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Making People Want to Listen to your Sermon

This essay is adapted from Neal’s forthcoming book, How to Hit the Ground Running: A Quick-start Guide for Congregations with New Leadership, Revised, scheduled for release in September.

Forty-seven seconds. If you are a preacher — or, really, any kind of public speaker, you have 47 seconds to catch your listener’s attention. How do I know that? Keep reading and you’ll find out.

The typical sermon in the typical Episcopal church today is the lecture-style, talking head sermon. The preacher who wishes to catch the attention of listeners in this media-soaked age, when the typical attention span is subconsciously trained by our surfing the internet, has approximately 47 seconds to catch her hearers’ attention, faces a tremendously daunting task. Yet, if the church is to reach this generation of communication-rich patrons, its bearers of the Word of God must find ways to do so effectively.

The average pew holds a wide range of people who receive information differently. People learn in a variety of styles. Most people will have one predominant style of learning. Knowing that there are different kinds of learners, and responding to them accordingly, will allow the preacher to engage more people. Learning styles fall into three basic groups: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic.[1]

Auditory learners — or listeners — prefer to hear books rather than read them. Auditory learners will respond to stories that touch the imagination. They learn best when the speaker “paints a picture with words.” Instead of telling a story about sitting around a cabin in the winter, describe the rustic setting of the cabin, the smell of the fire, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, and the still, crisp chill in the air that hasn’t been replaced by the warmth of the fire. Telling stories is a powerful way to engage the listeners in the congregation.

Next, some people in the congregation will be visual learners, or watchers. If the auditory learner prefers to learn how to get from point A to point B by hearing step-by-step instructions, the visual learner wants to see a map. In church, the colors of the procession or the artwork in the sanctuary speak to them — saying more, sometimes, than the appointed lessons. The expressions on the faces of choir members mean as much to a visual learner as the music being sung. Visual learners need “visual aids” to be drawn into the sermon. For example, in order to engage the visual learner in a story about a baseball player, the preacher might step away from the pulpit and pantomime the motions of the batter. Another way to engage the visual learner is to print a simple bullet outline of the day’s sermon in the service bulletin with questions to reflect on.

The kinesthetic learner wants to be actively and physically involved in the service. The preacher engages the kinesthetic learner by offering this kind of learner a sense of participation in the sermon. It is helpful for the preacher to engage the kinesthetic learner through physical actions. If a drama is used for a setup or illustration for the sermon, the kinesthetic learner will learn better by some sort of active participation. The “worship aerobics” of frequent standing and kneeling so common in many Episcopal churches is particularly meaningful to kinesthetic learners. Laughter (when it is an appropriate reaction to a colorful story told by the preacher) is another favorite way for kinesthetic learners to be involved in the worship.

Preachers constantly miss opportunities to engage the congregation physically. In a sermon about the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, the preacher might ask each person to take another person’s hand and meditate for several moments on the power of touch. Or the preacher might ask everyone to turn and meditate for several moments on a Bible scene depicted in one of the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows (an exercise that also will engage the interest of visual learners).

Murray Frick proposes six styles of sermons that allow the preacher to engage different styles of learners in different ways.[2] For those who think that presenting different styles of sermons is new or improper or “dumbing down,” he directs the preacher to “the classic book on communication — the Bible . . . Jesus himself used a variety of learning experiences to teach people around him. He drew in the sand, pointed to a withered tree, held up a coin, welcomed children to his side, and washed his disciples’ feet.”[3] The Bible is full of all forms of communication: dramatic storytelling, dialogue, letters, object lessons, and emotionally powerful stories. To engage this generation of learners who learn in a variety of ways, each sermon must connect with the hearers, the watchers, and the touchers.

The Teaser

How can the preacher make the congregation on a Sunday morning look forward to hearing the sermon? Talk show hosts do it, TV announcers do it, and podcasters do it all the time. They have a technique for building anticipation and encouraging the listener to stay tuned through the commercial break and into the next episode. It’s called a teaser. Just before the commercial break, the announcer will give a short statement of something to look forward to in the next segment. But the teaser is not just an announcement; it has a twist to it, a question that will be answered in the next segment. It “hooks” the listener to want to stay tuned to the same radio station, not turn off the podcast, or change channels.

We can use this same technique on Sunday morning to entice the members in the congregation to want to listen a bit more closely to the sermon.

The way it works is that at the beginning of the service, before the opening hymn, the officiant stands facing the worshipers, greets them, and gives a short-note, teaser that gives the congregation a highlight of the sermon and a cue of what to listen for in the sermon.

Here’s an example.

Good morning, and welcome to the Church of the Epiphany. In our sermon today, we continue our sermon on “Tough Questions that People ask of Christians.” Today, Father Chris deals with the question of whether moral people will go to heaven. He will examine things we can be certain about and things that are a mystery. What are those things? Stay tuned.

Here’s another.

