Pastors, Forget about Creating Tension in Your Sermons. Do This Instead.

This post is adapted from Preaching to Be Heard: Delivering Sermons That Command Attention by Lucas O’Neill.

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[As a preacher], you’ve got to get people hungry for what they are about to hear. Burke’s analogy of “appetite” is a good one. Simon Vibert observes in his book Excellence in Preaching: “The engaging preacher makes the meal enticing and at the same time promises that it will be nourishing.” Hunger is not resolved in one bite. Think of a gourmet meal—it is served in sequence. The appetizer comes first, the dessert last. 

Once an appetite has been exposed by the preacher (a need that connects with the audience and is uncovered by the text), the sermon then follows a pattern that maintains that appetite, feeding it one bite at a time. 

No one is uninterested in a meal when hungry.

To structure a sermon for interest, we must think in terms of the forms or shapes that sermons take. To maintain the audience’s attention, those patterns must capitalize on tension. We should be like the historian Barbara Tuchman, who hung a little sign over her typewriter with a simple note: “Will the Reader Turn the Page?” We, too, should adopt a page-turning strategy.

. . . 

What is most attractive about using tension as a rhetorical strategy in preaching is that it does not pull us away from the task of exposition—it leans us into it. This is because every passage of Scripture has tension already built in. Every passage contains inherent movement. It generates anticipation. 

Our task is not creating tension for the sermon but rather discovering the tension already at work in the text. . . . Expository preaching does not begin with the audience’s felt needs, but every Scripture passage reveals a deep need.

In order to understand the purpose of preaching, we must understand the purpose of Scripture. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul urges his protégé Timothy to preach, but not before he explains the purpose of Scripture in chapter 3. Paul is saying, “Here’s what Scripture is for (3:14–17), so this is what preaching is for (4:1–2).” 

Timothy was placed in Ephesus to protect the believers there from the danger of false teaching. Paul taught Timothy that the only way to combat this danger was to preach Scripture. Teaching Scripture is how a church is protected and made healthy because only Scripture can yield that profit. So Paul wrote: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17).

In what sense is Scripture “profitable”? This is key to understanding the tension inherent in Scripture passages. 

Paul’s point is that the value of Scripture is seen in its profit, its effect—it does something for us. Scripture works toward a profit, a better scenario, a change. . . . Scripture yields a “practical benefit” because it does something to us. What it does is complete us.

Paul uses four terms to describe how Scripture brings about its profitable effect in a person: through teaching, reproof, correction, and training. Yet it is not the how but the result or the ultimate profit of Scripture that is the point of this passage. The effect that is brought about in a person (Timothy in this case) is completion. . . . 

Scripture teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains, but none of those are the ultimate goal. Rather, those are four ways that Scripture accomplishes its real goal. The goal of Scripture is to “complete” what is lacking—to make the man of God “equipped” or proficient to do good work. . . .

This is where we find tension. The Christian does not have all that is necessary to meet the demands of living for God. Scripture brings believers to a point where they are enabled to meet the demands that God places on them.  All believers are deficient in some area. There is some good work for which they are not ready (problem). They must be completed and equipped (solution).

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The title of this post is the addition of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.

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