How not to start a sermon: 8 starts to avoid

This post is part of the series on Preaching for youth. The first minutes of a sermon will determine the overall ‘success’, especially when preaching for youth. If you lose them at the start, chances are you’ll never get their attention back. So how you start your sermon when preaching for youth is crucial. Here are eight starts you should avoid:

1. Shocking start

I’ve seen preachers use this technique and so far, none of them were successful. Starting with something shocking (a shocking video, quote, song, joke, etc) may seem like a sure way to grab your audience’s attention, but if often backfires for several reason. First of all, after a shock, it’s hard to keep interest for the rest of the sermon. You peak too soon so to speak. Secondly, the shocking part often has no relation to the topic, so the audience feels cheated and somewhat used and will lose interest. Thirdly, it’s easy to offend or even hurt when trying to shock your audience, which will have obvious adverse results.

Lady Gaga is someone who has the concept of 'shocking your audience' down to an art. But how long can she keep it up? Even shocking can become predictable.

2. Predictable start

There are preachers who start every sermon the same way, with the same sort of story, the same joke, or the same prayer. There was this guy that I’ve heard speak four times, and every time he started with the same lame joke. It even became a sort of running joke in our youth group and we never invited him again. Make sure your starts are fresh and avoid being predictable. Don’t overuse the same jokes or stories, believe me: students have a fantastic memory for these things.

3. Offensive start

I heard a sermon once where the preacher started with saying that the only books you should read were The Bible and books about the Bible. Anything else was basically trash (fiction) or completely useless (non-fiction). And believe me, he wasn’t joking. Since I love reading, I was offended, to put it mildly. Needless to say, I didn’t listen to a word he said after that. Offending teens is easier than you think. Avoid negative remarks about today’s youth culture, music, movies, games, etc, before they know you, like you and know the context in which you’re saying it. They may love the very things you’re denouncing and while you may completely right, they won’t listen to you.

4. Long start

Some intros are so long, they become a sermon in itself. I remember a particular sermon where the introductory story was so long, it ran for at least ten minutes. The story dragged on and I had lost interest way before the ‘real sermon’ ever began. Keep your introductions short and to the point, then move on to the next part of your sermon.

5. Passive start

If you want your audience to become captivated, start actively with something that’s easy to listen to, like a story, a narrative or something emotional or funny. It could even be a movie clip. This is especially important when preaching for youth, as their attention span is short in general. Don’t be surprised if you have lost your audience after starting with a long Scripture reading, a long quote (quotes are particularly hard to listen to, since they’re often complicated!) or a long anything. Keep it short, engaging and move on.

6. Announcement-start

Any preacher starting with ‘today I want to talk about…’ immediately loses my interest. If you can’t come up with anything better, more original and fresher than that, take a break from preaching until you do. It’s by far the most predictable and boring start ever. ‘Nuff said.

7. Show off start

There are these preachers who feel they have to start with demonstrating their oratory skills, or their knowledge. They’ll come up with long, flowering sentences, filled with every oratory trick known to man, or stuffed with obscure facts. If you want your audience to dislike you, please, go ahead. But otherwise I’d advise you to just be yourself. When preaching to youth, I’ve seen the other end of the spectrum as well: preachers who almost desperately tried to be cool in their intro, using all the hip words, talking about the latest movies or music, and trying to convince they were ‘it’. Don’t. Again: just be yourself. Youth will know you’re pretending and stop listening to you.

8. Apologetic start

This is a pet peeve of mine. I hate it when people start a sermon with some sort of apology. They’re sorry because they’re late, because the mike wasn’t working, because they have a stain on their shirt or whatever. The thing is, when you’re apologizing, you draw attention to stupid details nobody is interested in and you lose precious time by making people focus on that, instead of on you and your sermon. They know the mike wasn’t working and they can clearly see the stain on your shirt. They’ll assume you didn’t do it on purpose and that you feel bad about it, so you really don’t need to say anything about it, especially not in your introduction. When some minor disturbance occurs, just ignore it and start your sermon as if nothing happened.

So, that’s eight things NOT to do. The next post in this series on Preaching for youth will be about the purpose of your sermon’s introduction.

Do you have any other ways to not start a sermon? Which one is your ‘pet peeve’?

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