Good morning, and welcome to St. Luke’s. In our sermon today, we deal with the spiritual discipline of fasting and why it is good for our souls. To answer that question, we’ll be asking another question of whether you suffer from nomophobia. Once you learn what it is, you’ll find out why fasting is a cure for nomophobia. Stay tuned.

How do you come up with a teaser that will catch people’s attention? You need to summarize the sermon in one sentence. If you can’t distill your sermon to one sentence, your hearers won’t be able to do that, either. If you don’t have a one-sentence summary, chances are that you have not worked long enough on your sermon, and you will wander, and your sermon will be longer and will be less likely to catch and keep your hearers’ attention.

Here’s a teaser that will be discussed later in this essay. “What does Sir Paul McCartney understand about forgiveness that Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, and Elvis do not? [slight pause] Stay tuned.”

Here’s another teaser.

Good morning, and welcome to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Today we celebrate All Saints Day. In our sermon today, we will look to that wonderful theologian Stevie Wonder to help us put this day in perspective. You may be asking, “What does Stevie Wonder have to do with All Saints?’ [slight pause] Stay tuned.” The preacher then will use his song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).

I introduced this teaser exercise in the church where I have been serving as the interim rector. I’ve had approximately 30 people tell me that they look forward to my “little introduction” every Sunday.

Clergy have differing opinions on when to make the announcements. Some prefer to give the announcements at the beginning or the end of the service so as not to “interrupt the flow” of worship. I prefer that announcements happen after the passing of the peace, because it already interrupts the flow, and I think the congregation appreciates having a break in the service.

If you prefer the announcements at the beginning or the end of the service, I recommend not making the announcements at the beginning. For most churches, announcements are a generally low-energy thing to do during the service. The beginning of the service is a high-energy time. Don’t have a low-energy element at a high-energy time. Having a short teaser can enhance that high-energy time for the congregation. Just remember to keep the teaser short and succinct.

The First 47 Seconds

Let’s return to the challenge of needing to catch the attention of the average lister within 47 seconds. If the sermon starts out weak, the preacher will have a hard time recapturing his hearers’ attention.

As is true of the teaser, the purpose of the sermon’s introduction is to convince the listener to hang around mentally, to want to hear what the preacher has to say. You may have prepared a powerful sermon, but if you’ve lost the attention of your parishioners in the first 47 seconds, you won’t have them present to hear the good things you have to say. Here are eight ways to capture their attention.

  • Begin the sermon with energy. Don’t chit chat as an attempt to warm up the congregation. If you preach from a text or an outline, memorize both the introduction and the conclusion. You want to have eye contact with the congregation at those important times in the sermon.
  • Don’t give a history of your sermon. A big mistake that younger preachers make — and sometimes older ones as well — is to stand at the pulpit and say, “You know, I really wrestled with these propers this week.” First of all, most churchgoers have no idea what “propers” are. (They are the readings appointed for that Sunday.) Second, people don’t really care about the process of writing your sermon; they came to hear the sermon.
  • Begin the sermon with a compelling story that will grab your listeners’ attention. People will remember an interesting story long after they have forgotten the point you were trying to make without a story to illustrate.
  • Begin with a two-part story. A two-part story is a variation of telling a compelling story. The first part is told at the beginning of the sermon. Just as a good joke needs to set up the hearer for the punch line, the first part of the story sets up the hearer to anticipate the outcome. The outcome is the good news from the sermon for the day. The structure is thus: (1) first half of the story, (2) exegetical commentary, (3) then the concluding outcome that illustrates the good news of God’s hand at work.
  • When you reach the pulpit, take a breath before you begin. Let your presence as God’s agent fill the room. Appropriate silence can be powerful.
  • Make a statement, a question, or an assertion that will capture people’s attention. This statement would reflect your one-sentence summary of your sermon.

Statement: “I suspect that few people here know what the letters ‘DTR’ stand for when used in social media. These letters can strike fear in the heart of a young man in a relationship. The letters stand for ‘Define the Relationship.’ They are used when the woman wants the man to define whether he is not committed to the relationship and whether this relationship is headed toward marriage.” Then, the preacher can talk about defining our relationship with Jesus Christ. The allusion is to John 21, when Jesus asks the disciple Peter, “Do you love me?”

Question: “What is so good about Good Friday?” The preacher can then proceed to a sermon on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Assertion: “We hear a lot of politicians, actors, other famous people apologizing for something they did wrong. But, often these apologies don’t sound like real apologies. Why is that? Sir Paul McCartney understands something about contrition that Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, and Elvis do not. Do you remember Paul McCartney’s song ‘Yesterday’? Paul McCartney’s original version said, ‘I did something wrong, and now I long for yesterday.’ Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, and Elvis all sang McCartney’s song, and all three changed the words to, ‘I must have done something wrong.’ McCartney told Stephen Colbert that all three should have owned up to what they did.” The preacher can then discuss what most modern apologies lack, namely ownership and contrition, and the Christian approach to real repentance and forgiveness.

