Introductory thoughts on…introductions
At the Cornhill Training Course we often find ourselves chewing over the question of what makes a good sermon introduction. There is no absolute right or wrong on this, but the following are a few reflections:
1) We should not begin with the assumption that the Bible is fundamentally uninteresting. I know we never quite think that or say that. But all too easily we assume that our sermon introductions should serve as some sort of apology for the fact that the following 25 minutes will be spent in the Bible. We then strive to entertain and to loosen up the crowd with the introduction, hoping that they might then be willing to sit through the rather less interesting material to follow. People may not arrive at church feeling inclined to listen to what God’s word has to say, but we must never fall into the trap of thinking that the word is itself uninteresting. The liberating truth is that the Bible is invariably more interesting that the story or joke I have up my sleeve. So we must have confidence in the power of God’s ever-living word to captivate the attention and stir the hearts of those who have ears to hear.
2) Good sermon introductions serve the exegesis of the passage. They are not simply a rhetorical tool designed to soften the blow that the Bible will soon be opened – rather, they should serve to begin to open up the passage in some way (more on that below).
3) All that having been said, sermon introductions do serve the important rhetorical purpose of helping the congregation to make the transition from whatever else has just been going on (singing, praying, notices, etc.) and from listening to voices other than yours. Launching straight into the exegesis of a passage when people have not yet caught their breath simply will not be effective. Very few preachers have the rhetorical flair or personal gravitas to delve straight into exegesis and to carry the congregation with them.
4) How can an introduction aid that rhetorical purpose, while also beginning to open up the Bible passage? Very often, a good sermon introduction will identify the central (or at least, a central) issue of the Bible passage and help the congregation to see its significance and urgency. A good introduction will make the congregation feel that it would be to their spiritual and intellectual detriment to miss out on what is coming. It will make them feel that they must listen, even if up until this point they had not felt inclined to do so. This approach recognises two realities: (1) that people often come to church distracted, discouraged and uninterested in hearing from God’s word; and (2) that each part of God’s living word is relevant and urgent and life-transforming.
5) Illustrative stories and current events can be very useful in introductions, as long as they help to open up what is at the heart of the Bible passage and help the congregation to see why it matters. Too often a news item or a favourite story is chosen on for its own merit, and the sermon is forced to fit around it.