I’m not a big fan of cookie-cutter preaching methods. While certainly there are certain important guidelines that are basically non-negotiables, it is nevertheless easy for homileticians to begin to overly prescribe stylistic matters to young preachers. Having said that, the following quote from Jay Adams’ book Truth Applied (Timeless Texts, 1990) struck me as helpful.
While sermon introductions can sometimes be the last thing we worry about in our prep (a section only to be honed if there is some extra time) the introduction deserves extra care as it can go a long way in equipping people to stay with you during the next 30 or so minutes. Adams reminds us that people usually need some help drawing together God’s past and present work in order to see how a given text is not simply a story about something God did long ago, but is instead something that touches down in the thick of their lives today.
Introductions that have to do with matters long ago and far away rarely do what [Joel] Nederhood did for his listeners [i.e., drawing them in using 2nd person pronouns in the introduction, speaking of matters in daily life that are analogous to the events in the text being preached, etc.]. The congregation cannot bridge the gap to their own lives. Therefore, ordinarily it takes an introduction about something contemporary to help them understand why a biblical passage should be of such a great importance to them today.
Sitting in front of you are people who have practically severed their marriages during the past week, people whose children are threatening to shack up with dope addicts, people who are concerned about cancer, people who are about to collapse under the strains of caring for an infirm, elderly parent. When they settle down to listen to a sermon, the introduction of which indicates that they will probably receive a 30-40 minute discourse on the Amalekites, they will turn you off before it is finished. You have to either give them the word of comfort, encouragement, or warning that they need, or create an event that you make so significant that, for a time, they are willing to lay aside other concerns to hear about it, or you will lose them. They are not going to listen to a sermon that threatens to be a dull lecture on what God used to do.
But please notice, I am not saying that a sermon from a passage having to do with God and the Amalekites could not bring hope, comfort, or instruction about how to face life’s trials. No. But if you intend it to be more than a lecture on what happened long ago in Palestine – when God used to do things in the lives of His people – then the introduction should surely signal that fact by the way in which it applies to the members of your congregation.
People will not only put up with details about what happened long ago, but will fairly relish them when they know from the introduction that these details are important to an understanding of how God will work in their lives during the coming week.
Adams words did not strike me as overly profound (other homiletics books articulate the same idea about introductions), but they did serve as a reminder to me as I prepare to begin a new sermon series in a few weeks.
And for you non-pastors who are reading this, perhaps these words will draw attention to the temptation we all face to mentally check out if the introduction doesn’t vividly draw us in. If your pastor has not pulled the past and present together in the introduction, stay with him anyway and be on the lookout for how the God who was our help in ages past, is still our hope for years to come!
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)