Grow a Church by Helping Them Want to Return Next Week

A boring sermon is cliché in our culture, and yet a great deal of boredom could be put to rest with a good opening to a message. | by Doug Murren

I am an analyst of speaking of all kinds. I can say without hesitation that 95 percent of speakers lose much of their audience within the first five minutes of their presentation. And never forget only the last five minutes of a presentation can help or harm more than the first five minutes.

Let’s look at some thoughts on how to start a message or training that can help grab the ears of your audience right off. Let’s assume that good content can never be replaced by a good open, but a lot of good content can go unappreciated because of a lousy open or close to a message.

Let me rest on my conviction that the first three to five minutes of your sermon or message is the most important when it comes to getting people to actually change or act on your presentation.

It is for this reason I advise pastors and my students to spend as much time thinking about and preparing their first 3 to 5 minutes as the rest of the message. I will and have often spent an entire day just writing and rewriting my introduction to a message for Sunday.

Preparing a good opening belongs in every speaker’s “check list.” I keep a list readily available in my computer about speaking and procedures I know that make for good communication. And I test most of my messages and radio shows against this list. The present point is right at the top of my list. “How do I want to open this message?” is almost as important, if not more important, than the in-between material. It certainly requires much more attention in your preparation time than any other part of your sermon.

As an analyst of speaking, I can assure you that the opening rarely gets the kind of attention it deserves, especially in church settings. Yet a great deal of boredom with church speaking could be put to rest with a good opening and ending to a message. Let’s stick to some thoughts just on the opening of a good message.

The best training for speaking I got was writing for a newspaper. When you design newspaper ads, you learn just how quickly people decide whether they will hear the rest of what you have to say. We as speakers have to remember constantly that people are very selfish in the way they listen.

The number one question every listener nearly never gets beyond is—“What’s in this for me?”

The sheer volume of ways you could begin and end a message could never fit in an article such as this. So, I will attempt to hit briefly on some easy ideas that could benefit church communicators.

Every opening to your message should do five simple things:

  1. Get everyone from the parking lot to the pew—so to speak. The Lord knows a great deal of the previous week’s pressures can be carried into your service attendees’ minds. And the events of the ride for most families can be rugged. If you have ever had to get a group of three post- and pre-toddlers into the car on a Sunday morning, you know what I am talking about.
  2. Your first three minutes are in many ways a sales pitch and negotiation rather than spiritual guidance. In the span of the opening few minutes, your listeners are asking themselves, “Is this going to be worth my energy this morning?” Your first three minutes are going to have to close the sale.
  3. I feel the first three minutes should also give the “take aways” quickly. Listeners are very sophisticated, and most have a lot to think about besides what you have to say. You had better raise the value of what lies ahead quickly.
  4. The premium question we all ask is, “How is what this speaker going to say going to make my life better, easier or even safer?”
  5. The first three minutes are also going to tip your listeners off as to how hard they are going to have to work to track with what you want to say or if they should even be interested. The easier you make the listening task the more folks will go the distance with you.

I can spend hours every week writing and re-writing my introductions trying to hit the mark on these five points.  I’ve discovered a few methods that have proven helpful.

My first and my favorite introduction practice is what I call the “rest of the story” method. I think this was best used by two of my favorite speakers. Well, actually three. First, Jesus. And then a radio great named Paul Harvey and my great friend Jamie Buckingham.

This method starts with the end of a story. For example, one time I told the story of a partner who stole one million dollars from American Airlines. I didn’t start the story by saying my friend stole one million dollars by a hijack threat. No, I started by describing the scene where my friend found the drop off. I described what it felt like when he reached the drop spot looking for the bag with the money. I entered his mind describing what he was going to do with the money. I talked about the sweat dripping off his nose as he looked in his review mirror for the police.

And without filling in the details, I went on to my message on “Desperation.” “Desperate people do desperate things” is one of the ways I’ve used this story. No one knew what was ahead. But they all wondered, “What is he sweating about?” They knew something very interesting was about to be told. Then at the end of the message I came back to the story and told them what my friend felt like when he opened the bags and there was only newspaper, how he felt when he was surrounded by FBI agents. And my key line was what he thought before he was nabbed. He looked at the bag and said, “It’s not enough.”

When I use that story, I can launch from the point of his disappointment and his saying that’s not enough into a study of the word “satisfaction.” I talk about what God thinks about our need for satisfaction and fulfillment. And later I come back to the story.

Sometimes I have used the same story of my friend who stole money from the airlines by starting with what he felt like the first night the heavy steel doors of his prison door closed.

Never just say, “Bob got twenty years for stealing money from American Airlines.” No! Say something like, “Bob never felt more alone than on the night of December 18th when he heard the clang of the steel doors in his prison cell.” And then describe how his whole life floated before him as he sat all alone on the concrete floor in the silence of his new home for the next twenty years, a prison cell.

If I were going to do a message about guilt I might begin with how badly I felt that night after I stole a wallet out of the football locker room. And then how good I felt the next day after I slipped it back into the locker I had taken it from. I never use the word “guilt.” It is too obvious. Instead, tell about how you put that wallet in your shoe and how it seemed to suck the light out of the room. Include those emotional details.

Another method I often use is starting with a simple word or word study. For example, I wrote a sermon on Psalms 37 the other day just for practice. In the early verses the command to “delight” yourself in the Lord appears. That word is rich. I might describe the rich meaning of delight before I even read the text. Basically, it means at its core “to lean toward” like a plant bending toward the sun. What a great picture! To delight in the Lord means to lean toward God like a sun-starved plant as the sun rises upon the earth.

Rise to the challenge of creating a great opening. In your introduction give me a reason to remain above all else, curious. “What’s coming next?” is a great question that has power in keeping the minds of your listeners.

The great phrase in communication that makes the difference between an “okay” message and a “great” message is show me; don’t tell me. Paint the picture and make them curious.

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