Preaching Articles

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 three-fourths 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-ups/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 reiterated.

2. The sermon “set-up.”

In this mode, the preacher spends a few minutes exegetically framing the biblical text and providing what he or she 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. He or she 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-ups/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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Don Workman

commented on Mar 9, 2012

Interesting - definitely NOT what I wanted to be confronted with on a Friday morning, sermon pretty much "in hand", and Sunday approaching! As I read I thought, "begin two or three pages in???" and "What would Andy Stanley think of this pattern? (His being: Me / We / God / You / We) I was aggravated enough to check and find out "who is John McClure?" and "Does he preach at least one new sermon each week?" Being directed to his blog only helped a little, but I became so agitated that I ended up subscribing to it because I felt a bit uneasy and challenged as I read - and I liked that! I can't promise I am starting on page three every time; but this article did challenge me to "get on with it" especially at the beginning (I still like "Me / We" in "Connecting the Dots" :-) And hopefully as John said, my people will be happier and remember more. Thanks (I think.)

Jack Pladdys

commented on Mar 9, 2012

If you start with the meat, then the beginning is a lot easier. I rarely write my sermon from start to finish. Usually, I write the "body" first and then determine the best way to introduce it.

Don Workman

commented on Mar 9, 2012

Same here, Jack - I want to fit the "intro" to what God is saying in His Word and not the other way around.

Edward Peterson

commented on Mar 9, 2012

I agree with Don, I appreciate the Me/We approach. The other points in the article are a good reminder.

Alexander Shaw

commented on Mar 9, 2012

One friend was told to tear his dissertation in half. Send one half to the English Department and you will get a D.Litt and the other to the Faculty of Divinity and you may receive a D.D. Just a slightly different light on the article.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Mar 9, 2012

Ok, here we go again with the political correctness. In point 3 he says, "In this approach, the preacher tells us how he or she arrived at this message." He or SHE! Then to make sure he is fair to the women he switches the order in point 4 "In this mode, the preacher tells the listener all of the ways she or he has heard this text preached in the past." Why would anyone want his advice on how to preach when he can't even understand such CLEAR Scriptures as 1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-14, 3:1-7 (notice all the nouns are MALE). And I am sure I will hear people talk about how it was only for Paul's day that women couldn't pastor or preach (because others have tried that before). If you try to use this argument then give me the CHAPTER and VERSE from the BIBLE to back what you say. Also don't show your ignorance by quoting Galatians 3:28 because the context is our inheritance in Christ not that there isn't any distinction between men and women. If Jesus really wanted women in leadership over men He would have had 6 men and 6 women disciples. Then we wouldn't be having this argument. But He didn't.

Kevin Wenker

commented on Mar 9, 2012

Hey, Dennis, I'm a Lutheran - Missouri Synod pastor - you and I are in absolute agreement.

Joel Rutherford

commented on Mar 9, 2012

Your Comments

Paul Digregorio

commented on Mar 9, 2012

Good points but a good intro is important as well as a catchy title. Those things will catch the listener's ear and at least perk up the interest of the ones about to fall asleep. The catchy title helps them remember the context of your sermon. At least this work well for me.

Robert Sickler

commented on Mar 9, 2012

Brevity is not my strong suit, so I do see this to be points worth considering.

Lyall Scheib

commented on Mar 13, 2012

Very good reminder for me. I will print it and read it often. A book that's not about preaching but it may as well be. Better than any preaching book I read in Bible College is, How To Say Everything You Need To Say in 30 Seconds or Less. No it's not about preaching 30 second sermons but how to cut out all the extra, needless clutter we add.

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