Chapter 97

The Purpose-Driven Title

Evaluate yours with four questions

Writing a great sermon title is an art we must continually work on. I don't know anyone who has mastered it. We all have our hits and misses. But if the purpose of preaching is to transform, not merely inform, or if you're speaking to unbelievers, then you have to be concerned with your titles. Like the cover of a book, or the first line of an advertisement, your sermon's title must capture the attention of those you want to influence.

Will it capture their interest?

In planning appealing sermon titles, I ask myself four questions. First, will this title capture the attention of people? Because we are called to communicate truth, we may assume unbelievers are eager to hear the truth. They aren't. In fact, surveys show the majority of Americans reject the idea of absolute truth. Today, people value tolerance more than truth.

This "truth-decay" is the root of all that's wrong in our society. It is why unbelievers will not race to church if we proclaim, "We have the truth!" Their reaction will be, "Yeah, so does everybody else!"

While most unbelievers aren't looking for truth, they are looking for relief. This gives us the opportunity to interest them in truth. I've found that when I teach the truth that relieves their pain, answers their question, or solves their problem, unbelievers say, "Thanks! What else is true in that book?" Showing how a biblical principle meets a need creates a hunger for more truth.

Titles that deal with the real questions and hurts of people can attract an audience, giving us an opportunity to teach the truth. Sermon series titled "How To Handle Life's Hurts," "When You Need a Miracle" (on the miracles of Jesus), "Learning to Hear God's Voice," and "Questions I've Wanted to Ask God" have all attracted seekers.

Is it clear?

I also ask myself, "Will this title stand on its own—without additional explanation? If I read this title on a cassette tape five years from today, would I instantly know what the sermon was about?"

Unfortunately many compelling evangelistic messages are hampered by titles that are confusing, colorless, or corny. Here are some sermon titles from a recent L.A. Times: "On the Road to Jericho," "No Longer Walking on the Other Side of the Road," "The Gathering Storm," "Peter Goes Fishing," "The Ministry of Cracked Pots," "Becoming a Titus," "Give Me Agape," "River of Blood," and "No Such Thing as a Rubber Clock."

Would any of these titles appeal to an unchurched person scanning the paper? And do they clearly communicate what the sermons are about? It's more important to be clear than cute.

How appealing is it?

Is the title good news? In his first sermon, Jesus announced the tone of his preaching: "The Spirit of the Lord … has anointed me to preach Good News" (Luke 4:18). Even when I have difficult or painful news to share, I want my title to focus on the good-news aspects of my subject.

For instance, years ago I preached a message on the ways we miss God's blessing due to our sinfulness. I titled the sermon, "Why No Revival?" Later I revised the title to "What Brings Revival?" It was the same message, only restated in positive terms. I believe God blessed the latter message in a far greater way.

Here are sermon-series titles I've used to communicate good news: "Encouraging Words from God's Word," "What God Can Do through Ordinary You," and "Enjoying the Rest of Your Life," an exposition of Philippians.

Is it relevant?

Does the title relate to everyday life? Some people criticize life-application preaching as shallow, simplistic, and inferior. To them the only real preaching is didactic, doctrinal preaching. Their attitude implies that Paul was more profound than Jesus, that Romans is deeper material than the Sermon on the Mount or the Parables.

The "deepest" teaching is what makes a difference in people's day-to-day lives. As D.L. Moody once said, "The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge but to change our lives."

I have been criticized for using sermon titles that sound like Reader's Digest articles. But I do it intentionally. Reader's Digest is the most widely read magazine in the world because its articles appeal to common human needs, hurts, and interests. People want to know how to change their lives.

Using sermon titles that appeal to felt needs isn't being shallow; it's being strategic. At Saddleback, beneath our "how-to" sermon titles is hard-core gospel truth. A casual observer will not know that the series "Answering Life's Difficult Questions" was a study of Ecclesiastes, "Stressbusters" was an exposition of Psalm 23, "Building Great Relationships" was a ten-week exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, and "Happiness Is a Choice" was a series on the Beatitudes.

We have the most important message in the world. It changes lives. But for people to be attracted to it, the titles of our sermons must capture their attention.