The bulk of preparation effort usually goes into the main content of a message. We wrestle with the text, we allow it to shape our theology, we think through how that content marks our lives, we ponder all this in light of who will hear the message. This is all work on the points, or movements, in a message.
Then perhaps we ponder illustrative material to help make sense of those movements. We consider how to introduce the message. We might even give some thought to how we will conclude it.
But often there is too little thought given to the transitions between movements in a message. Too little attention given to these little moments will result in too great a negative effect on the whole message. Great messages bomb because of poor transitions.
Here are some nudges to help us better transition during our preaching:
Introducing Effectively (A)
1. Emphasize clearly. The listeners need to know that you are moving from whatever introductory material you have given into the first movement of the message. You can do a star jump, pause for two minutes and turn to look at a PowerPoint slide. Or you can be less awkward. Vocal variation can serve to underline your shift effectively: perhaps a pause, a change of pace, a variation in pitch. You can say, “So for my first point …” but that is probably hinting at dullness already. But something along those lines could be helpful: “So let’s see how the passage launches ...” could work, as long as people catch what you just said (so think through how to add emphasis).
2. Preview appropriately. What is appropriate depends on the type of movement that will follow. If you are presenting a declaration and then supporting it, as in a typical deductive message, then you might be able to simply offer a preview of the point by stating it and telling what will follow (i.e.explanation, application, etc.). By previewing and then re-stating the point as you progress, listeners will spot the entry into a section of the message. If the point is the development in a narrative, then you may not want to give it all away at the transition. You need to decide how to make sure people are with you as you enter in. Perhaps a question that will be answered — some variation on “so what happened next?” — might work.
3. Introduce confidently. Whatever you are about to say, convey confidence in how you introduce it. Don’t apologize. Don’t downplay in some supposed act of humility. ”Oh, I guess I should probably say a few words about ... ” Uh, no. "Just a disconnected story first before we get into ...” Again, no. ”I wasn’t sure where to start, so ...” No.
Transitions are disproportionately significant. They don’t convey the content of the message, but their critical role can significantly support or significantly undermine the message as a whole.
Transitioning Effectively (B)
1. Slow down noticeably. The sermon is an unsafe vehicle. There are no seat belts or doors that guarantee your passengers will stay with you. When you take a turn, make sure they are right there or you’ll leave them in the aftermath of the previous movement. Slow down through the curves. Listeners can seem as if they are with you at a certain pace of delivery, and they might be able to stay with you in a straight line, but when you go in a new direction they may be unable to keep track and they will be left in a heap with dust settling around them. Slow down. Change pace. Pause. Make the transition clear. Sometimes in our anxiety to press on and get through it all we can cut corners at this point (since it isn’t content at this point) and in doing so undermine the whole message. If you must speed up, do so within a movement, not between them.
2. Look both ways. That is to say, use the opportunity to provide both review and preview. Where have we been so far? Where are we going next? Just a couple of sentences can make the world of difference. It is the difference between an enjoyable ride in a nice car with a good driver and an uncomfortable ride in an overpowered car with an overconfident teen at the wheel.
3. Mark physically. Slowing down the delivery and reflecting / previewing are helpful. But why not reinforce the shift in direction by a physical marker? You could physically switch from one side of the lectern to the other (assuming you don’t hide behind it all the time), gesture appropriately, change you orientation by a few degrees, etc. Subtle reinforcement in this way can communicate very effectively.
Notice that I haven’t suggested simply saying, “Now for my next point …” If you have to, fine, but consider that this may have a soporific effect if the listeners don’t have confidence in you. Good transitions should give a sense of momentum and progress. Bad or patronizing ones can either lose people or reinforce the sense of boredom. Maybe a minute of your message will be taken up by this kind of transition ... but this minute could be make or break!
Transitions are a tiny part of a message, but they can make all the difference in terms of being heard properly. We’ve looked at the first two types of transition. Let’s ponder the third: concluding transitions. Or to put it another way, transitions to a conclusion. This is very biblical, by the way. I was just looking at Galatians 5:1-12. I think that is Paul’s transition from his second main point and body of his argument to the conclusion and application phase of his letter. An abrupt move from main point to conclusion may not be effective. So?
1. Review clearly. These would be true of a message conclusion as a whole, but I am speaking of a transition from body to conclusion. This is a good place to review where we have been together. Anything more than clear and crisp statements runs the risk of sounding like the development of another element of the message. Don’t add explanation to this. Don’t restate in a way that might appear to be development rather than restatement. Keep this element as clear and punchy as possible. Try to make the message sound clearer than it did when you preached it!
2. Regain any drift from relevance. There is always a danger that in the development of the main argument of a message, with all the biblical and theological explanation listeners can lose sight of its relevance for them. This shouldn’t happen if you make every movement relevant and apply it as you go, but sometimes you need to give time to explanation. Lest any be drifting from the moorings of crystal clear relevance, use the transition to underline that this is for us today. Paul did this in his transition in Galatians 5. The sermon to the Hebrews reinforces relevance in every transition throughout the sermon.
3. Avoid apology. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but this applies at any point. Almost always avoid apology during your preaching. Some have the habit of half apologizing in transitions. “Well, anyway, that could have been clearer, but ... ” or “I wish we had more time, we haven’t really gotten the point of that section ...” and so on are not helpful. There may be occasion for apology. If you have a cough or weak voice, apologize if you feel it is necessary, but do so confidently. Basically the listeners will respond to your tone — if you are apologizing, they will feel bad. If you are confident, they will take that on board. So avoid undermining a message by apologising in some unnecessary way.