You’re boring and everyone hates you…at least that is how it feels when you deviate far enough away from your sermon’s Scripture to lose the focus of your congregation. Your intentions were good: you were trying aright a theological wrong that you thought was prevalent (it was not), or trying to answer a question people were internally asking (they were not). The brief tangent you chased was interesting to you, but the sudden reflection of cell phone light against downward drifting faces indicates you were the only one to find it interesting. Even your wife took it as an opportunity to discreetly get on the wait list at Chili’s before the Methodists. Your time is short and you still have content to cover. The final verse of the passage is so critical to their lives and the stakes are so high. You must recapture their attention to the Bible, but how do you do it?
You look to your final point in your outline and then “interrupt” yourself with a personal story that builds a bridge to that final point.
I have seen this work. If the crowd has written you off and is already thinking about Chili’s Southwestern Egg Rolls, then you will likely not get them back at your current homiletical pace. Have the painful self-awareness to know that what you have been doing has not been communicating well and then make a change. Read the body language of the crowd and sense when they subtly indicate to you that your window of time to convey God’s Word is closing. Their minds are willing, but their bodies are weak, so make the absolute most of those final few minutes.
This can be painful because it often means skipping content that was precious to you. However, crowds do not usually exhibit his kind of disengagement until you are closing in on their conditioned “end time” for a sermon anyway.
It is better to prioritize your final minutes on urgent gospel-centered application and a personal story that starts suddenly is a perfect transition to that end. It should feel a bit abrupt. It should feel a little jarring. After all, you are shaking them awake with a deliberately disjunct pacing device. Stop what tangent you are chasing and turn directly to that personal story with a rhetorical question, or a “teaser” at how the brief story will end. I promise that you will see every eye in the room return to you. When those eyes return, direct them to the Word of God and drive the message of Scripture home.
Here are random examples of such intentionally disruptive segues:
- “Can I tell you a quick family story?”
- “Has anyone else ever been so mad that you could just…”
- “I once choked a llama. Here’s why.”
Each of them is infinitely better than the trite, “As we close…” which is too often uttered twenty full minutes from the actual close. If you have your family’s blessing, consider a family story you can share without rehearsing that relates in some way to your final point. Then, let it flow naturally. You might even find that the Spirit uses it to better illustrate what you had planned!
You cannot always measure your effectiveness based on crowd engagement. You cannot know what is happening in people’s hearts. However, you can know whether or not people are typically more engaged with you and you can then make an extemporaneous adjustment. If a portion of your message is visibly causing people to disconnect, then it may be better to abandon it and swiftly change direction. After all, you have only so many minutes per week before God’s people and stewarding that time well means knowing when you are diminishing its returns with your words.
Opt instead to maximize the return and do not waste a moment. Interrupt yourself with a story that brings the sermon to your closing point. If you finish a little early, there will almost definitely be no complaints! After all, that would give you more time at Chili’s with your bride.
Until recently, Jesse Campbell was Lifeway’s Brand Manager for Explore the Bible. He now serves as the Lead Pastor at Highlands Community Church in Renton, WA.
Featured image credit, edited.