How to Win Your Audience's Attention for Your Sermon
Thought Leader: Jeff Magruder, D.Min.
The sermon introduction is more important now than historically it has ever been. We can no longer assume that simply because we have a title in front of our name, letters after our name, or an open Bible before us that people feel any obligation to pay attention to what we have to say.
In the past, uninterested listeners had little to do when sitting through a sermon they didn’t care to listen to. They might pass notes, read the hymnal, count the tiles in the ceiling, or even count the idiosyncrasies in the preacher’s delivery style. Today, however, with the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices, an unengaged listener can happily surf the web, be on social media, play video games, get caught up on their reading, and a thousand other things, all while the preacher delivers the sermon just a few feet away. What can we do to help ensure that their sermons are, in the words of Duane Litfin, “the most interesting thing going on in the room?”
The answer, I believe, is to be intentional about being “attention getting.”
In this blog post, I will offer six examples of introductions that get listeners’ attention. This list is not exhaustive, but it does include some of the most tried and true strategies for attention-getting sermon introductions. In a later video blog, I will be discussing some of the common speed bumps that preachers can be guilty of inserting in their introductions and thus squashing a listener’s interest before the sermon has even begun. Here are some examples of attention-getting introductions:
Sermon Introduction #1: An Attention-getting Question
You want to be sure to ask questions that people actually care about and ask them in a way they can recognize as being similar to their own. For example, beginning a sermon with the question,” If God is so good, then why do such bad things happen in the world?” is much more likely to resonate with the congregation, than “Which theodicy best justifies God’s continuing allowance of moral and natural evil in the world?”
Sermon Introduction #2: An Attention-getting Statement
“Today I'm going to teach you how to backslide in three easy steps.” As with questions, be sure that your statement will engage the audience immediately and make them want to hear what you have to say.
Sermon Introduction #3: Startling Facts & Statistics
“One in three marriages will end in divorce.” Due to our listeners’ frequent exposure to statistics, it is best to use those that are the most attention getting due to their surprising nature. A warning here: ANY time you’re going to use a fact or statistic that sounds incredible, it may not be credible. You must make sure your sources are credible, and I recommend making it a habit to cite the source in the sermon.
Sermon Introduction #4: Humor
For example, this woman came up to her pastor and said, "Pastor, my cat died, and I'm so distraught and I was wondering, would you be willing to do a funeral for my cat?" And the pastor, being an Assemblies of God minister said, "I'm sorry but we don't do funerals for cats." And then a thought crossed his mind, and he said with a wry smile, "Why don't you go up the road to the Lutheran pastor. I bet he'd be willing to do it." And the woman said, "Well, thank you Reverend. I appreciate it. Do you think $1500 will be enough to pay for this funeral?" The Assembly of God pastor exclaimed, "$1500! Well why didn't you tell me your cat was Assemblies of God? It would be my pleasure to bury him!"
Once you have their attention, try to use the irony found in the joke to point out a tension in the life of the listener.
Sermon Introduction #5: Go Directly to Scripture
There are certain passages of scripture like Psalm 22:1: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" that are so attention getting on their own, that you can simply begin by citing them. However, generally speaking, just getting up and reading the passage can tempt people to tune out; thus, my suggestion is that when using this approach, it should be an attention-getting passage.
Sermon Introduction #6: An Interesting Story
Interesting stories do tend to get people’s attention, and interesting stories that are personal are even better. But what will really tempt them to listen is using stories that are from the shared experience of the speaker and the listener. For example, the first time you got bullied or had your heart broken. Even everyday frustrations that you know your audience has experienced, like being cut off in traffic or having to put up with a difficult co-worker, can be the source of an interesting story.
Before I wrap up, it is important that I point out that it’s not simply what you say that’s going to capture people’s attention but how you say it. We should deliver the opening of our messages with excitement and confidence. Haddon Robinson put it this way:
“The sermon only has as much authority as the preacher can win for it.”
Now theologically someone may want to quibble with that, but practically, as a communication strategy, I think that is absolutely the right way to think about it. The sermon introduction should be delivered in an attention-getting and energetic way; after all, it is more important now than it has ever been.
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