The opening words of your sermon can fall flat if you don’t have a good plan. It’s good to be intentional about the way you introduce a message. I will walk you through exactly how to start your sermon for maximum impact and engagement. We’ll focus on how to capture and maintain the interest of your listeners in the first 5-6 minutes of your message. Let’s jump in to the most important part – the first 1.5 minutes.
The first 90 seconds of your sermon are some of the most powerful seconds you have. This is when your listeners’ attention is most optimal and when they are giving you their undivided attention.
Don’t waste these moments. Your listeners decide within these first 90 seconds whether they will keep listening to you or not. This is particularly true if they don’t know you. But even if they do know you and like you as a preacher, every Sunday is a new opportunity to engage them or lose them. And both engagement and disengagement happen faster than you think.
This is why the beginning of your sermon is crucial. It can mean the difference between your listeners checking out or deciding to pay close attention. How you set the tone at the beginning of your sermon are what your listeners subconsciously use to build a framework for your whole message. If your thoughts are murky and unclear, you’re laying an unstable foundation. If you seem hesitant and tentative, they will be unsure about whether to give you their attention.
I want to show you how to set the tone for your message in the 90 seconds to 5 minutes so that your listeners lean in and can’t wait to hear more. First, I want to walk you through some basic steps to open each sermon. Then, I’ll discuss the tone and approach you should take with each message to ensure that you start strong.
I have experimented with a variety of ways to begin a sermon over the years, and I’ve found that the steps I’m going to show work incredibly well for capturing and maintaining the attention of your listeners right out of the gate.
When you step on to the stage say “hi” or “good morning” or “Hey everyone” or “It’s great to have all of you with us today” or whatever is your most natural greeting.
Some preachers go for the non-greeting where they just get jump right into a story or startling statistic or some other serious sermon element. While some can pull this off, most can’t. And to be honest, it seems a bit unnatural. I prefer a more conversational approach and in a real conversation you would say most likely say “hi” before jumping into a poem or stat.
So take a second, say “hi” and move on. Don’t spend a lot of time here. This is what I usually say, “Hi everybody, welcome to OneLife my name’s Lane. It’s great to have all of you with us today.”
That’s it. Nothing drawn out. No meandering on it. Just a quick greeting to introduce myself (because I always assume there are first time guests) and let everyone know that I’m glad they are joining us.
If you are preaching in series which I recommend, then the next thing you’re going to say is a brief sentence or two that gives your listeners context letting them know how this message fits into the larger series you are in.
Here’s a template you can use:
“We are continuing a series today called _____________ where we’ve been talking about ___________. As we get into this today…”
Here’s a couple examples of how it might work:
“We are continuing a series today called Kingdom Come where we’ve been talking about what it looks like when we get to experience God’s kingdom here on earth. As we get into this today…”
“We are continuing a series today called Losing My Religion where we’ve been talking about what it looks like to give up religion for something way better that Jesus has for us. As we get into this today…”
By doing this you’ve set the context in one simple statement for how this message fits into the broader series. This allows newcomers to feel brought in to what you’re doing. It also reminds regulars what you’ve been studying and how this messages will be part of that overall emphasis. It serves as a sort of memory jogger to them because, after all, they are not thinking about your message and this series as much as you are.
Picking up right where we left off, I really prefer to tell a story right here.
“As we get into this today… I want to begin by telling you about something that happened to me just the other day when I was at the grocery store…”
Telling a story about yourself and then broadening the application to your audience follows the first two parts of Andy Stanley’s outlining method “Me, We, God, You, We”. You fulfill the “Me” section by beginning with a relatable story about yourself that builds tension toward your bottom line or main idea. Then you broaden the tension that story builds to your audience and their experience.
This may help explain what I mean: I watched a message the other day to help coach a pastor on his preaching. I noticed that he began with a great story about training for a marathon. He talked about how he looked for short cuts to conditioning himself for the big day but he found there were none. There was no substitute for lengthy, consistent, rigorous training. He talked about how just like he looked for a short cut to training for a marathon, sometimes he looks for short cuts in his relationship with God. But there are no short cuts – only obedience.
I loved the opening story about the marathon because it set up the idea of short cuts and gave him an opportunity to share a personal story with his listeners. But they needed to be brought into the tension of the story in their own experience. They need to see that they, too, try to find short cuts in many areas of their lives.
And they need to see this before he makes the pivot to the spiritual application. His marathon story was his listeners’ opportunity to understand him better and hear his struggle. But they need to put themselves in the seat of someone looking for short cuts in everyday life. If he were to throw out a couple more everyday examples of how we all look for short cuts in life it would bring them in just a little more. It helps them nod their head and say, “That’s me” so that when he pivots to the spiritual application they are bought in to the tension personally.
It could be as simple as this:
“Just like me with marathon training, we all want short cuts. Maybe you searched for the magic diet that would take off 15 pounds in a week with no effort. Or you bought into the MLM thinking legging sales would catapult you into an early retirement so you could move to Thailand. Just me? Okay. But we all look for short cuts in life.”
The goal in that is to get your listeners nodding their head in agreement with you on things that are inconsequential so that when you move to your bottom line (in his case, obedience) they have already acknowledged that they have the same tendency to take short cuts in many parts of life.
I’m a huge proponent of starting with a story from your life and your experience then broadening out to everyone so that they feel it personally. Once you’ve done this you can begin the “This shows up in our relationship with God” part.
At this point you have introduced yourself and placed the message in context of the series. You have shared a relatable story about yourself and broadened its tension to your audience so that they can relate to it in their experience.
Now you are ready to introduce your bottom line or main idea. This should be a natural flow from where we left off. After you’ve broadened your story’s application out to more people you can say something like this:
“This is true in our relationship with God as well… which brings us to our bottom line (main idea, key thought, etc.) today…”
Using my previous example, the pastor might say:
“This tendency to take short cuts shows up in our relationship with God as well, and this brings up our (main idea, key thought) for today, There’s no short cut to obedience, only full surrender.”
Just to recap, here are the first 5-6 minutes of your sermon:
Keep in mind from here you would have the body of your message. I’ll do another article soon that details how to put together the body of your message for maximum impact.
But for our purposes in this post, I want to give you some pointers to make sure that these four steps are optimized in each sermon.
The key to ensure engagement in your first 5-6 minutes is to create and build tension. In this article, How to Build Tension When You Preach, I detail exactly how to build tension throughout your sermon to ensure that people stay on the edge of their seats.
The steps I gave you in the order I gave them to you are effective. But it’s good practice to vary your approach occasionally so that you don’t become robotic and predictable.
This article focused mainly on the content of your opening, but it’s also important to consider the tone of your sermon opening. Check out this article for pointers on how to set the right tone for the start of your sermon: 3 Must Do’s of a Strong Sermon Opening
In addition to opening strong you want to avoid these four common mistakes when ending your sermon.
What are some other ways to begin a sermon well?