There is a great scene in Remember the Titans that models what some sermons are like. The scene is a conversation between two football coaches' daughters, Sheryl and Nicky. Nicky is far more interested in accessorizing dolls than football. Sheryl, on the other hand, is oddly obsessed with football. In the stands before a game Sheryl fires away about some of the Titans' players, like she just kicked back two Red Bulls. Nicky's reaction is priceless.
Sheryl: Julius Campbell's playin' strong side linebacker!
Sheryl: He's so good he's got...
Sheryl: ...all-american written all over him! And...
Sheryl: ...Gerry Bertier...
Sheryl pauses, having been continually interrupted by Nicky.
Nicky: I. do. not. care.
Nicky understands English. She might even understand who Sheryl is talking about and what makes a football player good. The problem is that she does not care. It does not matter to her personally. She probably does not know why Sheryl cares. Sheryl does what sermons can do, she assumes Nicky would love to listen. Sheryl first needs to convince Nicky that she should care. She needs to convince Nicky that what she is talking about is important for Nicky to know.
How many sermons have you heard that assumed you cared about the 23, 47, or 62 minutes of content? You could tell the preacher really cared about what he was saying but you could not figure out why it mattered for your life. You may have agreed with everything that was said, you just did not know what it had to do with you. Is it possible that you have preached sermons during which listeners were thinking, "Pastor, I. do. not. care."?
It is easy to understand a biblical text, be moved by it, yet forget to convince listeners that what you are saying matters for them. This is a crucial error to make in preaching because listeners are always asking, "So what? Why should I care, preacher?" As Bryan Chapell puts it, “People have the right to ask, ‘Why did you tell me that? What am I supposed to do with that information? All right, I understand what you say is true—so what?’”.
Have you ever read something in the Bible that you understood but could not figure out why it mattered? You're reading Leviticus. You understand English. You even understand what the texts mean. But for the life of you, you do not see why it matters! Until you find the answer, it is frustrating. If a sermon does not show listeners why the sermon matters to them personally, they have the same experience.
Listeners need to see, early, how a sermon will be helpful to them. One of the best ways to convince listeners that a sermon is designed to help them is to build tension in the beginning of the sermon. The Craft calls this the "So What?" Moment (SWM). The SWM is when listeners' "So what?" question is answered. For instance, let's say the biblical text addresses greed. You could show how we all can be greedy and then ask whether or not there is any way in the world we could fight greed. Listeners are engaged by this: "This sermon matters because I am greedy and I need help. This sermon says it will help."
Think of the beginning of the first Bourne Identity movie. We are introduced to a guy, floating in the ocean, with a chip buried in his skin and an erased memory. All sorts of tension is built. Movie-goers are asking, who is this? What is he doing in the ocean? Why can't he remember who he is? I have to know the answers.
Listeners will be drawn into sermons that begin with tension, addressing the things the Bible addresses in the personal lives of your listeners. If you want to show listeners your sermon is designed to help them, create a SWM (something we will cover on the blog next week). Explicitly or implicitly reveal how the sermon will engage real life here on the ground with the truths of God's Word. God speaks in His Word to bring grace to the intimate details of life. Your sermons should speak this word of grace to your listeners as well.