Podcast Episode 2 | 14 min
Writing Effective Introductions
Using your introduction to gain your listener's interest.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com on Monday Morning Preacher, where we take a look at tools to improve our preaching by listening to examples from master preachers. My guest today is Kevin Miller, a featured preacher on PreachingToday.com. In this episode we are going to learn an important preaching lesson from a famous sermon coach, Stephen King.
Kevin Miller: Wait, you mean the horror writer, Stephen King?
MW: Yep, that's the guy.
KM: Okay, how did he get into this podcast?
MW: Well, okay, he's not really a preaching coach but I did read this interview with King and he was talking about how to write an effective introduction to a novel. He admitted that there are all sorts of ways and theories about a good intro, but he said every good intro should say three things: listen, come in here, and you want to know more about this.
KM: That's great. You know, Matt, as I have coached preachers at our church and tried to encourage them in their own skills, I find the introduction is one of the more neglected elements of preaching. Like, they all understand the importance of biblical exegesis, they all understand the importance of pastoral application, but I don't think they understand that when a listener shows up that listener is coming in cold. They've spent ten to twelve hours studying this text, they've developed a lot of insight into it and a lot of passion about it, but that person who just is in the pew, they are not thinking about the middle section of 1 Timothy 2.
MW: Absolutely. King also had this great quote in the interview which I thought applied to preachers. He said, "It's a little do or die for the writer," talking about the introduction. "A really bad introduction can convince me not to buy a book and to scurry off." So I thought that applied to preaching as well. What do you think, Kevin?
KM: Instead of spending one minute on an intro where I say, “And today we are going to pick up on 1 Timothy 2,” I don't assume any interest on the listener's part so I have to earn that. I am going to spend five, six, or maybe even seven minutes of my message getting them to the point where they are leaning in and saying, “Man, tell me more.”
MW: Of course the difference for the preacher than Stephen King the novelist is that we want to hear more about is the Bible, the Word of God for this people. So it creates an even deeper sense of urgency and importance.
KM: I think sometimes as preachers we so believe in the authority and beauty of God's Word that we assume it needs no decoration, introduction, or kind of on-ramp to it. But the fact is our listeners are coming from a world where they've just had a fight in the car on the way to church, they're thinking about the movie they watched last night, and they actually need that on-ramp so that they can fully appreciate the beauty and truth of God's Word.
MW: Yeah, and that's a great segue into the clip that we have today from our master preacher, John Ortberg, who was giving a sermon on speaking the truth in love. The title of this sermon is "Loving Enough to Speak the Truth."
I want to plunge into the message for this weekend with kind of a thought experiment. Imagine picking your car up from where you took it for a tune-up, and the technician were to say to you, “This car is in great shape, clearly you have an automotive genius to take great care of your car.” Later that day your brakes don't work, you find out that you are out of brake fluid, you could have died. You go back to the shop and you say, “Why didn't you tell me?” The technician said, “Well, I didn't want you to feel bad. Plus, to be honest, I was afraid you might get upset with me, I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted.” You'd be furious. You'd say, “I didn't come here for a little fantasy-based ego boost. When it comes to my car I want the truth.”
Or imagine going to the doctor's office for a check-up and the doctor says to you, “You are a magnificent physical specimen, you have the body of an Olympian, you are to be congratulated.” Later that day while climbing the stairs your heart gives out, you find out later your arteries were so clogged you were like one jelly donut away from the grim reaper. You go back to the doctor and say, “Why didn't you tell me?” The doctor says, “Well, I knew your body is in worse shape than the Pillsbury doughboy, but if I tell people stuff like that they get kind of offended, it's kind of bad for business, they don't come back, I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted.” You'd be furious. You'd say to the doctor, “When it comes to my body I want the truth.” Anybody have any idea where this is headed?
MW: So we love Ortberg for so many reasons. That was an incredible introduction. Or at least that was part one to his intro. We are going to look at part two in just a minute. What worked well there, Kevin? What did he do that made this an effective introduction that made you think, I want to listen to this?
KM: Well, three things stood out to me. One is, it's funny. When you have a line that says “you're one jelly donut away from the grim reaper,” that's a funny line. The second thing I like is that he has already made his point, he's not even finished his intro and he's already made his point that there is truth so important that we must listen to it even if we don't want to. The third thing is he has actually made me want to hear this hard truth. I sense that he is building to giving me a hard truth in this message, but now I'm leaning in and I want to hear it.
MW: That's a great point. Some preachers think that humor is really inappropriate, especially when you're talking about a tough biblical truth, but I found the humor here really lowered my defenses because we know we have a problem with this, we know we have a problem with speaking the truth in love, and we know we have a problem with hearing the truth when it's hard. We all struggle with that so we all can relate to that. So the humor made it a little more palatable, a little more acceptable. And I'm not saying that every time your introduction needs to be funny, but at certain points it really helps the medicine go down.
