Preaching

Essential Components of a Good Sermon Introduction

May 7, 2017

Just as a building needs an entrance, a symphony needs a prelude, and a book needs a preface, even so the sermon outline needs some basic introductory elements.  Without a proper introduction, the sermon will come off as a stranger to the congregational bystanders.  Though it happens from time to time, it is a rare occasion for most people to spontaneously engage someone whom they have never met. The same principle holds true for the sermon outline. When the expositor haphazardly plunges into the depths of the text without any preliminary notions or opening thoughts, the congregation will feel displaced, overwhelmed, and even confused about the proposition of the message.

John Oman said it well, “Even if your subject need no introduction, your audience does. If for nothing else, they need a little time to settle down. But also, they start the better for being first drawn both to you and your subject, and they will travel more hopefully if they can survey the scene for a little before taking the road.”

The expositional journey must start somewhere, and the best way for the congregation to travel with you is to begin the quest with an appropriate introduction.  The introduction does exactly what it sounds like it should do…it introduces.  Richard Hayhue said, “The introduction is to a sermon as…a departure from a harbor is to an ocean voyage. It is time for everyone to acclimate to what follows the initial situation and to gain a sense of direction.” So, as we depart from the harbor, let’s begin the voyage and discover some fundamental elements and components of the sermon introduction.

 

The Preparation of the Introduction

When should the introduction be prepared by the expositor? When Jesus said, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16), He was not speaking of sermon introductions, but such a statement is fitting for the incorporation of an introduction into the message.  The introduction is the first order of business in the sermon delivery, but typically it should be the last item on the agenda in the sermon preparation.  “The first shall be last” is a good maxim to remember when preparing your outline.  Think about it, unless you know what you are introducing, how would you be able to effectively introduce it?

The expositor needs to have done all the appropriate exegetical steps before the introduction is finalized. He must discover the meaning of the passage in its contextual framework. He must do necessary word studies, cross-references, and linguistic exercises.  He should have the main body of thought packaged in a fitly-wrapped, easy-to-deliver structure with a concise proposition in place. Once he understands the text and how it should be applied to his congregation, he should begin the process of formulating an introduction. If the expositor begins by developing the introduction first, he could potentially develop his sermon through the filter of his own ideas and thoughts.  Such a practice leads to problematic, misplaced, out-of-context messages.  The introduction should be in place only to introduce what has already been discovered in the expositional journey.

It’s dangerous to have a thought or idea with the intent of “finding a passage” to validate your claim.  In all honesty, there have been times when I thought I had a wonderful story, illustration, or introductory thought only to study the passage of Scripture and realize it didn’t fit.  An honest expositor of God’s Word begins with Scripture, continues with Scripture, and ends with Scripture.  The introduction should be in place to validate that reality.  And for that reason, the preparation of the introduction will be better-suited after all the exegetical grunt work has been completed.

 

The Purpose of the Introduction

Think of the introduction as a hallway that leads men to the grandeur of the sermonic cathedral. It is designed for access, it serves as a point of theological entry. Some congregations, however, never reach such spiritually-opulent places because the tour-guide takes too many wrong turns at the beginning of the journey. During the introduction, the expositor should refrain from mere niceties, storytelling, and hospitable salutations.  Rather, he should be intentional about what he wants the introduction to accomplish. What is the purpose, then, of the introduction in the expositional outline?

There are many things you can say about the introduction’s purpose, but I have categorized them down to three main thoughts:

 

1. To Capture the People

First impressions are everything in public speaking.  In colloquial fashion, Haddon Robinson made this statement about sermon introductions, “It is the same with men as with donkeys; whoever would hold them fast must get a very good grip on their ears.” It is true, seldom does a preacher regain the “hearing” of his audience if he fails to grab hold of it early on.

The introduction may be characterized as many things, but if dull is one of them, the expositor will be hard-pressed to regain sermonic momentum.  The message may pick up pace during the main body, it could be filled with unique and exceptional word studies at certain divisions, it could even end with a dynamic illustration during the conclusion, but if it does not gain the interest of the people at the very beginning, the expositor will struggle throughout the entire message to get his audience to “buy-in” on what he is saying. As we introduce the Word of God we should be filled with enthusiasm, passion, vigor, and authority.  The introduction must display those same features.

