The Introduction of the Sermon
By Jess Hall Jr.
It may not be fair, but in this day when preachers compete with media soundbites polished by professionals to capture and keep attention, hearers decide within the sermon's first three minutes whether to "switch channels" or whether they are interested in anything else that the preacher has to say. Preachers who want to be heard, and who care whether they are heard, will spend the time necessary to prepare an introduction that captures the hearers.
The purpose of the introduction is to create interest in the theme, prepare the hearers for what follows, and give the hearers a reason to listen to what the preacher has to say. In short, the introduction welds a connection between the text, the theme, the preacher, the hearers, and the occasion. It should convey a sense of urgency. It should persuade the hearers that what they are about to hear is crucial for their lives, now and forever. It should communicate a conviction based upon a "thus saith the Lord." Like a camera lens, it should exclude everything from the picture except that on which it is focused-the theme. But how is this accomplished?
The first secret is careful preparation. A survey of top speakers revealed that the introduction of their presentations was the part most immutable, often written out, and all but memorized. As strange as it may seem, the sermon's introduction, although spoken first, is prepared near the last. It is the theme (which is prepared first, see, Firm Foundation, Oct. 1996), and not the introduction, that controls the sermon's direction. At least the main points that support the theme should be prepared before the introduction; otherwise, there is nothing to introduce.
Introductions should vary in form to avoid jaded hearers. The introduction's form may be as diverse as a surprising statement, a provocative question, an apropos quotation, or a vivid word picture. The introduction's content may recite a personal incident that relates to the text (done with care to avoid introducing the preacher instead of the subject), recount a real life story that illustrates the text or theme, relate a biblical story with a "you are there" approach, describe a contemporary problem and suggest that the text is the solution to that problem, repeat a current attentiongetting news story that illustrates the theme or the problem to which the theme is addressed, or any number of others. Both the introduction's form and content may be dictated by the theme. One common, but difficult type of introduction is the use of humor. Not only is humor difficult to handle well, it frequently has no relation, or only a forced relation, to the theme. Even more dangerous, not all of the hearers may see the humor.
The opening sentence should be addressed to the mind. The hearer should mentally respond, "That sounds interesting." If the response is, "Hohum" or "So what?" the hearers are lost. The leadin sentence in a newspaper article determines if it will be read; the leadin sentence in a sermon determines if it will be heard.
The development of the introduction should be addressed to the heart. This is most critical; this is the primary point of failure. Failure here results in preaching just on a subject, rather than to living, feeling, needy people.
The transition from the introduction to the body stirs curiosity by promising something. For example, if the opening sentence is a surprising question, the transition promises an answer; if it states a problem, it promises a solution. The sermon must deliver whatever the transition promises, or the preacher loses credibility. The way some sermons begin, the hearers expect the preacher to descend from the pulpit with tables of stone. At the very least they expect lightning to flash and thunder to roll. If the sermon doesn't deliver, or if the introduction doesn't relate to the sermon, the sermon is like a dud firecracker- all spew and no pop!
The introduction should never belittle the hearers. The preacher owes the hearers, not vice versa. If the introduction puts down the hearers, expresses anger (either real or perceived) toward them, or otherwise demeans them, the preacher would do better to keep both his seat and his peace.
The introduction should not be trite, hackneyed, abstract, complex, or technical. The introduction should not focus on the theme by the process of elimination. For example, the introduction should not involve the reading of a lengthy passage, provide a long and tedious discussion of the passage, only to be followed by, "But I don't want to discuss that. I want to focus your attention on three words in the fifth verse." That type of introduction signals that the larger passage has little or nothing to do with the theme. Even if it got the hearers attention (not likely), it will as quickly be lost when the sermon shifts gears.
The presentation of the introduction begins before a word is spoken. Appropriate silence is to the sermon what "white space" is to the written word- it catches the attention of the hearer or reader. When you step into the pulpit, you should take a moment to permit the congregation to put down their hymnals, pick up their Bibles, adjust their bodies, and focus their eyes on you. Then, looking your hearers in the eye, present a wellprepared introduction. In only about three minutes, you will be well on the road to a successful sermon.