The first two sermons in the book of Acts were, in the fullest sense of the term, occasional. That is to say, they arose out of and were addressed to an occasion. On Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit, with all its outward effects, brought together a crowd of curious and interested listeners:
When this sound was heard, a crowd gathered . . .They were astounded and amazed . . . saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:6, 7, 12).
This intense interest provided the introduction to Peter’s message.
Similarly, on the second occasion, Peter spoke to a crowd that was already anxious to hear him. On this occasion it was God’s healing of the cripple at the temple gate that drew them:
So they were filled with amazement and astonishment at what had happened to him … all the people were amazed and ran together to them [Peter and John] at the portico called ‘Solomon’s.’ (Acts 3:10, 11)
And later on in the book, Paul at Lystra (and to a lesser extent, at Athens) found himself addressing audiences that had already become curious about his mission and anxious to hear what he had to say prior to the message itself.
In all of these instances, the introduction to the sermon was an event. Wouldn’t it be great if every week, when you rose to preach, you too had before you a crowd of people, already stirred to the marrow to hear what you have to say? “Sure, that would be great. But such events don’t take place every week in my congregation. In fact, few things ever happen that stir my congregation’s interest. If they did, I think I could preach with more enthusiasm, and people would listen more eagerly with better results.”
I think you are right. As a matter of fact, in my book, How to Help People Change, I compared and contrasted teaching in the counseling context with teaching in the preaching context, pointing out that
What is that difference? The counselor, like Peter and Paul, teaches the counselee about matters that he already considers important. That is to say, a counselor teaches the counselee about something that has already captured his interest and concerns him. Like the Jews gathered on Pentecost, when the sermon begins, he already is asking such questions as, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12) He already is stirred to his roots. And if he gets the right answer, it probably won’t be long before he is asking, “What should I do?” (Acts 2:37).
In a sense the movement of an effective sermon may be described by the change in concern expressed in those two questions. From curiosity and interest at the outset, it should lead the congregation to the point where they say, “Where do we go from here?” It is a movement from desire to know God’s will to desire to do it. A good preacher always seeks to satisfy both concerns. He is interested in teaching what God requires and how to conform to His will. He moves from explanation to implementation. He will never settle for less.
“But,” you ask, “how do I bring this off? I don’t have events like Pentecost taking place every week.” That’s true. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have the starting advantage of the counselor who addresses his teaching to a present concern of the counselee. No. You begin with the most difficult task of all. You must speak week by week to people who are often apathetic, whose concerns are elsewhere, who see no immediate application of your message to their lives, etc. That is not an easy task.
How do you handle such a task? The answer at once is both simple and complex; simple in that it is easy to say and complex in that it takes time and effort to do. The answer is: you must create an event.
“Create an event? What do you mean by that? Am I to stage some happening in the congregation that will capture them? I don’t understand. You’d better explain.”
God seemed to think that this was a good way to open a sermon, because He used it so frequently in Acts to give an occasion for addressing crowds of people with the gospel. Every counselor knows how much easier it is to interest a person in a biblical passage when its message bears upon a recognized problem in his life. That is why the wise preacher creates an event for the members of his congregation at the outset. He does not presuppose that people who have been thinking all week long about something else will be interested immediately in what he is about to say. He knows that he must stir them out of their other interests, out of their lethargy, and out of their indifference. And he must get them so interested and concerned before he actually begins to preach the body of his message that, like the Jews on Pentecost, they will be asking to hear more. One way to do that is to create an event.
The ‘event’ I am talking about is not an objective event occurring in space and time. Rather this event is subjective, occurring in the mind. It is a mental milieu. Properly described, such an event will be just as real as if it were actually happening. When someone cries “Fire!” in an auditorium, the concern and the resulting action of the audience may be exactly the same whether there is an actual fire or not. Only one fact is necessary for the speaker to get action-he must be convincing. The same is true for the preacher. When Whitefield, Spurgeon, and Edwards spoke, they were so convincing, and people became so involved that they gripped the pews for fear, reached out to keep others from falling over a cliff, rushed to man lifeboats, etc. These preachers verbally created events to which their congregations responded.
That is what you to some extent must learn to do in the introductions to your sermons. Time and thought must be spent in discovering how to involve your congregation in the truth of God that you are about to proclaim. “But I am not Spurgeon or Whitefield or Edwards!” you protest. No, of course you are not, and you never will be unless you are willing to do the hard work of preparation that they did. The biggest problem is not the lack of native ability or proper training. It is simply this: many preachers do not take the time or give the thought in preparation of sermons that is necessary to create an event in the mind of the hearer. To capture the interest and arouse the concern of listeners take effort.
“But if I am willing to give the time and effort, how do I go about it?” Much more could be said in response to that good question, but for now let me simply suggest the following guidelines:
- Do not begin with the text; begin with the congregation as Peter and Paul did. Turn to the passage of Scripture only when you adequately have oriented the congregation to what you expect to find there and only when you sufficiently have stirred up a concern to know what God’s Word says. Acts 2:12 should precede Acts 2:17.
- Take enough time to create the event. Many introductions that are heading in the right direction are terminated before they can accomplish their purposes. While there is nothing worse than a poor introduction dragged out, a good idea aborted before it is born is not much better. So when you have worked hard on a good introduction to your sermon, take the necessary time to include enough detail to enable the congregation to visualize and become concerned about what you are saying. Usually it takes more than one or two sentences to bring that off. But, of course, filler, unnecessary repetition and all other dead, inoperative content must be excised.
- Learn how to describe events. Practice telling stories on other occasions. Work on using vivid, concrete nouns and verbs. Tape and listen to others who are adept at description. Analyze what they do to discover their techniques. Then incorporate the principles you discover into your work (don’t copy theirs). Write out introductions, choosing key words and phrases you plan to use. This sort of thing can be learned if you will only put sufficient time and effort into it.
- Use dialog whenever appropriate. Dialog is one way of involving the listener—it brings him up close to what is happening and makes him a participant in the conversation.
- Test the introduction before using it. If you cannot feel (I mean physically feel) what you are talking about in your own body, then it is not going to do the job. Keep working on it until you can describe what you are talking about in such a way that you experience the event whenever you tell it. The chill up your spine will give you assurance that you are on the track toward creating an event for the congregation. If the introduction doesn’t grip you (i.e., if it doesn’t become an event for you) it will not grip the congregation!
Why should sermons be boring or dull? Certainly those apostolic sermons were not! It is we who have made them so. Think again—every passage of Scripture is a word from God! And it is important to every member of the church. Your job is to convince him of this and show him how he may implement it in life to the honor of Christ. How dare we make God’s Word dull! There should be nothing more exciting in a Christian’s week than to hear once more what God has to say to him. What would you call it if you received a phone call from the President of the United States? Why, most of us would call that an event! Then what should one’s weekly word from God in the sermon be? Tell me.