Why Your Sermon Needs More Tension—Especially in the Intro

One quality above all others gives your sermon intro the hook it needs. Here’s how to work that quality into your intro.

All ad writers agree that a headline is the most important part of any ad. Famous ad writer David Ogilvy once said, “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Writers have adapted this adage into a general rule to spend 80% of their time writing the headline.

For preachers, the headline is the sermon intro—not in terms of time spent (that should probably go toward prayer and exegesis), but in terms of what matters most for getting your audience’s undivided attention.

And the way to get that attention?  

Introduce tension.

That’s what preacher and author Lucas O’Neill argues in his book Preaching to Be Heard: Delivering Sermons That Command Attention.

In these excerpts, O’Neill describes:

  1. Where to get the tension (Answer: the text itself. This is similar to Bryan Chapell’s concept of the Fallen Condition Focus from Christ-Centered Preaching.)
  2. How to weave that tension into your intro

***

Where to get the tension

Tension is birthed at the revealing of a need. For the preacher concerned with winning attention, the introduction is not merely a prelude to information. It is setting the table for the tension that will be resolved by the text of Scripture. As expository preachers, we don’t set the text aside to address what we think the listener’s questions are. Instead, we need to convince them that they have questions that this text answers. The introduction must communicate why the text must be given attention. Your audience may not have walked in understanding why they need this Scripture passage, but after your introduction they should. Rather than assuming your listeners understand their need for the passage, you must show them why they personally need it—why they should be concerned with this text. And this must happen before the text is exposited. When describing David Cook’s preaching effectiveness, Simon Vibert notes that he “actively seeks to enter the world of the listener before assuming that the listener will enter into the world of his sermon.” The preacher does this by revealing a need.

Revealing the need captures interest. There are many variables when it comes to what impedes a listener’s attention. Emotional barriers, poor listening skills, mental or physical distractions—to name a few. But the element that is most in the speaker’s control is gaining the listeners’ attention by piquing interest. The listeners will decide whether they will listen almost right on contact. And we can do something about that. Pierre Marcel, author of The Relevance of Preaching, put it wisely: “Believers must know that the preached word, to be relevant, must be drawn from Scripture.” He continued: “What, then, is the first condition of the relevance of the preached word? It is that this preaching be drawn from the ever relevant revelation of the Holy Scripture.” Scripture is both how we win attention and that to which we point attention.

In order to generate tension, you must make the overarching question unmistakably clear in the introduction. The very purpose of the introduction is to bring the audience to that question. The overarching question works because the introduction convinces listeners that they need the answer. They embark on an investigative quest, like a mystery. In his book on nonfiction writing, Philip Gerard discusses the nature of mystery: “Mystery is not just what we don’t know; it’s what we don’t know and really want to know. Mystery is any unanswered question that piques our curiosity.” What keeps a reader turning pages in a novel is what keeps a listener hanging in with the preacher at every turn—a burning question. Introductions are necessary because it is not enough to present a question. You must persuade your audience that it is their question—that they want to know the answer and the answer is in this passage. You already know why they need this text. You need to help them understand why, and you need to do that right away. But oftentimes we delay this work or confuse it because our introductions are divided.

How to weave tension into your intro

Homileticians will tell you that the purpose of the introduction is to gain your listeners’ interest and to focus their attention on the subject of the sermon. Two essential functions. But these should not be viewed as two separate halves of the introduction. The idea is not to command attention and then reveal the need. More effectively, we should command attention by revealing the need. You capture attention with the need. This has the potential to really streamline and focus your introduction.

The introduction for a sermon I preached on Philippians 4:4–7 went something like this:

In bookstores all over, there’s no shortage of titles like How to Find Joy. Maybe at home if you look on your nightstand or your bookshelf you might see a title that looks something like Seven Steps to Greater Happiness. These books are how-to books—how to find joy, how to discover joy. But what I submit to you is that joy—no matter how much you strive for it, no matter how many steps you try to take to reach it—cannot be found. You can’t find joy, and the reason you can’t find joy is that joy is not something you find. Joy is something you do.

The need I’m hitting on is our universal desire for a joy and happiness that we can’t seem to get. It’s a problem because while we desire it, we’re going about it the wrong way. My intention is to get my listeners to rethink their entire conception of what joy in the Christian life looks like. To take what they view as a noun that they must have and cast it as a verb that they must do. My hope was that even the veteran Christians in the room might wonder where I was going with this. The obvious question in light of this introduction is, “How do you do joy?” I wanted to get them ready for the text and, in this one example, it took about forty seconds to do it. Many introductions will be considerably longer. But they don’t have to be long. Your introduction needs to be as long as it takes to get your audience sensing their need for the text.

***

There are many ways to introduce tension. In the example above, O’Neill takes a familiar concept and deep human need (joy) and casts it in an unfamiliar light (joy as something you do). His intro suggests we don’t have joy because we try to get it the wrong way.

How can you make your audience lean forward in their seats this weekend as you preach? Instead of using shock-value gimmicks, dig deep into the text to find the need it speaks to, and then raise that need in a way that your audience deeply feels and longs to see answered.

Do you have a way of doing this now? If so, comment below with some of your go-to ways of introducing tension.

These excerpts were adapted from chapter 5 of Preaching to Be Heard: Delivering Sermons That Command Attention (Lexham Press, 2019).

Comments

  1. Brilliant! “Not something you find but something you do.” Faith, truth, love, righteousness, justice, enlightenment, liberation, health, happiness, holiness, joy, wealth, beauty… Something you exercise and strengthen and expand… It becomes manifest in the act… Shine the light… Radiate… From free will… Desire… Inspiration and enthusiasm… Truth is more a process of continuously revealing itself to our consciousness through the act of love, hope and faith, confidence and sacrifice, creating hypotheses and experiments, than a stop sign. It is eternally active. An inexhaustible wellspring of life. We never get to a final, exclusive, complete truth. We are always on the way. Guided by LOGOS. The Idea of the Good.

  2. Finding the tension is essential. You’ve got me from the start because I disagree so the sermon will challenge me to find things from a new perspective. Joy is living in grace, not a to do project. We don’t make joy. We discover it all around us.

    • Great post, Tim. I wonder, if we “discover” joy all around us, then isn’t the act of “discover” a doing? Furthermore, doesn’t this “discovering” result from perspective? I mean, it isn’t after all, that our “discovering” is a result of new things and experiences appearing all around us after we become a Christian. It seems rather that we view and interpret those same things from a different (or to tie in your thought) grace filled view. And while our salvation does correlate absolutely with grace, doesn’t that grace extend further to- all we need in order to reach the fullness of the lot ascribed to our lives by God? And if so, doesn’t this grace include God’s Word. And doesn’t God’s Word teach that we are to take every thought captive. And isn’t taking thoughts captive an act of doing. And don’t our thoughts (that we have taken captive) contribute to our perspective (the process of “discovering” joy around us). So, I don’t see any question that grace is working in this scenario; however, I also see that there is a doing part. Even the Holy Spirit, who brings joy, is viewed as one who helps us understand God’s Word- The same Word which provides “God’s thoughts” which, in combination to our non-God thoughts, we are to take all captive with the end goal of a God-bend. I also understand, that it is the Spirit who makes this entire process possible. I think the wisdom here is to understand there is a part God does, and a part God makes possible for us to do. Not all with the part God does (salvation and Holy Spirit) see joy around them the same (something that can/does change with devotion, reading God’s Word, meditating, etc.).

  3. Sagar Sukka says:

    From Today “Tension” is my friend, in fact, Best Friend ;)