A sermon that carries over into the blank pages of the hearer’s next day is every preacher’s ideal. And so the task of determining how to hold an audience and give the sermon staying power is worthy of any preacher’s time.

To isolate certain techniques is no guarantee that God is committed to them. He can use the conviction of a speaker’s voice, the cogency of his reasoning, or even the light in his face. There may be nothing remarkable about the messenger, nothing brilliant about the message. It may simply be that circumstances prepared a heart to receive God’s word with gratitude. With most hearers, however, the preacher has to earn, awaken, or build interest, rather than merely feed or maintain it. He must concern himself with such matters as these:

1. Text. Most church announcements carry the title rather than the text. But simply listing a text can create curiosity. When I was a university student, Reginald Thomas had just become pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Every other Philadelphia preacher listed his topic; Thomas listed only his text. As a new Christian I found this exciting. After looking up the passage I would wonder, “Now what is he going to say on that?”

2. Title. A title can lure a person to church and linger in his mind long after he leaves. But drab titles have no coaxing ability, no memory stickiness, no enduring ring. Of course, we may be surprised by what lies behind a seemingly lackluster title. F. W. Robertson’s titles were unspectacular, but his sermons weren’t. Nevertheless, dull titles can impede interest.

3. Introduction. Starting a sermon with the throttle wide open does a lot to get it moving. To keep attention we must first get it. A shocking statement at the start works some of the time, but overdone it loses its force. The trouble with making a big splash so early is that it is hard to repeat through the remainder of the message. Most listeners are with you at least for the first few minutes, anyway.

4. Body. The real body of a sermon is not the middle section but the sentence. Poor sermons result when sentences are pasty and pale, when they are too long or lifeless or both. Long sentences may serve well in theological books, but they invite boredom in sermons.

Usually, pungent words should come last. “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end,” advise Strunk and White in their well-known Elements of Style. The hearers hang onto the words and wonder, “Where is he taking us?” Remember too that verbs, more than adjectives, make the sermon vibrant and moving.

5. Digressions. Sustained argument, though sometimes necessary, is usually self-defeating for those unaccustomed to intricate reasoning. Loose logic or long logic can lose them. One way to let up a little is to illustrate. Be careful, however. Scrapbook sermons, though they may have hearer appeal, usually fail to provoke spiritual motivation. Digressions should be like switchbacks: you can’t climb a steep mountain by going straight up, but you can make it if you ascend gradually in a seemingly roundabout way. Illustrations rest the hearers on the climb to the peak, or when done imaginatively can actually be part of the climb.

6. Conclusion. The conclusion should be not a catch basin but a trap door—notable not for what it holds but for where it leads. Suspenseful conclusions are like the pause before rounding a corner and entering into a new room. Summing up, therefore, detracts by retracing steps. If a sermon is meant to issue in decision and action, then recapitulation should be left out.

What goes wrong when a sermon fails to generate interest? Some causes are correctable. The following may seem minor, but they can have a detracting influence.

1. Announcing the outline at the start may be a hindrance, because it either concentrates too much attention on the form, instead of the substance, or leaves nothing in reserve. Not knowing what is coming next is appealing.

2. Two ineffective kinds of sermons are the too abstract and the too negative. Fuzz on a peach was God’s finishing touch for a fine fruit. But fuzz on ideas is a mistake. To the detriment of good times in the courts of the Lord, abstractions issue from many pulpits in a regular stream. Another kind of sermon that is sure to kill interest and suspense is the harangue. Preaching, of course, presupposes authority. But when overdone this causes the listener to turn the sermon off or puts him in a bad, unreceptive mood.

3. Familiarity needn’t be a hindrance to creating suspense. Jesus’ parables had familiar settings. Ordinary objects and events were given surprising applications. After the listener identified with the story, a strong point was made. Unlike the pedantic Sadducees, our Lord caught his hearers off balance by contemporizing truth in disarmingly simple language. First cousin to imagination in preaching is individuality, which brings—in John Arthur Gossip’s words—“the something extra, the touch of you, that is likely to grip the mind.” By using current happenings, real-life situations, and personal references, our Lord elevated the familiar into the fascinating.

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Henry Ward Beecher contended that “a sermon is not like a Chinese fire cracker to be fired off for the noise it makes.” True, but most people go to fireworks displays not for the noise but for the spectacular, colorful show splashed on the black canvass of the night. With each lighting there is suspenseful silence.

In the darkness of the grandstands, groans are heard when there is a dud. Groans, however, are suppressed in the subdued light of a hushed sanctuary when there is a dud in the pulpit. A preacher may sputter and spit fire at the start of the sermon, but if his materials are poorly put together, then nothing interesting happens beyond watching the fuse burn down. Fireworks fail mostly because of packaging. Inspect your sermons carefully, before you light up. Faulty craftsmanship may be behind the fizzles.—The Reverend JOHN LEWIS GILMORE, Worland, Wyoming.

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