How to Start a Message so that People Will Listen

The problem with sermons today isn't with those who listen.

The problem is with those of us who preach.  I am as guilty as anyone.

In fact, it is my culpability as a preacher that has spurned me to study, learn, and discover as much as I can about how to best communicate the gospel in a 21st century, western world. 

While I have chimed in with other frustrated preachers to lament the "shrinking attention span" of the western mind, that now seems like more of an excuse than a reason why people don't listen to our messages. 

The problem is not with the listener. It is with the presenter

After all, we now live in the era of binge watching television shows on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. People will engage with something for hours.

If they are interested.

Don't hear what I am not saying. The solution is not to entertain from the stage or in a pulpit. No, no, and again, no. 

While we may learn some presentation techniques from entertainers, entertainment is not our objective.

Our objective is communication. What they do with what we communicate is up to them. But we as preachers have an obligation to make sure we are connecting at a point of personal need to those who listen. 

In other words, the way to start a message so that people not only will listen but want to listen is to put your finger on a problem that is raised in the text-a problem that touches their lives in a very personal and practical way. 

"The way to start a message so that people not only will listen but want to listen is to put your finger on a problem that is raised in the text-a problem that touches their lives in a very personal and practical way."

Click to Tweet

We must do the work to expose a real life problem that will be addressed and answered in the Bible passage from which we are about to preach. But not just a vanilla problem. We are called to think deeply enough about the issue so that we are able to show, in living color and vivid detail, how the issue is of near crisis importance. They need to start leaning in, ready to listen, desperate for the solution.

How do we do this? 

1. Understand the Original Context

As we come to a text to preach, we must grasp not only the grammatical context, but the historical and redemptive contexts as well. When we have a good idea of why the text was written to the original audience, we are ready to take the next step into our world, crossing the bridge, bringing a problem or pressing issue with us. 

Essentially, their problem is our problem and our problem is their problem. Cultures change but the human condition doesn't. 

Their need for grace is our need for grace. 

Therefore, understanding the original contexts helps us discover that grace need in the form of a problem to address and solve with the gospel. 

2. Understand Contemporary Needs

Since cultures change, the specifics of the problem may not be exactly the same as the original audience of the Biblical text. But there will be transferrable principles. 

For example, in Psalm 32, we see how a fallen, flawed, sinful King is still able to serve as an effective leader. 

But not many of us are Kings. But we do lead in some capacity. Just like David, we are all flawed sinners.

The question then becomes how a flawed sinner can be an effective leader. And not just a formal leader in the church. What about a flawed husband? A flawed mother? A flawed child? A flawed employee, athlete, politician, or referee? 

Now, press into what is most applicable to those listening to your message. Make it so important that they start to lean in, being convinced that they need to hear this. Now, they want to listen. 

3. Raise the Problem in the Form of a Question 

Questions beg answers. This is why framing the problem as a question not only helps the listening expect an answer in the form of a practical solution but it keeps the preacher honest to provide the remedy in the form of the gospel, showing how the grace of God in Jesus is the source of both justifying grace and enabling grace.

Just like a surgeon wounds in order to heal, we bring up wounding problems in order to provide a solution. In this way, we are preaching not merely to inform but to help.

It may be that we need to repent of trying to impress with our preaching and start trying to help people with real life problems by facing them in view of the cross.

I am convinced that if we will work at discerning a pressing problem in the text that people not only will listen, they will want to listen. 

If you are interested in using my sermon prep template,

you may download it here.

4. Use a Template

I find that using a simple sermon prep template really helps keep me focused in developing genuinely cross-centered messages. While this post is about how to start a message so that people will listen, this template will serve as a guide for the entire preaching event. 

Writing the introduction is a 5-step process:

  1. Raise a problem addressed by the text.
  2. Illustrate it.
  3. Make a personal connection to the problem or issue.
  4. State the problem in the form of a question.
  5. Segue to the text by stating how the passage addresses the problematic issue with a solution.

Let me know what you think. What have you found to be most helpful in starting your messages so that people will listen? 

  • […] Here is my 5-step process for creating a compelling sermon introduction. Ideally, people should be leaning in, wanting to hear your message. The will feel a deep need for what you are planning to say because you will be answering a burning, practical question with a biblical solution that is tied and tethered to the cross. For more on this topic, go to the longer post here.  […]