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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.



John McClure blogs about preaching and theology at Otherwise Thinking. You can read more about these "places" in McClure's book, The Four Codes of Preaching.

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Richard Scotland

commented on May 16, 2014

#6 is what I call the fishing trip, can be in sermons or prayers, where the person throws in several lines to see what bites today and goes with whatever is landed. It can take several lines but sometimes it feels a lot longer.

Clarence Bolton

commented on May 16, 2014

#2 is good and useful - if you are going to preach God's word in context. Sounds to me that you just jump into preaching without letting the congregation know where you are trying to take them. Now I can agree that many preachers spend too much time "on the porch" and not enough time "in the house". You need some introduction to your Sermon.

Joe Mckeever

commented on May 16, 2014

True. I do that in writing articles, spending half the time introducing. Thanks.

Alexander Drysdale Lay Preacher Uca Australia

commented on May 16, 2014

When I was learning how to talk to an audience I was told that you have 30 secs to get them tuned into you to make contact. If you don't then it will not matter how profound and erudite your message is, it will not be heard as you want it to be heard. #5 is the best of the six suggestions as long as it is NOT personal and is within the 30 secs. Why? Is the congregation REALLY interested in your personal stories? My experience, however limited, is to get the congregation "on-to-the-same-bus" with you and then share your message and passion and commitment with them so that you all get off at the same stop.

Chris Hearn

commented on May 18, 2014

In regards to #5, there may be a place for this, but the Lord has brought to mind often throughout the years something a wise proff in college said something like, "Don't be the hero of your own sermon" or "Don't be the hero of your own story or illustration." Solid advice both ways.

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