How to Build Tension When You Preach

sermon prep Oct 15, 2018

In the days before Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming services ruled the media viewing world, I was really into box dvd sets. They were all the rage, and I was all in.

Lost was the first TV show I watched on dvd with each episode in immediate succession. I was in college at the time and had a load of classes for which I should have been studying. But instead I would watch an episode and go immediately to the next and the next and the next. I would tell myself, “This is the last episode tonight.” But inevitably I would push it to one or two more. Why?


The producers of Lost (and every good TV show before or since) were masterful at building tension. They knew the secret to keeping people on the edge of their seat and coming back for more.

Television and movie producers understand something a lot of preachers do not: You have to make people care about your content before they’ll give their attention to more of it.



As preachers, we have a tendency to unknowingly assume that people must be interested and eager to hear our sermon because, after all, they’re sitting there. In the seats. Staring back at us.

You are on a stage saying words into a microphone with a Bible in your hand. Of course they’re paying attention, right? Not exactly.

People only give their attention to what they find interesting, compelling or valuable. What makes people find something interesting, compelling or having perceived value is determined by the level of tension built up against it.

As a preacher, it’s easy to focus on your content and not really consider if your listeners are ready to hear it. You’ve been studying your material all week, and you’re totally energized by it. It’s all you’ve thought about for days. You are so excited to finally share these thoughts that are bursting out of you. But your listeners aren’t there yet. They walked into church with everything on their minds except your sermon. They have nowhere near the same level of enthusiasm for your topic that you have.

That’s the way it works. You care. They may not yet.

It’s your job to bring them to the place where they are ready to listen. You have to build tension in a way that makes people want to pay attention. So how do you build tension?


Since tension building is so vital to effective sermon delivery, I want to map out how to do it in each sermon. The most important concept to grasp is the way in which people decide on one course of action over another.

Understand how people make decisions.

When I was in the first year of my Communications program in college, I learned about one of the most basic theories of communication: Aristotle’s’ ethospathoslogos. In this theory, Aristotle suggests that the best public speaking and presentations contain all three: ethos, a credible speaker; pathos, a message that moves people at a visceral level; and logos, a message that makes sense logically.

According to this theory, your listeners are subconsciously requiring three things of you if they are going to give you the right to speak to them:You need to be trustworthy (ethos), You need to stir their emotions (pathos), and you need to stimulate their mind (logos).

If you do all three of those your listeners are much more likely to give you an ear. But the order in which you do these actually makes a difference. Most preachers, if they do all three, don’t get the order right. They often jump right into the logos: the arguments, the propositional truths, the “here’s-what-you-need-to-do” part of their sermon.

This is our tendency as preachers because we love the text and tend to want to draw people’s attention to the truth of Scripture early and often. This is not a bad thing! But it’s far more effective do this after you have taken the time to show people why they need to look to the Scriptures.

Most preachers begin teaching the text before they have sufficiently given their audience a compelling reason to listen. These preachers think: If I can just convince them with logic, then they’ll be motivated to action.

The problem is, most of your listeners don’t operate that way. It’s not how people make decisions.

In the book Well Said!: Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, Darlene Price discusses the mistakes public speakers make. She says one of the mistakes is being uninspiring:

Even more vital to persuasion than Logos, says Aristotle, is Pathos, which includes the right-brain activities of emotions, images, stories, examples, empathy, humor, imagination, color, sounds, touch, and rapport, Price says. “Tomes of studies show human beings typically make decisions based on emotions first (Pathos); then, we look for the facts and figures to justify it (Logos). Audience members do the same. With your words, actions, and visuals, seek first to inspire an emotion in them (joy, surprise, hope, excitement, love, empathy, vulnerability, sadness, fear, envy, guilt). Then, deliver the analysis to justify the emotion.” 

An engaging, memorable, and persuasive presentation is balanced with both information and inspiration. “It speaks to the head and the heart, leveraging both facts and feelings,” she says.

Think about the argument Price makes: people make decisions on emotions first and then look for the facts to justify the decision they’ve made.

If you think about this it rings true. For example, if you’re browsing around a dealership looking at cars the salesperson is not likely to approach you and start talking facts and figures. He is not likely going to walk up and immediately say, “Hi, this car is priced at $31,995 and we can get you 72 month financing at $497 a month.” That’s way too many facts (logos) for your brain at this point. He knows that making you think in those terms before you have had time to fall in love with the car could be dangerous. You may walk away.

Instead, he’s going to say, “This car is totally you. You’d look great driving it. You want to give it a test drive? Let’s take it for a spin. You’ll love how it handles.” He wants you to feel it (pathos) because he knows that once you’ve connected emotionally with the idea of owning that car it’s a much easier proposition to get you to stick around and talk about financing options.

The principle of ethos, pathos and logos holds true in our modern experience. People have to feel something before they care about it. Your listeners must relate emotionally before they’ll be willing to interrupt their status quo and make a change.

With a goal of life-change in preaching, it’s more effective to put the pathos ahead of the logos. To get your audience to feel a problem before they know the solution.

You have to keep in mind that although you are totally convinced of your arguments and why they matter when you get up to preach, your audience may not be. Take the time to do the hard work of bringing your listeners to the point that they want to listen. 

Preaching this way allows God to be the hero of every story. You’ve done the work of presenting tension (a problem, a question, a challenge, a doubt, a fear) that is experienced by many if not most in the room. This means that when you point to the Scriptures and show the solution to that tension, you are showing your listeners that the answer is found in God. God is the answer to the question, the healer of the pain, the hope for the hopeless situation.

This is an amazing habit to instill in your people week after week: When there is a question that needs to be answered, a problem that seems insurmountable, a tension they can’t resolve, they should look to Jesus.

Try this in your next sermon… Before you get to the answer, really set up the problem. Before you get to the facts, truths and arguments make sure you get them to understand why they should care. Why it matters. Put the feel before the know

Present the problem in such a way that everyone in the room feels it. Then let them know what the answer is. The answer is found in Scripture. In Jesus. In the gospel. This approach teaches people to go to God with their real-life problems.

In my book, Preaching Killer Sermons, I build this concept out in a chapter called “Give Them a Reason to Keep Listening: Why Your Listeners Must Feel it Before They Care about it.” Check it out here.

Now that you have the reasoning behind how people make decisions, I want to talk about how to leverage that at a maximized level when you preach. One effective method to do this is Andy Stanley’s outlining framework.

Use Andy Stanley’s “Me, We, God, You, We” method.

A sermon structure framework that fits beautifully with making sure people feel the tension before you point to the text as a solution is Andy Stanley’s sermon outlining method. He calls it “Me, We, God, You, We” and it was developed in his book Communicating for a Change. It provides a systematized way to ensure that you’re building tension every step of the sermon from start to finish.

In each of these five steps the preacher accomplishes the following:

  1. Show how an idea relates to them personally – ME
  2. Broaden out the examples so that everyone in the room can relate, which builds tension that everyone can feel – WE
  3. Teach through the Scriptures to reveal the truth that applies to the tension – GOD
  4. Give specific application points so that everyone listening knows how the truth is lived out practically – YOU
  5. Cast the vision for what it would look like if everyone listening applied the truth collectively – WE

There is so much brilliance in that sequencing because it can be applied to any piece of communication you can imagine. If applied correctly, this sequence can be an effective tool for building tension.

I discuss Andy’s ME, WE, GOD, YOU, WE method in this video with examples of how I use it:

What has worked for you? How do you build tension when you preach?




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