“The aim,” said John A. Broadus, “should be to excite not merely an intellectual interest but, so far as possible at the outset, a spiritual and practical interest, to bring the hearer into sympathy with the preacher’s feelings and bring their minds into harmony with the subject to be presented.”  Basically, grab hold of their ears and don’t let go until they have heard with their hearts.  Be interesting and they are sure to be interested.

 

2. To Communicate the Proposition

There’s no such thing as a “good introduction” if the introduction fails to introduce something. With brevity, clarity, and sincerity, the expositor must incorporate a concise propositional statement that summarizes what he is about to say. The old adage declares, “tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said.”

Peaking interest is an integral factor of the sermon introduction, but you do not want to keep them in the dark for very long.  The expositor, once he has “gained the ear” must be ready to “engage the mind” so that he can “reach the heart.”  The proposition, as it lays out in the introduction, will help the preacher do such a thing. The propositional statement should be well-crafted, simple, and summarizing.  It should concisely state where the preacher is going in the main body of the message.

Like a hinge on a theological door, the propositional statement turns the congregation toward the thesis of the sermon.  Once again, Haddon Robinson is helpful when he contends that the introduction should, “introduce the sermon’s subject so that no one needs to guess what the preacher plans to talk about. If the subject alone is introduced, then the major points usually complete it. The introduction should go beyond subject and orient the hearers to the main idea.”

 

3. To Contextualize the Passage

The introduction charts the course, establishes the mood, and sets the tone for the entire sermon. It’s designed to make some clear promises and assertions about what is soon to be said. This cannot be done without providing a clear contextual understanding of the passage of Scripture.  A good story, a funny joke, an interesting illustration, or a shocking statistic may arouse the attention of the audience, but at some point, the expositor must connect his mantra with the Scripture.

For me, I like to provide the outlying and peripheral background of the passage early on.  The context gives credence to everything else that will be said, therefore, setting the contextual stage allows the me to connect all that I propose in the introduction to all that I hope to accomplish in the main body of thought.  This is the typical format of my introductions:

  • Read the Passage of Scripture
  • Introduce the main thought through a verse, a story, an illustration, etc.
  • Accentuate that thought by giving a title or heading
  • State the proposition of the message
  • Transition into the main body of work by clarifying the context

I am not dogmatic about this format, but most of the components (when necessary) are typically found in some sequence as I introduce the message.

 

The Philosophy of the Introduction

Every preacher will need to establish his own philosophy regarding introductory protocols.  Some men are naturally charismatic and need not work very hard at capturing attention.  Some men are more intellectual and may need to spend more time relating to the audience.  Whatever the situation may be, the expositor will have to personalize his time, structure, and goals toward the message.  There are, however, a few suggestions to consider when formulating the sermon introduction:

Be Diverse – Use variety, imagination, creativity and inspiration to begin the message. If the audience expects the same monotonous genesis week after week in the introduction, they will check out before you ever check in.

Be Brief – Albert J. Beveridge said, “If you can’t strike oil in three minutes, you should quit boring.” Granted, it may take a little longer than three minutes to establish an adequate introduction, but the point is clear: Get to the point before the congregation starts heading toward the door.

Be Intentional – Know what you are going to say, then say it.  Having a clearly-written, well-thought out introduction provides confidence and courage as the expositor takes the stand.  A deliberate preacher corresponds well with an eager audience.

Be Relational – No matter how accurate, biblical, and intellectual your sermon may be, if it cannot be communicated in a personal and intimate way, the congregation will feel like they are at a lecture.  Invite the people onto the proverbial porch, greet them with biblical hospitability, and bring them into the house with you.

Be Specific – Avoid vague generalities and broad platforms. Starting with an extra wide margin may take too much time to narrow your main thoughts.  Get to the point as quickly as possible and be specific about what you want to accomplish in the preaching hour.

Be Tense – What I mean is that the expositor should present some problem, some issue, some tension that needs resolution.  This not only peaks the interest of the congregation, but it affords you to provide clear answers throughout the message.

If the first shall be last and the last shall be first, it is imperative for the expositor to end well by starting his sermon in the right direction – with a sound, solid, structured, scriptural introduction.

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