The first question every sermon has to answer


16/02/2016 by Chris Green

No matter who makes up you congregation, they all have one question as you begin your sermon; and no matter how you do it, you have to answer it somehow.  Fail to acknowledge the question, and you have set yourself for a long-term battle to win and keep their attention.

I missed this for years.  I would happily write my talk, and then write an introduction which functioned as clearing my throat, getting me to the place where I could say, ‘Please turn to verse 7.’

It was a wasted opportunity.  I should have taken pains to answer the listeners’ question -: but I think if I’d noticed it I would have turned it down. The question looks so trite, and potentially so selfish, that it might look like a false trail for a serious preacher to follow.


Here it is: running through the head of every person in front of you is, ‘Why should I invest the next twenty-five minutes of my life listening to this person?’

Now, if you’ve worked in a really well-taught church, you might doubt this.  You’ll be used to getting up and saying, ‘Please turn to Zechariah chapter 1’, and people do so, willingly and keenly.  So you’ll think that my question is a false one.

But think of the years of sermon listening that have happened before you speak.  Years of clear, compelling and relevant teaching, which have made people come each week, knowing they will be well-fed.  Which means that you have actually answered that question for them: ‘Because I am going to take a part of that Bible you don’t yet understand, and lead you to a place where you delight in Christ as a result of what you’ve seen.’  And because the people have become used to that being delivered week by week, your promise is one that they expect you will keep.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was almost spartan in his weekly introduction. “I should like to call your attention this evening to…”  That was all, every time, as far as I can gather.

Now this is where we need to pay attention – I suspect that MLJ could do that only because of the years of delivering on the promise. The answer to the listener’s question was, “Because I am going to expound Romans 1:8’, and since it was he who made and kept the promise, it was enough.

But transfer that model to St Stick-in-the-Mud’s, Great Snoring (or Backwoods Chapel, Lesser Snoring) and it doesn’t seem to work when Rev. Therestofus gets up to speak.  We say, “I should like to call your attention this morning to…” and people start to imagine how they will be feeding their lawns that afternoon. Or something less gripping.

Now, a tone-deaf preacher would say, “I don’t understand why people don’t like solid Bible teaching down here like they did at Westminster Chapel.” But a more attuned preacher would realise that answering their question with, “Because I’m going to try to imitate Lloyd-Jones” isn’t adequate.

And actually, even Lloyd-Jones was answering the question rather differently.  Let’s start again.

There are basically only three tasks that any Bible passage can accomplish, and most only address one.  These lie beneath the theme sentence or Big Idea of the passage, which show huge variety.

  • What question does this passage answer?
  • What mystery does this message solve?
  • What tension does this message resolve?

Don’t be lazy here.  If you write down: ‘The question is, which king followed Solomon’, or ‘The mystery is, where will Paul eventually go to?, or an equally trivial tension, you have missed the point. These three tasks are universal, cross-cultural, connections with the main thrust of the text.  They are the reason the passage is in your Bible.

So, this is where the introduction for a sermon comes from.  If you front-load the question until people want the answer, or the mystery unit they demand the solution, or the tension until they need a resolution, you will have their attention.

lloyd-jones-copia1And skip over the Doctor’s predictable first sentence, and the hearers would find themselves gripped because there would always be an extended analysis of the direct relevance of passage before them, even as the close reading was done.  His answer to their questions was always, ‘Because you will be gripped by (insert relevant issue here), which is the implication of the section of the Bible I am about to show you.’

So, this Sunday how will you answer their question?



The MLJ Trust has made a vast collection of Lloyd-Jones’ sermons here.


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3 thoughts on “The first question every sermon has to answer

  1. Puddleduck says:

    Thanks Chris really helpful reminder, and particularly relevant in today’s culture
    PS ( I drove through Great Snoring yesterday on my way to a children’s birthday party!)

    • Chris Green says:

      Thanks! Of, course, I wasn’t intending to be Snoringist, nor indeed to imply that I either concur with or condemn the view that the one is, allegedly, ‘Greater’ than the other. In case anyone asks.

  2. Phil S says:

    Helpful reminder Chris. I found ‘Messages that Move’ a really helpful book in thinking through that ‘why would they want to get on the bus with you’ thing. Now I just need to get better at doing it…

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