The moment is here. You have just heard the perfect special music, and everyone is ready to listen to your sermon. All eyes are you – at least for the time being. Here are six tips to help you command and keep everyone's attention for the entire service.
1. Capture attention quickly.
Audiences generally decide very quickly whether they are interested in something. A book must draw readers in within the first paragraph and hook them well before Page 3. That translates into the first two to three minutes of sermon time.
What will capture attention? Present a problem that needs a solution or an apparent contradiction between Scripture and life. Tell a brief story that illustrates the need for the information you are about to deliver. Whatever you use, make it interesting! Here are a few more tips for good writing.
2. Make published illustrations and forwarded stories your last resort.
Illustrations are best when they come from your own life. Your own stories are best because they are yours. Take time to think back over your life and develop your own illustration book. Write some thoughts about stories from your life to jog your memory and be on the lookout for ones happening now. Write them down. Then, when you get preacher's block, draw on bits of your own experience from your personal illustration book.
3. Tell a story.
Stories make complex concepts easier to understand and apply to life. This is why the parables of Jesus are so powerful. He took the deep mysteries of God and explained them in terms of seeds and sibling rivalry.
United Methodist Communications has a great article that delves deeper into this called "How do adults learn?"
4. Confuse your congregation; make people uncomfortable.
Tension, a staple of fiction writers, works just as well for preachers. Introduce tension into your nonfiction sermon by saying something surprising or taking the message in an unexpected direction. You may do this already by using contrasting illustrations that drive home the same main point. Creating tension requires adding a little finesse to the stock "This reminds me of a story..." or "It's like the man who was..."
Author Dan Ariely offers an incredible example of this in his pop-sociology book Predictable Irrational. After telling the story of the marketing of black pearls, he writes, "How did he persuade the cream of society to become passionate about the Tahitian black pearl...? In order to answer this question, I need to explain something about baby geese." Baby geese? At this point, readers may think "I can't wait to see how he relates baby geese to black pearls."
A good transition takes your illustration from blah to fascinating. Creating tension within your message will allow a bit of confusion and discomfort to engage the imagination of the people listening to you.
5. Give your darlings the ax.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch gave one of the best pieces of advice to writers (and pastors) when he said that if something does not serve the main point of a piece or reinforce the plot or message, it has to go.
This is one of the hardest, yet most important, tips to master. No matter how funny it is, no matter how insightful it is, if it takes the message (or the listener) in another direction than you planned, save it for later. The illustration could be the darling centerpiece of an entirely different message.
6. Rewrite and recycle.
First drafts are called first drafts for a reason. Don't worry if it's not perfect. To do your best work, write your message one day, deliver it to yourself the next and then revise, practice it again and maybe rewrite and practice it again before delivery.
One excellent preacher said he only had three great ideas and he had been preaching and refining them for his entire career. Keep writing your best sermons, stories and blogs and recycle your content to reach larger audiences. You may find the 11th draft – or an entirely different communication medium – presents your main point most effectively.
That's it. Do these things, and your preaching will get even better as you develop a critical eye that sees how to avoid having the entire congregation simultaneously checking their watches and cell phones.