Breaking the First Rule of Preaching

I recently listened to a sermon series by Andy Stanley, and something stood out: He started each message with either an overview or recap of the series.

“Surely, this can’t be right,” I thought. One of the most effective communicators in the modern church was disregarding one of most commonly held pieces of conventional wisdom.

Preachers are supposed to capture the congregation’s attention immediately. Tell a story, tell a joke, share a surprising fact, ask a question. Anything but a recap! And no small talk. That’s how people tune out, and you’ll never get them back.

Chronologically speaking, you could call this the first rule of preaching.

So, I checked out another series. More recaps. I found a standalone message. Small talk, including <GASP!> announcements! If Andy keeps this up, people are going to stop listening to him…

Having had my interest piqued, I then sought out some sermons by Adam Hamilton, the pastor of the largest church in my denomination. Every message begins with an invitation to take out a bulletin insert for note-taking and daily Scripture readings. He often followed this up by a recap or other small talk.

This led me to check out some other well-known preachers. My search was not exhaustive, and it certainly isn’t representative of the full breadth of preaching, but it is remarkable how often “effective communicators” ease into sermons.

While it’s obviously not bad to start with something aimed at capturing attention, here are a few factors to consider should you feel like breaking this oft-repeated rule:

Compelling preachers are interesting—even when the content is not.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I could sit and listen to them read the phonebook”? The very existence of this phrase acknowledges the fact that there are people who naturally capture and hold attention—almost no matter what they are saying. Andy Stanley is one of those communicators. He has a combination of natural charisma, confidence in his own voice, and a finely-tuned delivery style. Content and delivery work together to build engagement, so improving delivery is an important part of the equation.

Recaps and small talk don’t have to be ad-libbed.

One of the motivators behind the “start with something interesting” rule is to get preachers to start with something intentional. It is when you meander around and/or don’t make sense that makes people tune out. When you look at Andy Stanley’s series recaps, they are often mini-sermons in and of themselves. He crafts introductions, saying no more and no less than is necessary. In the case of Adam Hamilton’s bulletin insert invitation, he uses the exact same language almost every time. It is short, to the point, and effective.

The beginning of a sermon can be used to communicate priorities.

The fact that Adam Hamilton makes the exact same invitation every week communicates to his congregation that he is serious about wanting them to take notes and follow along with the daily Scripture readings. Both activities can help grow his congregation as disciples. Well-crafted recaps communicate that what you’re preaching that day is connected to a larger movement or set of ideas. Your goals should be to get everyone on the same page for that day’s sermon and make them care about the other parts in the series.

Consider the context of the entire service.

Many preachers love TED Talks, and starting with something interesting is the officially recommended strategy. Again, this is not bad, but we have to remember that a sermon is not a TED Talk. The sermon sits within the larger context of a service of worship. The flow of energy, volume, and level of congregational engagement is important to monitor and respond to throughout the service. The worship style, architectural style, and your preaching style can also make a big difference. “So, how are you all doing today?” might not be the best opening for a traditional academic sermon delivered from a pulpit in a cathedral. However, in a more casual service, easing into the sermon might make it feel more like a conversation and less like a lecture.

Consider the context of your relationship with the congregation.

Are you the guru, visionary leader, shepherd, or some combination of these? Are you preaching to a room of people with whom you have a personal relationship? Do you have any role within the service other than the sermon? Does the “audience” for your sermon include a significant number of people who aren’t in the room and/or aren’t listening live? The answer to these relational questions can shape how you begin your sermons—and how you begin your sermons can shape your relationship with the congregation. Again, as with all of these points, whether you are abiding by or breaking the “start with a story/joke/fact/question” rule, it is about making an intentional choice.

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