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Why Sermon Introductions Fail and Succeed

One of my doctoral preaching seminars required each student to write a paper on a single sermon element. We were then required to read these papers out loud before our instructor and peers. This humbling experience also produced moments of humor and enlightenment. Most students argued that their sermon element was the most important one, whether it was the text selection, title, introduction, conclusion, proposition, purpose, outline, application, illustrations, or cross-references. This debate among homileticians will likely continue until the end of time, but what most do agree on is that the sermon introduction and conclusion are key elements of the preaching moment. Therefore, I am writing a two-part blog series on why sermon introductions and conclusions fail and succeed.

Why do sermon introductions fail?

There are five common reasons:

  1. First, they fail by not getting the congregation’s attention. Within the first ten seconds, listeners will ask of the preacher “Do I like you?” Within the first ten minutes, they will ask “Will I listen to you?” Therefore, it is critical to begin with something that generates attention and explains why they need to listen.
  2. Second, they fail when the preacher is unable to articulate the main idea of the passage in a single, yet profound sentence. He needs to deliver the sermon’s big idea with clarity and conciseness.
  3. Third, they fail when the preacher does not begin with the text first, or if the preacher begins with the text, departs from it, and does not return to it. These behaviors communicate that the text is secondary to what the preacher wants to talk about.
  4. Fourth, they fail when the preacher does not know what he is going to say and how he is going to say it. Introductions should be the most rehearsed and well thought out part of the entire sermon.
  5. Finally, they fail when the preacher does not make a smooth transition from the introduction to the main body. Listeners will not feel as if the sermon takeoff has smoothly transitioned to steady elevation once it has reached high altitude.

Why do sermon introductions succeed?

There are also five common practices that produce successful sermon introductions. The first four follow the “hey, you, look, do” method:

  1. First, “hey” means get people’s attention. Preachers need to generate interest in the sermon. There is a saying that when advertising fire extinguishers, open with the fire.
  2. Second, “you” means to show them why they should listen. It is helpful to provide up-front application so listeners know they will benefit from the sermon.
  3. Third, “look” requires showing them that the sermon is all about the text. It is critical to pivot early to the preached Word.
  4. Fourth, “do” requires helping them see where the message is going.
  5. Finally, successful introductions are well crafted and enticing. The desired outcome is that if the preacher decided to stop preaching after the introduction, the congregation would beg him to keep going.

Significance of beginning the sermon well

In How Effective Sermons Begin, Ben Awbrey passionately pleas that “Better preaching starts with better sermon introductions!” Unlike some preachers who blame their congregation for not listening attentively, Awbrey places the blame for boring sermons squarely on the preacher’s shoulders. The introduction is the place for the preacher to put his best foot forward in every sermon. Similarly, in A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, John Broadus compared the sermon introduction to a front porch: “A building is rarely pleasing in appearance, without a porch, or some thing corresponding to a porch.” Unlike the preacher, his congregation has not spent 10-15 hours during the previous week meditating on the sermon text. He can help his congregation by beginning with a persuasive argument on why they need to continue listening. The old proverb, “well begun is half done” is especially relevant in preaching when so much is at stake.