trailer or preview of what's ahead.
God certainly began the Book of Genesis in this kind of iconic way. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Not only do those words introduce the creation account, they also implant a sense of wonder about who this God is and what He is going to do with His new creation.
I recently was preaching from Matthew 3 about the message of John the Baptist. I opened by sharing a story from my childhood about my dad's poor driving. In an unfamiliar city, my father unknowingly began driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I began the sermon/story with these words, "The man repeatedly was shouting, ‘Turn around right now!'" It not only introduced a man in my story, but it also introduced John the Baptist. The phrase, "Turn around right now!" became a refrain that I repeated throughout the entire message. A sermon opener that echoes the central idea of the text is a helpful touch.
George Orwell's book 1984 begins with the memorable line, "It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." There's something relatable, even familiar, when he mentions a cold day in April. Yet there's something puzzlingly unfamiliar about the clocks striking "thirteen." It is as though Orwell is telling the reader up front, "You are about to journey into a new and fascinating world." He gives a tiny preview of what lies ahead. Doing the same with your sermon opener will benefit your listeners.
3. Craft the opening sentence to be intriguing.
"Peaches can kill you!" Those were the unexpected first words out of my mouth from a series on temptation. I went on to explain that inside a peach pit is a mineral known as amygdalin. Under certain circumstances, that mineral can produce a new compound, commonly known as cyanide. I told my congregation that temptation often looks delicious, but hidden inside is something dangerous and destructive. A few days later, I someone told me, "Pastor, since that sermon I've never looked at a peach the same way. It always reminds me of how dangerous temptation can be." Such a shocking first sentence may help the sermon stick in people's minds.
Kent Edwards advises, "Effective first sentences could be paradoxical statements, twists on familiar quotations, or even rhetorical questions." A sermon dealing with God's omniscience may begin by asking, "Has it ever dawned on you that nothing ever dawns on God?" Raising a thought-provoking question will inspire a search for the right answer.
Graham Johnston writes, "The opening line establishes a tension with the emotional ingredients to draw in the listener." Your first words should force the audience to ask, "I wonder what's next?" Solomon began the Book of Ecclesiastes this way: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" (Ecc. 1:1) What a fitting way to introduce the reader to the king's angst about living a life without God.
When the apostle Paul addressed the men at Mars Hill, he gained an instant audience with his complimentary opener, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects" (Acts 17:22). In just a few words, Paul commended his audience, raised curiosity and set the stage for his powerful apologetic.
In the same temptation series that I mentioned earlier, another sermon began with me announcing, "I want you to be a destructive alcoholic!" The room fell silent. I clearly had everyone's attention. The congregation was dying to know why I began with such a controversial statement. I followed it by calmly asking them to consider, "Wouldn't it be nice if temptation was this honest about its endgame?" Such unexpected sermon openers will arrest people's attention and give them a reason upfront to keep listening.
A Russian proverb sums it up well: "It is the same with men as with donkeys: Whoever would hold them fast must get a very good grip on their ears!" From the moment you step into the pulpit, listeners instinctively are wondering, "Why should I listen today?" Your opening sentence should leave no doubt. Every preacher must earn the right to be heard. Start with a bang, and you will do just that.