In the Beginning: How to Start your Sermon

Here is a piece I recently published online:

You’ve been thinking about your sermon for a week. Maybe two. You’ve settled on your theme. Done some research. You have a string of ideas that you’re confident will work in the middle of your sermon. But to get to those, you need to write your opening. It has to be a great opening, too. The only part that’s harder to construct than your opening is your closing -- and that’s a subject for another time!

Here are three ways to begin your sermon:

Start with a short story or anecdote that relates to your overall message. Be as provocative, dramatic, or surprising as you can. The goal of your first few paragraphs is to hook your audience the same way a good short story hooks its readers. You have a message for them, words and guidance you want them to take home. If you want them to pay attention for the next fifteen to 45 minutes, you need to invite them into your sermon as soon as possible. That’ll happen if your opening is strong and attention worthy.

Start with a news story that relates to your message. There’s no shame in a Google search that leads you to a feature in The New York Times, Washington Post, or your local newspaper. Remember to attribute your story to its source, especially if you use a direct quote.

Start with a personal story.  The best sermons are compelling, memorable and personal. A personal story gives your congregation an insight into who you are deep down. It adds dimension to you as a leader. It tells them you’re human. Strange and wonderful things happen to you on an average day… Tell them!

Now here are a few thoughts on openings I don’t recommend you try. These are not hard and fast rules, just suggestions from someone who coaches clergy and sits in the pews.

 “Have you ever wondered if you were prophet?” Don’t ask closed-ended questions. It’s too easy for your congregation to reply “No” and tune you out. Even the best questions are tough for someone to answer and stay engaged. You’re asking them to do too much work for the beginning of the sermon. Make them work a little bit later, after you’ve hooked them.

 “Imagine you’re taking a hike on an October morning. Suddenly a bush on your path bursts into flame and you hear a voice…” Don’t ask your audience to pretend. It belittles them. Give your audience a concrete idea, not a “for instance.” Tell them something memorable that will energize them. You don’t have to hit them over the head but do make them think.

“This week we’re going to discuss…” Sermons aren’t lectures. No one wants to hear a cold, uninspired speech. You don’t have to be warm and fuzzy all the time either. Be the kind of teacher who connects to a congregation with warmth.

Don’t be afraid to give your audience something new to think about right up front. In fact, some of the best sermons I’ve heard started with an unexpected situation, a new way of thinking, an old idea turned on its head.

Summer, 1992. Cape Cod. I was 3 years old. Once a year, my parents would deflate the car tires and we would drive right on the sand, to the very tip of Cape Cod. The drive would take about an hour, a lifetime to a 3 year old. I got into my car seat, and promptly passed out. Once we arrived, my dad woke me. “We’re here Eliana. Time to wake up.” I opened my eyes. Towering before me was a lighthouse. I looked at my dad and asked, “Are we where God lives?”

That’s how Eliana Fischel’s opened her senior sermon, the one she gave at Hebrew Union College. She’ll be ordained as a rabbi next year and she’s already a gifted writer and speaker.

Her opening is personal and surprising. It also tells a story that engages me right away.

Here’s another example of a great opening, written by Rabbi David Levy.

David was restless. It was summer, and everyone was out of town. He couldn’t sleep, so he got out of bed and wandered to the window. Down below, on the terrace, a beautiful woman was bathing on a hot summer night. In that moment, he wanted her, and being a man in power, that wasn’t a problem: he had her and sent her on her way. A month later, he had a bigger problem than insomnia: this married woman was now pregnant with King David’s child.

Rabbi Levy opens with an old story told in contemporary language. It feels fresh and immediate. I want to hear what comes next. I’m hooked!

Years ago I worked for the Chairman of J. Walter Thompson North America. You may know him as James Patterson, the author of dozens of best sellers. When I worked for Jim, he had a sign on his door that was both an invitation and a prayer. I think about that sign whenever I begin a new play or musical or essay. The sign said:

SURPRISE ME

That’s what I want you to do. Surprise and engage your congregants at the beginning of your sermon. Make them sit up and want to listen.

The Art of Rewriting

This past February and March I taught The Art of Rewriting at the Dramatist Guild Institute. On the last day of class I asked my students, all smart and talented and generous, to tell me six things they'd learned during the six weeks of class. I wanted to make sure they'd learned SOMETHING, it was important to me that they took a few nuggets away. So we started. They called out words and phrases and I wrote them down with a blue marker on a large white board. Here's the first side of the board. As you can see, we got to seven...

But they kept calling out what they'd learned and luckily there was another side of the board and it was empty. So I filled that up, too.

We got to fourteen and then we stopped. And then we added one more before we left the room. It was a good class. I'm teaching again in May and June. Email me if you're interested in taking part.

The Audience

Originally printed in The Dramatist

Denver Center Theater, a cold January night. The last preview for INANA has ended. A museum curator has fallen deeply and unexpectedly in love.  An artist has given up his life’s work in exchange for his daughter’s safe passage out of the country. A wife has complained that her husband is in love with another woman. All the characters are Iraqi.
The audience files into the lobby. I am standing in the back. A wide-eyed woman approaches me. She asks if I’m the author. I tell her yes. She says to me, “I had no idea. They’re just like us.”