KM: I know that John goes on from here to transition to the biblical text so let's listen to that clip and then we'll break it down.
One more scenario. Imagine going to a church where you hear, “Don't worry if you mismanage your anger, nobody here will confront you on that because we don't like conflict. Don't worry if you hoard lots of money; lots of us have lots of money and if we start going after that one, a bunch of people might get mad and leave. Don't worry if you're passive in the face of injustice; we kind of prefer passivity. We might talk some occasionally about sin, especially sin out there, but nobody here will talk to you about your sin because then we wouldn't feel good and the goal is to walk out of this church feeling good.”
Here's the words that we're going to focus on. This is from the Apostle Paul. He's writing to a church at Ephesus and they've got truth problems. They'd rather just hear stuff that makes them feel good, and he's writing about that. He goes on to say this, instead of doing that, "Instead, speaking the truth in love we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ." I need people who will speak truth to me because I have a sin problem and I do not know how bad it is, and it's worse than I think.
KM: Okay, so now it's your turn, Matt, what did you like about this remaining section of John's introduction?
MW: Well, he started with everyday, ordinary life where people live. You know, John Stott talked about preaching as sort of this Between Two Worlds, which is the title of one of his books, so you have the biblical world and then you have today's world. A preacher builds a bridge between those two worlds. Ortberg started with today's world. He started with experiences we can all relate to, auto mechanics, doctor's office, ordinary, everyday things. Then he worked his way into church and then the biblical text.
Everything he said in the introduction led to his main idea. I've heard some sermons where people will do an introduction and it's maybe funny and it's maybe a great story but doesn't really connect to the big idea in the biblical text that the preacher's talking about. It's an attention grabbing thing. Then all throughout, Ortberg showed us, I think, why we need to listen to this, that this is important, that there is a sense of urgency that if you don't listen to the truth from a doctor there is consequences, if you don't listen to the truth from your auto mechanic it's bad for you and your car. So he created this sense of I really need to hear this. So I thought he did those things very effectively.
KM: That's a great breakdown. Well, let's take what we've tried to learn from John today about introductions and apply it to our own preaching. What's a sermon you have coming up and how are you thinking about your intro?
MW: I'm preaching at an event called Mission Aurora, which is a mission outreach and then every night they have a worship service. So I'm preaching on Matthew 25, a familiar text where Jesus divides the sheep and the goats and says, "When I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was in prison you visited me." So I'm going to begin with a story of a guy named Edward Lorenz, back in 1961. You ever heard of the guy?
MW: So Edward Lorenz was an American scientist, meteorologist, who developed the phrase, “The Butterfly Effect.” What he found in his lab, he was working on a model for meteorology and he just tweaked some of the data ever so slightly and it created a wildly different model. So he came up with this idea that small changes can lead to drastic consequences later on.
KM: Okay, so is that where we get that phrase that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil it causes a tornado in Texas?
MW: Yes. So I go into some of the detail, there's actually kind of a little bit of humor in the story and all that kind of thing. Then I transition to the biblical text and I say, “Jesus had his own version of the butterfly effect in the spiritual realm, that when we do small deeds of compassion, small deeds of kindness for oftentimes powerless people, there are huge consequences in the spiritual realm. Namely, the heart of Jesus is touched and ministered to by these things.”
KM: So you've got there in that introduction, Matt, an attention grabber that also gives dignity to the small act of compassion, it ties it to the text from Jesus. How are you going to add urgency so that the listener thinks, I've got to listen to whatever Matt's going to say?
MW: That is a great question and I'm working on it, but this is where I'm going right now. We're all hungry for significance, we want significance, God has wired us for significance. But so often in our own souls and our own culture we're looking for the big deal, the big splash, the big shout out from famous people, the big clout. And Jesus is saying, “No, I can give you that significance but you're looking for it in the wrong place, it's often in the quiet splash, it's often in the little things you do, it's often in things you do for people that can't give you as shout out because they don't have any power to give you a shout out.” So you're looking for that and here's how to get it. Jesus is going to tell us how to get that level of significance.
KM: Okay, now, that's great because everybody wants their life to matter and to feel like their time on earth meant something, so for you I think that's very powerful to say, “If you want to have the impact of a tornado, flap your butterfly wings.”
MW: There you go. I'll say that. So any concluding comments, Kevin?
KM: I have no concluding comments because this episode was about introductions.
MW: Good comeback. Well, I've got a few. First of all, I would tell preachers: Use a lot of variety in your introductions. Don't always start exactly the same way, don't always think you have to start with a funny story. Use a lot of variety, even homespun stories, things that happened this week that can shed insight. But always make sure that it leads into the biblical text and your specific big idea of the biblical text. The other thing is take care in writing the introduction. Don't just think that you're going to get up there and it's going to flow or it's going to happen. Write it out, be intentional about it, craft it well.
So that ends this episode of Monday Morning Preacher. Join us next week, we will take another tool and look at another master preacher to improve the craft of preaching.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.