Chapter 96

Modulating Tension

How to maintain interest throughout a sermon

We preachers know how to inject tension into a sermon. We may pose a question that cries out for an answer, or paint darkly some aspect of the fallen human condition that can be redeemed only by the good news of God's grace. We may tell a story.

We also know, though, that such tension doesn't last long. Listeners lose interest once the question is answered, the need is met by the gospel, the story is ended. How can we sustain tension and interest throughout the sermon?

A recent Preaching Today audio sermon (#200) by Haddon Robinson shows one way to meet this challenge. Here is how I would outline the tension of the sermon, " Life and Death Advice, " on Psalm 49 (Psalm 49:1-20):

  1. Robinson develops the idea of riddle and presents not only the riddle of the text but a contemporary riddle of his own, piquing our curiosity.
  2. Then the sermon explores the problem of why the evil seem to have it better in the world than those who try to live righteously.
  3. The sermon offers the first taste of resolution, showing that evil people ultimately have no advantage, for they die like everyone else.
  4. Then Robinson adds new complication by exploring the ultimate human problemdeathwhich even the good must experience. This creates a sense of need.
  5. Then the sermon offers some resolution by saying that death is not the end. There is an afterlife.
  6. But this raises a new complication: the sermon elaborates on what happens to the wicked, that death feeds on them forever.
  7. Finally, there is full resolution as Haddon tells of the blessed life that awaits the righteous. He preaches the good news of Christ and the hope of resurrection.
  8. The message ends by tying together the good news with the riddle developed in the introduction.

This sermon demonstrates how we can sustain tension throughout a message: by measuring out complication and resolution, in degrees, from beginning to end. The tension in this sermon is not in two simple stages: problem and solution. Rather, as in a vintage Hitchcock movie like Rear Window, there are degrees of problem and solution, and they overlap. Describe a problem, later describe further aspects of the problem, later still present even further aspects of the problem. Follow the same design with the solutions.

We can sustain tension in a sermon from beginning to end. One secret is to mete out complication and resolution by degrees throughout the message. The complication and resolution can overlap, or we can use a series of discrete cycles of complication and resolution, one following the other. Each measure of resolution should lead to another round of complication.

To buy an audiocassette and transcript of Haddon Robinson's Preaching Today sermon, phone 800-806-7798, ask for special offer #PW0PTC, then ask for item PT200. The cost is $9.95 plus shipping and handling.