Preaching for youth: the purpose of an introduction

This post is part of the Preaching for youth series. The first five to ten minutes of a sermon are crucial. At least, that’s what everyone says. But do you know why? Do you have a clear vision of what you need to accomplish in the introduction of your sermon, in those first few minutes? And do you write your introduction accordingly? Here’s the scoop.

In the first few minutes of your sermon, also known as your introduction (or intro) you need to accomplish three things:

  1. get the audience to like you
  2. get the audience to care about what you’re saying
  3. get the audience to listen

This is especially important when you’re addressing a new audience. They don’t know who you are, they don’t know if they like you, they don’t know if they care about what you’re saying. And you have about five minutes before they make up their mind either way. That means starting great is not just a bonus, it’s essential if you want your sermon to have impact.  So how do you accomplish this?

How do you make your audience listen to what you're saying? (photo: Kevin Coleman)

Like: create common ground

The single best way to make your audience like you is to create common ground with them. Remember: people tend to like people who are like them. So if you can communicate in your opening that in a way, you are just like them, you will have overcome a first big hurdle.

I’ve discovered that starting with a (personal) story is a great way of creating common ground. When preaching for youth, the things you have in common may not always be obvious however. For instance, it will be hard for them to relate to marital problems, financial responsibilities or anything to do with parenting (as a matter of fact, they’ll probably choose sides with your kids, so be careful there!). But while they may not be able to relate to certain circumstances, they will be able to recognize emotions and relate to them.

The best starting stories therefore focus on an emotion that connects to your topic and which students can identify with. Let’s say you’re preaching on friendship, with David and Jonathan’s friendship as a Biblical example. A good starting story would be the story of being betrayed by someone you considered a friend. Even though the circumstances will be completely different, they will recognize the emotion. There has to be a sort of ‘we-feeling’ after your story, a recognition of emotions, thoughts and struggles.

It’s important to keep in mind that your starting-story has to be related to your topic however. You can’t just tell any good story you like, it has to support the central point you’ll be making later on in your sermon. That way, your story prepares the hearts and minds of your audience for what’s about to come.  They can decide if they care about what you’re saying and if they will listen to the rest of the sermon. If there’s no connection between story and central point, they’ll become confused, lose interest or even unconsciously feel betrayed because you ‘played them’.

Another way to create common ground is by starting with a question. As humans, we are wired to answer questions, even rhetorical ones. But it has to be an intriguing one, one that will certainly resonate with your audience. It could be a puzzle, a mystery, like ‘Have you ever wondered why there is so much violence and bloodshed in the Old Testament?’. Or a question that creates common ground with your audience: ‘Have you ever felt like God is far, far away and you’re just talking into space when you pray?’ The goal of the question is once again to create a ‘we-feeling’, a shared goal or interest so the audience will listen with interest to the rest of your sermon.

Care: create a need

If you want your audience to care about what you’re saying, it obviously starts with choosing the right topic. This is especially true when preaching to youth. Make sure you pick a topic that appeals to them and try to speak to where they are at in their spiritual journey.

When you’ve picked a topic that will speak to them, the second step is to make them aware of a problem, a need before you address it. You can preach about abstinence till you’re blue in the face, but until you’ve made them care, they won’t listen. Before you dispense any Biblical wisdom or advice, make them aware of the fact that they have a problem, a need. When they accept they have a problem, they’ll care about what you’re saying about a solution.

You can do this by transitioning from your personal story or question into a ‘do you recognize this’ type of question. Or just describe the reality of the need or problem you want to focus on in a way that focuses on the underlying emotions.

Example: “Death has always both fascinated and scared people. We are fascinated by it, because it is so final and yet so unknown. But it is that same lack of knowledge about it that scares us. What happens exactly when we die? Where do we go? Even as Christians, death can scare us because no matter what the Bible says, there’s always that nagging doubt. Because let’s face it, other than Jesus no one we know has ever come back from death to tell us about it. Does death scare you? Are you afraid to die?”

In just one paragraph the focus of the sermon has become clear (death) and a need, a common ground has been found (being afraid of death). Obviously, I’ve kept this rather brief for the sake of this post, but in your sermon make sure you don’t move on to the body of your sermon until you’ve established common ground and addressed a need or problem.

Listen: be attractive

The third goal of your sermon intro is to make them listen. No matter how good your content, how great your message, if they don’t listen to you, it’s useless. Making your audience listen is all about delivering the message right, about being a great speaker, one that people love to listen to. How to accomplish that? My biggest advice is practice, practice, practice. In the course of this series on Preaching for youth we’ll address several issues with regards to being an attractive speaker. Just remember this: if you fail to communicate in an appealing, attractive way in the first five to ten minutes, you’ve lost your audience and will likely not get their attention back. Don’t ever fool yourself that it’s just about the content, the message.

How do you write your sermon intro? Do you consciously try to accomplish certain goals?

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