Why You Should Build Tension in Your Sermons

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Build Tension

As a preacher, it’s easy to focus on your content and not really consider if your listeners are ready to hear it. 

You’ve been studying your material all week, and you’re totally energized by it. It’s all you’ve thought about for days. You are so excited to finally share these thoughts that are bursting out of you. 

But your listeners aren’t there yet. They walked into church with everything on their minds except your sermon. They have nowhere near the same level of enthusiasm about your topic that you have.

That’s the way it works. You care. They probably don’t.

So what can you do? 

One of the most basic theories of communication is Aristotle’s’ ethos, pathos, logos. This theory suggests that the best public speaking has all three: 

Ethos, a credible speaker

Pathos, a message that moves people at a visceral level
Logos, a message that makes sense

In other words, your listeners are subconsciously requiring three things out of you if they are going to give you the right to speak to them:

You need to be trustworthy.
You need to move my heart.
You need to stimulate my mind.

If you do all three of those things your listeners are much more likely to give you an ear. But the order in which you do these actually makes a difference.

Most preachers, if they do all three, don’t get the order right. They often jump right into the arguments, the propositional truths, the “here’s-what-you-need-to-do” kind of stuff. They do this before they have sufficiently given their audience a reason to listen. These preachers think: If I can just convince them with logic, then they’ll be motivated to action.


The problem is, most of your listeners don’t operate that way. 


Jacquelyn Smith writes a compelling article that discusses the mistakes public speakers make. She says one of the mistakes is being uninspiring:

Even more vital to persuasion than Logos, says Aristotle, is Pathos, which includes the right-brain activities of emotions, images, stories, examples, empathy, humor, imagination, color, sounds, touch, and rapport, Price says. “Tomes of studies show human beings typically make decisions based on emotions first (Pathos); then, we look for the facts and figures to justify it (Logos). Audience members do the same. With your words, actions, and visuals, seek first to inspire an emotion in them (joy, surprise, hope, excitement, love, empathy, vulnerability, sadness, fear, envy, guilt). Then, deliver the analysis to justify the emotion.” 

An engaging, memorable, and persuasive presentation is balanced with both information and inspiration. “It speaks to the head and the heart, leveraging both facts and feelings,” she says.

If your goal in preaching is life-change, then wouldn’t it be better to put some of the pathos ahead of the logos? To get your audience to feel a problem before they know the solution? 

You have to keep in mind that although you are totally convinced of your arguments and why they matter, your audience is not. Take the time to do the hard work of bringing your listeners to the point that they want to listen.  Andy Stanley calls this “building tension” and it is what every good storyteller does. Every good story captures your heart first, and then points you to the solution or resolution

Preaching this way allows God to be the hero of every story. God is the answer to the question, the healer of the pain, the hope for the hopeless situation.

Try this in your next sermon… Before you get to the answer, really set up the problem. Before you get to the facts, truths and arguments make sure you get them to understand why they should care. Why it matters. Put the feel before the know

Present the problem in such a way that everyone in the room feels it. Then let them know what the answer is. The answer is found in Scripture. In Jesus. In the gospel. This approach teaches people to go to God with their real-life problems. In my new book, Preaching Killer Sermons, I build this concept out in a chapter called “Give Them a Reason to Keep Listening: Why Your Listeners Must Feel it Before They Care about it.” Check it out here.

What has worked for you? Have you seen a communicator put the feel before the know? How did it work?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone
Want to improve your preaching?
Subscribe to receive posts via email.
  • Alex

    This is a really nice topic!
    Lane, do you have an example of one of your sermons (or maybe a sermon you recommend) that creates this kind of tension? Perhaps a youtube link or a transcript?
    Best regards from Monterrey, Mexico!

    • Alex,
      Thanks for reading! The best I’ve seen anyone do this is Andy Stanley. His book “Communicating for a Change” teaches you how to do it. For an example of him doing it check out his series called “Free” Here is a link to it: http://www.wecanbefree.org

  • Phil

    Cool! I am a youth pastor who used Orange curriculum for a season, but I still follow their outline which starts with an intro and then ‘tension’! It keeps me focused on what’s the problem God is pointing us to and using me to help find His solution. Good stuff!!

  • Timothy W. Brown

    Yes, the late great Dr. Samuel Proctor’s Homiletical method of dialectical preaching illustrates this. The antithesis is the problem, the issue, the circumstance, the issue at hand, and the thesis: the answer or response to the problem creates the synthesis which is solution, or Nswer to the question.