The beginning of a thing is precious real estate. The first hook of a song can make or break it. The opening lines of a book set the tone for the story. And among all the exorbitantly expensive advertising slots during the Super Bowl, the first commercial break is the steepest of all. The reason is simple: Attention is valuable. Why? People are most attentive at the beginning.
So, this is also true when it comes to preaching. Those first few words from the preacher’s mouth are worth their weight in spun gold. However, I have heard enough sermons which lead-off with genteel chitchat to wonder whether preachers generally appreciate just how precious those first moments of the message truly are.
Frederick Buechner evokes their gravity in his book Telling the Truth:
“The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?”
So, in that first minute when, as Buechner suggests, you have your hearers in the palm of your hand, what should you say? How should you start? Let me suggest three tried-and-true ways to tee-up the proclamation.
1. Ask a question
The simplest way to transform an uninspiring beginning into an engaging one is to turn a straight-forward statement into a question (especially an open-ended one). Here is a commonplace example. Imagine a sermon with a focus on possessions which starts this way:
- Jesus spoke about money more than any other topic: more than humanity’s eternal destiny, more than Satan or angels, more even than the kingdom of God…
That’s pretty good, as far as it goes. But this small tweak makes it even more compelling:
- What topic do you think Jesus spoke about more than any other in the Gospels? It’s discussed more than humanity’s eternal destiny, more than Satan or angels, more even than the kingdom of God…
Starting with a question is a wonderful way to kick-start a sermon and get it rolling.
So in that first minute when, as Buechner suggests, you have your hearers in the palm of your hand, what should you say?
2. Raise a problem
Another time-tested way to begin a sermon is to raise a problem, what Eugene Lowry calls “upsetting the equilibrium.” I recently heard an excellent example of this when Reverend Doctor Scott Bruzek, pastor of Saint John Lutheran in Wheaton, Illinois, served as guest preacher at my parish. Pastor Bruzek opened his sermon this way:
"People often come and see me as a last resort. They come to me with wounds that are already quite deep, or with pain that has become overwhelming, or with troubles that have been neglected for too long. They come with illness, and depression, and addiction, and abuse, and money troubles, and spouse troubles, and kid troubles, and of course, they want answers, and they want cures... and I do too.
"I want to help, but these things are too big for me to solve. I went to pastor school, not med school or business school or miracle school, so how could I have anything to offer? And I am quite sure you all have felt this way too."
The reason this tack works is because, intuitively, when people encounter a problem, they want to find a solution; even if it is something they believe to be of no concern to them. Lord willing, your hearers are kindlier disposed. All the more reason they will lean in to learn more about the solution to the problem that you have raised.
3. Start a story
It has been said that the four most powerful words in the English language are, “Once upon a time...” To start a story, to evoke a world, to tell a tale is to draw our hearers into the most captivating form of speech. For we are creatures made in the image of a storytelling Lord, who is the Author of our faith.
Of course, to start with a story is apt not because we are mere raconteurs, not because we are advocates of Narrative, as such, but because in the end the message we proclaim is the Greatest Story Ever Told. So, once more, Buechner:
“To preach the Gospel in its original power and mystery is to claim in whatever way the preacher finds it possible that once upon a time is this time, now, and here is the dark wood that the light gleams at the heart of like a jewel, and the ones who are to live happily ever after are…all who labor and are heavy laden, the poor naked wretches wheresoever they be.”
When a sermon starts with a story, it opens a portal to a larger world, like passing through the door of a mysterious wardrobe.
The beginning of the sermon is a
tremendous opportunity. A strong opening to the sermon hooks the hearers right
away, seizing their attention like a fisherman snatching a slippery salmon.
Then, all you need to do from there is hold the line and reel it in over the
next fifteen minutes. That is all! It is a tall task, but as the ancient Greeks
would say, “Well begun is half done.”
 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth. (New York, Harper & Row, 1977) 23.
 Each of these openings have a corresponding sermon structure: Question-Answered, Problem-Solution, and Story-Told (or another narrative structure), respectively. See the Sermon Structures page at Concordia Theology. You may, however, use these openings with any structure.
 Buechner, Telling the Truth, 90-91.