An actor and a preacher were discussing their work.
“What I don’t understand,” said the preacher, “is why my congregation will come to one of your performances and sit for hours, engaged and alert the whole time, while I can hardly get them to stay awake during one of my twenty minute sermons.”
“Maybe,” said the actor, “it’s because I present fiction as though it were the truth, and you present the truth as though it were fiction.”
When I first started my preaching journey, the received wisdom was that you needed to get the congregation’s attention immediately. It makes sense. You don’t have long before people switch off – some research suggests that you have under ten seconds to get them engaged. Back then the tool for you used was to start your sermon with something interesting or humourous; you use something that people will actually want to listen to, like a story or a joke. As far as I can tell, this is still common practice. I sometimes start a sermon this way – but not all the time. It’s right to make an effort to be engaging, but there’s a difference between being intriguing and merely being entertaining.
There’s nothing wrong with starting your sermon with a story, but if you do it every week then it can become a problem. When a humourous anecdote is your modus operandi then people expect it: “Good old Reverend so and so. Always starts with a funny story.” People listen, but you’re just delaying the inevitable. They’ll still switch off, but they’ll just wait until after the punchline. Then you’re not a preacher – your words have no power. You’re just an entertainer.
We are preaching the words of eternal life, using a text that has caused revolutions, shaken souls and brought hope and encouragement to millions over the millennia, and we think that we need to use anecdotes to get people’s attention? People don’t come to church to be amused (from the Greek ‘a muse‘, literally ‘without thought‘). They come to meet God and to be equipped to live their lives well; and if that’s not why they come, I still act as though it is. The sermon should be one of the places where this can happen. If people quickly get the impression that what you are going to say to them this morning will actually have meaning; that it will make a difference to their lives, then you’ll have their attention – and you’ll keep it.
I’m definitely not saying there’s no place for humour, or stories, or observations in sermons. That would be ridiculous, especially coming from me. Those things are my bread and butter – but if that’s all I bring to the table then I’m done with preaching. The best way to get a congregation’s attention is to try to preach sermons that meet needs, answer the questions that people are actually asking, and (most importantly) create space for the Holy Spirit to do His thing. If we can do that, we’ll have no problems getting their attention.