The Beginning of a Sermon

First impressions count. Sangster[1] contends that that which is true of personal relationships is equally true of a sermon. If an audience has any intention of focusing at all it is during the opening minutes of a presentation; therefore if a preacher is to grip and hold his congregation it is his beginning that he will set the pace for the message. Given this assertion it clearly behooves a speaker to have a premeditated approach to those vital opening minutes; the purpose of this paper is to document the suggestions that Sangster gives.

Sangster begins by settling for his followers the question of whether or not a message need open with a text. This does not so much tackle the question as to whether the Bible should be used, Sangster would state yes, but rather whether or not a single verse should be elevated to the status of 'The Text' for the sermon. Sangster identifies four situations in which 'The Text' is announced:

  1. Exposition of 'The Text' is the body of the sermon. This is the deepest or at least lengthiest form of exposition where the nuance and meaning of each word is explored to the extent that one verse occupies the sermon.
  2. When 'The Text' expounds or illustrates the subject of the sermon. That is not to say that the sermon will exhaust the text or even that the sermon is based upon the text but rather than the text exemplifies the sermon. This applies particularly when a topical sermon is being introduced.
  3. When 'The Text' contains a phrase which can be used as a starting point for a sermon. To an unwary hearer this will appear similar to number two. The difference is that in number two the verse is a legitimate starting point for the subject, this option allows for the phrase to be wrenched out of context and brutalized in order to fit the sermon's subject matter. Sangster notes that there is debate as to whether or not this is legitimate behavior but believes that it is based in part upon the fact that Wesley produced an important sermon using this technique. He does note that the preacher should declare if he is mis-applying the Scripture in this way.
  4. When the opening text is provided but purely from convention and does not really relate to the subject matter of the sermon. Sangster rightly notes that this is a complete misuse of Scripture.

Having tackled the issue of the text Sangster then precedes to the nature of the introduction. He rails against lengthy and florid openings likening them to magnificent porticos on the front of meager housing. Rather he prefers that the opening should suit the nature and method of the sermon. Thus if argumentative then thesis should be stated, if expository then the context of the verse should be mentioned. At all points Sangster is a salesman, aiming of feed enough information to whet the appetite but not enough to satiate it. Sangster also notes that one should be aware if one is aiming to start from the Bible and then work towards application or start from the position of the people and work towards Biblical principle. He states that there is merit and scope for both but that you need to be aware of what you are attempting.

Related to the opening is the issue of 'life situational preaching', if only because an opening of this form largely dictates the message that will follow. Life situational preaching is really an extreme form of starting from the position of the congregation; it is extreme insofar as the life situation essentially becomes the text as well as the body of the message[2]. The advantage of starting in this manner is that it should be easy to arrest the attention of the congregation and they should have no difficulty relating to the subject matter. Sangster contrasts this favorably with sermons which seek to express opinions about world affairs and situations in other countries about which the church may have little or no interest. It also lends itself readily to reasoned logical argument, it feeds a natural human desire for good advice and it makes the sermon actionable. Of course the danger is that all of the foregoing may preclude genuine Biblical teaching.

Ironically Sangster saves his pithiest advice upon how to open a sermon for the closing phase of the chapter. He identifies three things that he believes are important to the opening of a sermon:

  1. Brevity - the speed of the opening will indicate the pace and interest of the body. Sangster recommends spending as 'long as it takes' word-smithing the opening phrases to give pace and progression.
  2. Interesting - Sangster refutes the notion that holiness requires boredom. He believes it is the duty of the preacher to provide sermon material that will interest the audience and the opening is the place where they stall is laid out.
  3. Arresting - In a sense this is the more aggressive side of the 'interesting' coin. Sangster is happy for the minister to use some form of rhetorical device or even 'shock tactic' to shake the congregation into focus.

For me the challenge of the chapter is presented in the thesis: first impressions do count. Whether one agrees with the need for a single text or whether one prefers to take a passage or even a topic it is important that the hearers are as persuaded of the sermon's direction as the speaker. I agree that the introduction needs to be fast, whether or not it needs to be brief will depend upon the amount of introduction required. The question of interest or arrest is one that I believe requires sensitivity on the part of the preacher and hopefully progression through the years. Is not our goal to produce an audience that can think of no more interesting thing than a dive into the deep things of God and nothing more arresting than the pages of Scripture opening? Of course we may not be there yet and we may need to palliate until such time as we are; but for me it is important to keep the goal in mind.

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