Some time ago Dr. Richard Dawkins, a leading spokesperson for evolution, was answering questions on the BBC network. It was then that he remarked that Christians are usually not very intelligent people. He pointed out, for example, that most Christians can't even give the names of the four Gospels in the New Testament. At this point a listener called in and asked Dawkins whether one of his favorite books to read was probably Darwin's book The Origin of Species. When Dawkins said that it was, the listener asked him, "Can you tell me the full title of the book?" Dawkins couldn't do it—maybe he could have done it if the title hadn't been so long. By the way, the full title of the book is: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Nobody tends to remember long titles, be they of books or sermons.
For that reason I'm going to let you in on a little secret: During the past forty of ministry, my sermon titles haven't been longer than three words! That's because long titles usually bore the reader. Sermon titles should be short, snappy attention getters. Face it! It's the first impression the congregation will get of your message. It's been said: "Writing maketh an exact man." And for that reason, summarizing a budding sermon into a three-word title really helps me to put it all together.
Maybe you won't adopt a three word title, but admit it—all of us need help in selecting titles. As a general rule, it's been said a title should be no more than seven words. But I consider that a little too long! Be succinct. Use an economy of words. Don’t try to summarize the entire sermon in the title.
John Newton, who penned the most popular Christian song in the world, certainly needed help. "Amazing Grace" is a fantastic title, but he originally named his song "Faith's Review and Expectation." What a difference a title makes. Even a poet can blow it in finding an appealing title.
Your sermon's title is its identity. If people identify with it, they are more likely to want to hear it. But for people to be attracted to your message, the title must first capture their attention. Don't think for a moment that a sermon title doesn't matter. The truth is—a good title is all it takes to give someone a desire to listen!
Here are some practical guidelines in developing a sermon title:
Provoke Interest: The sermon title advertises the message by grabbing someone attention. It's the logo that promotes the content of the sermon. It's been said that the title is the sermon concealed and the sermon is the title revealed. Since the title and sermon are so closely linked, give careful thought to the name you give the message. Craft the title skillfully. Be original. Practice clarity. Use subtlety. Emphasize mystery. Spark curiosity. Choose a title that holds the congregation’s interest until they tie the title to the sermon.
Emphasize Scripture: Sermon titles may come to you at any time during the preparation process. But remember: Preach the word, not your sermon title. The text and its message should have priority in the sermon, including the title. I would recommend that you go from text to title, not the other way around. Don’t tie the title around a quote or illustration in the sermon. Much better to anchor it in the text.
Be User-Friendly: The title is not for you; it's for the listeners. So choose a title that is meaningful to the audience. Don’t assume they will figure out obscure references. Don’t be unnecessarily complex. Don’t use technical religious jargon that only you and your seminary professor understand.
Don’t Over-Sell: The sermon title should accurately represent the content of the sermon. The title should not bear false witness. In other words, it shouldn't make promises the sermon will not fulfill. It shouldn't raise questions the sermon will not answer. It shouldn't suggest problems the sermon will not solve. Be honest. Make sure the sermon delivers what the title advertises.
Utilize Pop Culture: Connect your title, and your sermon, to what people are watching and talking about. For example, play off the Survivor phenomenon with a series – " Survive your Work," or "To Survive Parenting." Or you can have titles like," "Do You Understand?" "Be a Millionaire" or "That's Your Final Answer?"
Be Practical: Is the title clear? Does the title relate to everyday life? Is it culturally relevant? Using sermon titles that appeal to felt needs isn’t being shallow; it’s being strategic.
Spotlight the Benefits: Why do people think obeying God is such a drag? Change their perception by highlighting the benefits of obeying God. Titles that highlight the benefits of obedience are Sex: "Safe, Satisfying and Sizzling," "God's Unfailing Promise," or "Love's the Answer." Focus on Jesus and the benefits of the Gospel!
A Positive Spin: Is the title good news? People don't want to hear bad news - can you blame them? If your sermon identifies a problem, highlight the solution. For example instead of having a sermon called "The Debt Trap," call it "Escape the Debt Trap." Other titles that reflect the positive are "It's Party Time," and "Promises of Success."
Make a Series: Sermons can be arranged to deal with series of questions, issues, or Bible texts. For example: 1. “Questions I’ve Wanted to Ask God” 2. Three Minutes with Moses or other Bible characters and apply the same question. 3. If the Church was a Football Team— which ones would make it to the playoffs? What characteristics would winning team have? 4. What are the Beliefs of an Atheist? 5. Unsolved Mysteries—If the TV show by that name were to go the Bible, what mysteries could they use to make a great series of programs?
Remember: always use a wide variety of titles, questions, and Bible texts!
Gordon Kainer is a writer, speaker, and retired academy Bible teacher living in Grants Pass, Oregon