Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 27, 2017

Start the Sermon with … Nothing!

Someone asked me recently, “Does the Seminary teach pastors how to capture people’s attention at the start of the sermon?” Fortunately, the question was not a subtle criticism (as in “Hey, can you stop putting me to sleep in the first minute?”). But the question did get me to launch on one of my personal liturgical hobby horses, and since this is an issue that has come up several times in recent conversations, it’s probably worth sharing with a larger audience. So here it is!

When The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) was the main worship book in the pews of WELS congregations, it was fairly common that the congregation stood after the pre-sermon hymn, that the minister spoke a pulpit greeting (such as Philippians 1:2), and that he announced and read the Bible reading that was the basis for that day’s sermon (i.e. the “sermon text”). In some cases, a prayer was also spoken before the congregation sat down again and the pastor began the actual sermon, usually with another greeting such as “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ.”

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The pulpit in the Chapel of the Christ at Martin Luther College (New Ulm, MN)

Part of the reason for this practice may have been the simple fact that the days of TLH were also the days of the one-year lectionary with only two readings per Sunday. Many pastors, looking for more homiletical options than the two readings that were just used 12 months ago, preached on other Scripture selections besides those already read in the service. So it made sense to read the sermon text at the start of the sermon, and, for reasons I won’t get into here, there was also some ceremony around that reading, noted above. (As a side note, TLH also prescribed a post-sermon pulpit blessing: the congregation stood and the minister spoke Philippians 4:7 before the congregation sang its response to the Word of God with a musical setting of Psalm 51:10-12).

Christian Worship does not prescribe any sort of pre- or post-sermon ritual, and so some of what is described above has changed since the days of TLH. My experience has been that few congregations stand anymore at the start of the sermon for the reading of the text. Pastors often preach on a lesson that they read earlier, and so they aren’t rereading the text, but only mentioning the Bible reference and perhaps rereading a key verse or two. But some of the TLH pre-sermon ceremony still remains in several settings.

I’m obviously all for beneficial ceremony and ritual in worship! But I question whether the start of the sermon is the place for retaining these TLH-era customs. Without suggesting that there was anything wrong or improper with those customs, I’d argue that it may be better to set those previous customs aside: 

  1. If we look at the service as a whole instead of as several individual parts, one can argue that some of the sermon rituals of the past are redundant. We already greeted the congregation — informally, at the start of the service (“Good morning! Welcome to Crown of Life Lutheran Church.”), and formally, at the start of the “Word” portion of the service (M: The Lord be with you. C: And also with you.). Another greeting isn’t really needed. In fact, the same could be said for the pre-sermon pulpit prayer (often a recasting of Psalm 19:14) and the post-sermon pulpit blessing (known as the “votum”). The Prayer of the Day already introduced the readings and asked for God’s blessing and guidance related to the specific thoughts contained in those readings. The entire service will conclude with the Aaronic Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26). So seeing the service as a whole, one can argue that these sermon-related items are redundant — not bad, but unnecessarily repetitive given the larger context of the entire service.
  2. The shift to the three-year lectionary and the corresponding shift to regular preaching on the liturgical lessons means that, unless the pastor is truncating the Word section of the service, the Bible reading for his sermon has already been read as one of the day’s lessons. So there’s no need to reread the text if it has already been read. If the pastor wants to read it again, or if his text is something other than one of the day’s regular readings, he can work it in at the end of his introduction: e.g. “The questions we have just asked will be answered for us in today’s Second Lesson, from Romans 8:1-10. Listen once more to Saint Paul’s words.”
  3. Standing for the sermon text might confuse the purpose of another more long-standing custom (no pun intended!), to stand for the Gospel. In the Liturgy, after we hear the First Lesson point forward in time to Christ and the Second Lesson point back in time to Christ, we stand to hear of the One to whom all Scripture points as we hear Jesus’ words and works in the Gospel. Let this well-established custom continue, but don’t confuse its purpose by having the assembly stand for the (re)reading of another lesson just a few minutes later.

So why all these arguments against pre-sermon ceremonies? It’s not because those customs were a problem, but because we may actually gain something by dropping them — and what we gain is the attention of our people at the moment we want to grasp it most, the start of the sermon. Think about the difference:

  • Situation A: The hymn ends. The congregation stands. The minister says, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text for today is the Gospel account for the Second Sunday of Easter, taken from the Gospel of St. John in chapter 20, verses 19 to 31. Listen again to the final two verses of the reading: ‘Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ So far the Word of God. Let us pray. ‘May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.’ Amen.” The congregation sits. After pausing for a few seconds, the minister says, “Dear brothers and sisters of Christ, fellow redeemed.” And then the actual sermon starts — finally!
  • Situation B: The hymn ends. The minister pauses a few seconds as people put their hymnals away and settle into their seats. And the sermon immediately starts with the pastor’s opening paragraph.

What have we gained when we’ve cut so much out? We’ve gained the congregation’s attention! We’ve eliminated redundant features in the service that may cause people to tune out because of their redundant familiarity. We can capture the assembly’s focus after a few moments of silence with an attention-grabbing opening statement. And in this era where services are supposed to last no longer than 60 minutes, we’ve just reduced the service by a minute or two–and therefore also reduced reasons for cutting out other parts of the service. (I’m convinced that we can shorten a communion service by four or five minutes simply by being more efficient with the collection of the offering and the distribution of the Sacrament, and by eliminating any liturgically redundant features of the service like the ones described here).

So if you want to capture the attention of the congregation when you start your sermon … just start your sermon! No extra ritual or reading is necessary. Nothing else needs to be inserted before paragraph number one. Just start your sermon — with “nothing!”

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Responses

  1. Well said. Short and sweet wins the day! And the congregations attention in today’s short-attention-span culture.

  2. Not meaning to be contrarian, but I can give you a “modern” reason for re-reading the text before the sermon begins: When the sermon is being distributed by audio or video, anyone hearing it through those media will not have had the advantage of listening to the text before they begin hearing the sermon (and few people listening to a podcast are going to take the trouble to pause the audio and look up the text before continuing with the sermon).

  3. In those cases, you can still have your cake and eat it too. Start the sermon as described in this post, and let the introduction lead into the (re)reading of the text. The spoken text then becomes a sort of transition between the introduction and the first main part of the sermon.


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