So often the hardest part of preaching is getting the darn thing started. You feel pressure to garner attention, to start with momentum, and to introduce your text. Sometimes these compete with each other. If your text isn’t the most riveting passage of the Bible, how can you introduce it and demand attention?
Here are five things that I do with the first sentence of my sermon to get things off to a great start.
1. Introduce an illustration. Nothing works better than a story, vivid illustration, or pithy quote to draw your people in. The trick is to choose an illustration that is relevant to your sermon.
2. Use the key word of your proposition (or main point, or big idea, or whatever you call it). A good way to test whether your illustration is relevant to your sermon is to use your key word in the first sentence of it. If you can’t, then you need a new illustration. If you can, you have done 90% of the work needed to direct your congregation’s attention toward your sermon’s topic.
3. Expose – or at least lean toward exposing – your FCF. “FCF” stands for Fallen Condition Focus, and refers to the aspect of our sinfulness or fallenness that the passage addresses. If you can – in the very first sentence of your sermon – introduce an illustration, use your key word, and expose your FCF, you will complete a trifecta that firmly grips your congregation.
The most interesting movies introduce the main piece of the plot early in the movie, if not in the very first scene. Preachers need to do the same thing in sermons. (Did you notice that I did this with the first sentence of this post?)
4. Imply to the congregation “It’s go time.” No jokes. No extended pre-sermon conversation. No warming up the crowd. Get right into it. This nonverbally tells your congregation that you have something to say, and it’s urgent. Over time, your people will start to tune in as you walk to the front because they know how much the first words out of your mouth matter to what you will be talking about.
5. Vary how you do this. If you follow the same exact pattern every Sunday, you will eviscerate any sense of anticipation, because your congregation will know what is coming. So alternate between serious stories and funny stories. Alternate between hitting the FCF in the first sentence and building up to it. Every once in a while, do short warm up and say “Hi” to your congregation.
The rest of the sermon flows out of the first sentence, so don’t neglect it. Like the first notes of a song or the pilot to a TV series, people will decide from the very beginning whether they will tune in or tune out. It will take some time and thought, but you will reap dividends all the way to your conclusion.