Too often pastors start their sermons full speed ahead. This is a negative result of a good thing. There is a resurgence of theologically mindful young pastors who are eager to get their congregations excited about the deep things of God. We don’t need less of that.
That said, over eagerness will cause a pastor to go from theological 0 to 60 in 5.2 sentences, and thus inflict the congregation with serious whiplash. As a pastor, you’ve had 5.2 days to ramp up to 60. If you’re an associate pastor, you may have had 5.2 weeks.
The crux of the issue is that if a flock only eats their pastor’s dust, they will be spiritually malnourished, no matter how theologically rich the sermon is. You don’t want to just put the food out, do you? You want them to actually eat and enjoy theological meal you’ve prepared for them, right?
On Sunday morning, we arrive in sixth gear, but our congregation arrives in first (at best), neutral (not great), park (really bad), or reverse (worst). We need to utilize sermon introductions in order to bring our people up to speed so they can join us on our journey of following Jesus.
The 7 gears of a sermon introduction
My most effective introductions tend to include the following segments. The length of time you spend on each one is different from week to week; maybe a sentence or two in one sermon, and then a paragraph or two in another. Each part flows into and sets up the next – like shifting gears in a stick shift – gradually preparing your people to be changed by God’s word.
1. Opening illustration: Start in their world before you bring them to the Bible’s world. But don’t tell an illustration just to catch their attention. Make sure the illustration you use contains conflict that points to your sermon’s Fallen Condition Focus (see #3).
2. Personal connection: This is the “You, too” moment, where you explicitly show how your opening illustration is true for your congregation. Pull a Nathan and say, in no uncertain terms, “You are the man!” For the rest of the sermon, everyone listening will know your message is about them, not the person sitting next to them or their pagan coworkers.
3. The Fallen Condition Focus: At this point you reveal the problem of our sinful condition contained in the passage that only God/Jesus/The Holy Spirit/The Gospel can solve.
4. Passage connection: You might be tempted to head right into your sermon at after #3. But you’d only be speaking on your own authority. Direct your audience to the phrase or verse in your passage that states the FCF. Now your congregation knows that this is about what God is saying to them, not you.
5. Series connection: This is optional, but helpful. Now that your audience sees they have a sinful condition that this passage will speak to, you may want to remind your congregation about the series you are in. Take a sentence or two to explain how this sermon and passage fits into the big picture.
6. Proposition: This is the solution to the FCF. As with the FCF, you should be able to point to a verse or phrase in your text that identifies the God-centered antidote to our sinful state.
7. Interrogative Question: After step six, your audience might feel like they don’t need to listen anymore. You showed them their problem, and you’ve showed them the solution. Why do they need to listen to anything else you have to say?
The answer is, they don’t yet know how to apply the solution. “What is the point of what Paul says?” “But how would Isaiah have us put this into practice today?” “Why does Jesus radically call us to…?” When you ask a question regarding your proposition, it reveals to your audience that they don’t have the whole picture yet. It shows them there is something at stake for their soul in the rest of the sermon, and they better listen up.
Pedal to the metal
Once you shift through all these gears, your people are on the edge of their seat, eager to hear what God’s word has to say. They see their spiritual need – in concrete terms – and realize that God has spoken authoritatively to the issue. They are looking to you to explain how God has spoken.
Now you can floor it.