Imagine you are at the movie theatre. You are scanning the offerings, deciding what to see. Here are some of the titles:
- Tortured Savant Cannot Commit to Love
- Girl Learns True Love Is Sacrifice, Not a Kiss
- Undersized Linebacker Justifies Existence by Making Notre Dame’s Team
- Boy Sees Dead People Because He Is Dead
Now, you might still be intrigued enough to see one of these films, but Good Will Hunting has lost the mystery surrounding its protagonist, Frozen has surrendered its biggest twist, Rudy suddenly seems less romantic, and as for The Sixth Sense, well, I suppose you can probably save your time and money on that one.
Hollywood produces poetic, ambiguous, intriguing titles for their films for a reason. If you are sufficiently interested in the star, you might still see a movie with a prosaic title like the imagined ones above. Your engagement in the plot, however, is undoubtedly going to suffer.
Engaging movies thus start at the box office (if not before). A title which grabs your attention and piques your interest primes you for a satisfying moviegoing experience. “The Sixth Sense? I wonder what that might be...” This is such an obvious point I hesitate to belabor it. Yet, many preachers have not absorbed the lesson.
A sermon is, of course, not a movie, and the narthex is not the box office (churches that meet in theaters notwithstanding). Parishioners are not purchasing tickets to get into worship, and Jesus is way more dashing than Tom Cruise. Do not press the metaphor.
But in one narrow application of the analogy, sermons could stand to learn from films and preachers from producers. Because when the ushers hand out the bulletin and the parishioners look at the sermon’s title, they are already forming expectations for what will be heard. When it comes to the title, engaging sermons do indeed start in the narthex.
Because when the ushers hand out the bulletin and the parishioners look at the sermon’s title, they are already forming expectations for what will be heard.
It is unfortunate, then, that the sermon title is so often an afterthought. Though they are assuredly a modern invention, to my knowledge (Chrysostom was not printing bulletins) they are here now, and to not utilize them and utilize them well is a missed opportunity.
Just as an intriguing movie title whets the watcher’s appetite, an intriguing sermon title invites the worshipers to lean-in and hear what the Lord has to say to them through His called messenger. A creative title creates the itch the proclamation is going to scratch. It helps to ensure God’s people will hustle to take a bathroom break during the sermon hymn (apologies to our musicians) rather than the start of the sermon itself.
Needless to say, a snappy title cannot compensate for snooze-worthy proclamation. I will take a clear and compelling message over a clever title every day of the week (including Sundays). My point is simply that we do not typically give much thought to the title at all, missing a chance to create greater anticipation for the preaching of the Word before it has even begun.
So, how can you create more engaging titles? There are many approaches to this. In general, ambiguity is your best friend; think open-ended and allusive rather than explicit and conclusive. One grammatical way to do this is to employ participial phrases. For instance, I entitled a sermon on the Transfiguration “Transforming Vision,” alluding not only to the change in Jesus but also to the change in those who were witnesses to it. It functions as a double entendre which both states the theme while also raising interest.
Another trick is to align the title with the goal of the message rather than its focus. Entitle it according to where you are going, a destination as yet unseen by the hearers, rather than where you are starting from, a place readily glimpsed. For instance, for a sermon on the call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13) which had as its goal for God’s people to recognize how being “sick” with Jesus is better than being “well” in the ways of the world, I entitled it “Better than Well.”
Another trick is to align the title with the goal of the message rather than its focus.
Finally, my favorite titles coincide with sermons that use the Paradox-Maintained structure, in which the rule of thumb is the title sounds like an oxymoron: “Exclusively Welcoming,” “Necessarily Unnecessary,” or “Extraordinarily Ordinary.” These are both pithy and provocative, summarizing your message while also eliciting interest.
Now, all this said, even I do not always shoot for poetic and intriguing titles. Sometimes old-fashioned, straight-forward explanations are appropriate. Recently my congregation had a sermon series through the lectionary readings on Revelation called “Visions of the Kingdom,” and for the sake of continuity each week’s title followed the template “Vision of...” Slavish obedience to this as to any other best practice is unnecessary.
Leadership expert Michael Hyatt asserts, in his book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, “The most important component for anything you offer is the title.” For sermons, they are not the most important, but they certainly matter more than preachers have typically assumed. Do not waste this opportunity to hook your hearers from the narthex. Before long, God’s people will perhaps be anticipating the proclamation like they do the credits rolling, even if you and Tom Cruise are not departing the pulpit in an F-14.