  • If you want to tell a joke as the introduction, make sure it illustrates or serves as a segue to the one-sentence summary of your sermon. The preacher is not to be a stand-up comedian, but humor can be used in service of the truth that you as the preacher are proclaiming.
  • Don’t begin your sermons the same way every Sunday. Remember, the object of the introduction is to instill expectation among the congregation for what is to follow. Don’t be predictable.

Using Personal Illustrations

Preachers disagree on whether to use personal illustrations in a sermon. I believe that, for the preacher, personal life illustrations are a necessary and helpful part of a preacher’s toolbox. The purpose of the sermon is to engage the listener with God’s work in the world and in the everyday lives of people. For the preacher to tell personal stories of how the gospel truth that she is, in fact, proclaiming touches her everyday life gives greater credence to the gospel truth that she is proclaiming. Not to tell personal stories sends a message that the gospel is not really relevant to how people live and reduces the gospel to a series of propositions to be believed rather than a way to live.

Preaching From a Text, Outline, or No Text

There is no best approach to preaching. In fact, it is helpful for people to hear different voices and different styles of preaching. If you are your church’s sole preacher, consider trying different methods of preaching. In this section, we will look at three approaches to the supporting aids for preaching the sermon: (1) preaching from a text; (2) preaching from a written outline; and (3) preaching without either written text or written outline.

  1. Preaching from a text. I suspect that most of us who are preachers began with preaching from a text. There are several benefits to preaching from a text. A text will keep the preacher from wandering off-topic. It can make for a more efficient use of words. Further, it allows the preacher to articulate theological and historical points very specifically. Having the text gives the preacher something to fall back on when memory fails.

Preaching from a text has several drawbacks. A text usually has a different cadence than preaching from notes or an outline. Often our reading what we wrote sounds more stilted than how we would say it if we didn’t have the text as a crutch. One of the problems of preaching from a text is that it usually comes across more like reading an essay. People know when they are being read to and when they are being communicated with. When the preacher preaches from a text, he can become text-bound, and the constant looking down at the text and then back up to the congregation can be very distracting. Also, when preaching with a text, the preacher is susceptible to getting lost and can result in the preacher saying things in the heat of the moment that he later will wish he hadn’t.

  1. Preaching from a written outline. This can often be more effective than preaching from a written text. It allows the preacher to read several passages without being too distracting. If you are preaching from a written outline, be sure to print your outline on a piece of paper that is no wider than your church’s worship bulletin and place it on top of the bulletin as you preach. That you are preaching from an outline will be less obvious to the congregation.
  2. Preaching without either written text or written outline. I believe this is most effective in communicating with the congregation. This method allows the preacher to look the congregation in the eye and not encumbered by reading an outline. This method is to preach without notes altogether. This does not mean the preacher is preaching extemporaneously. It does mean that it is necessary to have a method. Certainly, preaching without notes allows the preacher to generate more emotion and engage the congregation more directly.

Preaching without notes is not the same as extemporaneous preaching. There are, indeed, underlying notes, but those notes are in the preacher’s head. This approach takes more preparation, but the rewards are worth the effort.

Preaching without notes or text has several advantages.

First, preaching without notes frees the preacher’s hands. Researchers have shown that people who “talk with their hands” tend to be perceived as better communicators. As the hands are free to move, the speaker becomes more expressive.

Second, preaching without notes frees the preacher’s feet. Slight movement from side to side keeps the preacher from coming across as a “talking head.” Freedom to move around a bit allows the preacher to be more animated.

Third, preaching without notes frees the preacher’s eyes. Because the preacher’s eyes are not bound to a text, the preacher is free to look at the people that she is trying to communicate with. The next time you have a conversation with another person, notice how often you are engaging the person with whom you are conversing. A conversation without the two conversers ever having eye contact is more like two monologues than real dialogue. The preacher is trying to make parishioners engage in internal conversations with God that the preacher is setting up. For the preacher to make eye contact with listeners during her sermon communicates earnestness and relationship.

Here are a few things to consider that will help in your sermon presentation.

  • Be willing to out different styles of preaching.
  • Consider having a small group of people meet with you to provide feedback on your style of preaching and your content. Would you want to come hear yourself preach?
  • Watch your sermons several times. Ask yourself if your hand gestures were helpful or hindering.
  • Remove “uh” and “um” and “like” from your delivery. These are called “filler words.” We use them when we are rattled and uncertain in our delivery, and our listeners know it.
  • Silence isn’t always a bad thing. If we talk too fast, people will have a hard time following us. Try listener to yourself in the pulpit. Are the acoustics in your worship space lively? Too lively? Rooms that are good for music are often not good for preaching. Your church may need to have a sound technician assess the sound effectiveness of your worship space. If you have a large worship space, you may need to slow the speed of your delivery,
  • As you watch yourself preach, ask the question, “Where was the good news in this sermon?
  • Do you detect the one-sentence summary in this sermon?
  • Compare the introduction and conclusion. Does what you said in the introduction match what you said in the conclusion?

[1] Murray Frick, Reach the Back Row (Loveland, CO: Vital Ministry, 1999), 13-18.

[2] Ibid., 21ff.

[3] Ibid., 22.

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