Tension Keeps Your Hearers Stuck to the Sermon
When it comes to messages that stick, tension equals attention.
You know that feeling of being locked in as preacher? When you depart from the pulpit confident that the message you intended to give was the one given. You witnessed congregants lean forward and engage every movement of your message. All the words pouring from your mouth feel less like a sermon delivered from your head and more like a message flowing from your heart. These are the sacred moments that make us grateful to God for the opportunity to preach in a local church.
Then there are times that are quite the opposite. Somewhat ironically, it often happens the next Sunday. The sermon feels like walking through quicksand—no traction for your hearers whatsoever. The dynamic of the room is at a low ebb, if not completely dead. You wonder what went wrong.
What eats at you is that you didn’t prepare any differently. One question dominates your thinking: Why?
- Why was this preaching event so sub-par?
- Why did the congregation seem so distant?
- Why did last week’s sermon connect and move my congregants, while this week’s did exactly the opposite?
Keep your chin up. Take heart. Don’t wave the white flag of surrender. You are not the only one to feel that way. I would venture most every preacher worth their salt has experienced in the pulpit those disastrous days, if not seasons, including the anxiety, fear, and depression that come with them. I surely have.
While I don’t have all the answers for every preacher, I believe I can help many sermonizers by challenging them to focus on a specific way of viewing their message. Often the solution for preaching effective versus ineffective sermons comes down not to working harder but thinking differently about work already done. I’m convinced many a message could be vastly improved without adding content but simply rethinking the content you already have.
The explanation-driven arrangement
Far too many preachers operate as engineers who feel the need to explain everything at the beginning of their messages. They begin their sermons stating their main assertions, then over the course of the message, proceed to give points and sub-points as to why those assertions are correct. This is a sermon with an explanation-driven arrangement.
As the term indicates, the composition of this kind of message is controlled by its main objective: the explanation of content. The sermon’s primary intent is to help people understand but not necessarily respond to what is being preached. Therefore, like the professor’s lecture, the arrangement of the sermon is often deductive, linear, and easy to follow intellectually.
While these explanation-driven messages may be clear and cogent, their arrangement may also make them less appealing to listeners. What many pastors consider the strength of their messages—the assembly of their content—may actually be a weakness. This only serves to stress the importance behind how one orders the sermon.
What if the purpose of preaching wasn’t to merely explain information, but to call people to respond to that information? I would argue the former is the definition of teaching while preaching is the latter. Don’t misunderstand, there will always be a teaching element in preaching, but the aim of the sermon is not just to inform people of the truth but to call them to do something in light of that truth. Sermons are less orientations to material and more appeals to the mind, heart, and life of the listeners.
If preaching is calling people to respond to information we’ve explained, then the aim should be an arrangement which causes listeners to lean in and take account of what’s being said. In other words, the aim of message construction should be engagement, not explanation. Unfortunately, the explanation-driven message prevents preachers from capitalizing on engaging their listeners. The strength of the explanation-driven arrangement is also its weakness: a lack of tension. Thus, a big idea behind preaching that works is how a pastor arranges the sermon for tension.
The tension-driven arrangement
If preaching is calling people to respond to the information we’ve explained, then arranging our sermon material with their engagement in mind should be the priority. To organize the components of our message for maximum engagement, think story. Why do people spend time and money watching television shows, viewing movies, and reading books? It’s because the stories that stick with us inherently leverage the power of tension.
Good stories (and storytellers) don’t give away all the answers at the start. They allow the audience to engage with struggle before the tension is finally relieved. Imagine walking into the theater to see The Avengers: Infinity War and, after the opening credits roll, the audience is immediately transported to the defeat of evil Thanos by our beloved superheroes. Do you believe that would affect how you watched the rest of the movie? You wouldn’t even think about buying tickets for Infinity War 2. The reason: all the tension has been relieved.
Tension is like glue: it keeps us stuck to the story. Leveraging it well can be the difference between people leaning in their seats or leaving them. If movies lose their tension, they demotivate their audiences. That is the reason why the tension—the evil enemy and his demise—is tethered as closely as possible to the conclusion of the story (or the sequel!). The strategy is to keep the audience “glued to their seats” as long as possible. It also demonstrates why a story’s arrangement has everything to do with leveraging tension well.
This is how God has wired us as human beings. Tension arrests us. That’s why we dig in for hours at a time with a movie or even spend weeks or months with a book. We want to journey through something to find the resolution at the end. Take the Bible. Scripture is arranged so that the tension is set from the beginning in Genesis with the fall of man and maintained all the way through the Gospel accounts of the New Testament into the Book of Revelation itself. The Cross serves as the turning point, and Christ’s Second Coming/New Heavens and New Earth will completely relieve the tension. Even for God’s Word, tension and arrangement go hand-in-hand.
Think of it this way: Tension = Attention. Keeping one keeps the other. Good stories are arranged to maintain tension as long as possible, and sermons should seek to do the same. When convinced a sermon’s content is Christ-centered and biblically faithful, a preacher should then arrange that sermon with tension, not explanation, as the driving factor. It is a big first step to creating a sermon that works in the right way for the right reasons.
Rearranging your sermon for tension
The beauty of all this is you don’t have to add anything to your sermon content. You are merely moving that content around to keep the tension in the message instead of giving it away from the start. Many sermons could be transformed from okay to exceptional if just one element was shifted to a position that maintained tension, rather than relieving it. It isn’t necessarily hard, it just requires intentionality. You have to purposely look at your sermon in a different way and ask yourself the question: How do these sermon components create tension and keep that tension throughout the message?
This applies to every element of your message, with no component excused from consideration. For example, would a specific illustration have more emotional impact by moving it somewhere else? Does it create questions or answer them? This examination will help determine where best to place it in the message. I’ve seen sermons increase their dynamism dramatically simply by moving an illustration for the purpose of better engagement. When organizing your message, it’s open season on every component. Move elements to move people.
Challenge yourself to take one message and give it three different arrangements. Again, don’t add any new content. Simply reorder the content you already have. Spend time preaching those varied arrangements and see if you can’t feel the difference between them. That’s the power of arrangement—and why preaching that works arranges for tension.
Tension-driven arrangements give the message’s concluding resolution greater weight in the mind of your listeners, because you spent more time building the desire for that answer in the hearts of your listeners. It gives teeth to your conclusions and traction to your insights, allowing resolutions to be more deeply embedded in your audience. These benefits are far superior to those offered by an explanation-driven sermon.
I continually remind the preaching team at my church to not relieve the tension in their introductions. On the contrary, I want them to create tension initially, then push it down as far as they can in their messages. This means not only holding back on the answer at the introduction of the message, but waiting as long as possible throughout it.
Remember, tension equals attention. Keeping the former better ensures keeping the latter. Find the best order for your content by moving elements to increase the sum of their power. The better your arrangement pushes the tension down the sermon, the more attractional power the message will have. Don’t give sermons with five-star content two-star arrangements. Arranging for tension can be the difference between a message that simply informs and preaching that moves people.
Material in this article is adapted from Yancey Arrington’s book—Preaching that Moves People (Clear Creek Resources, 2018).
Yancey Arrington is the teaching pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in Houston, Texas, and the author of the newly released Preaching That Moves People (2018). He blogs at YanceyArrington.com