The Chattanooga Times-Free Press runs a listing of churches and sermon titles on its religion page as a service to the community. In addition, they pull out the sermon titles with the most interesting titles and list them in a side bar. I once said that it would be embarrassing to have a sermon title there, because of some of the titles that I have seen. But last week, for Easter, my sermon, “If I Should Wake Before I Die,” a message on Lazarus’ resurrection scene in John 11, made the cut. The title came from a little story and booklet produced by Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie, former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate and former pastor of the historic Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Later I also learned that Tony Campolo had a sermon by the same title. A little googling helped to discover that it was also the title of an episode of Little House on the Prairie. So much for my “award winning” title. Well, how do you name sermons? In case a seminarian is reading, or another pastor who might be interested in how I would do it, I now offer my two cents worth (although it won’t guarantee that you make the Best Titles sidebar in your local paper). First, I usually find the title from the transition sentence of the sermon. This sentence is located just after the proposition and before launching into the “Body” (the principles, explanation, illustration and application of the Scripture). For instance, if the transition statement is:
“This portion of God’s Word in John Chapter Eleven offers at least five principles for how to find new life in Jesus Christ” then I have several opportunities for finding a name. The transition sentence, on which all of the rest of your material hangs, is, for me, the most useful resource for naming sermons. You really don’t have to go any further than that. So, working off of that transition, we might call that sermon, “New Life in Christ,” or “Five Steps to a New Life.” Often times this is where I stop. Like putting on special clothes for Easter, though, I decided to go one step further, and “dress up” the title. Dressing it up does make it more interesting, hiding some of your thoughts for later, and perhaps even inviting some curiosity. If it is too “cute,” however, it backfires and disconnects from the message. This is the reason why I had said that I would be embarrassed to have my sermon title in the paper, precisely because of the “cuteness” factor. Remember, it is all about being a messenger boy carrying a “Message from Another World” (a great phrase from the writings and ministry of my old theology professor, Dr. Robert L. Reymond). Nothing must distract from the message, even the title. So, to dress it up, I named the sermon, “If I Should Wake Before I Die.” In that case, the name came, not only from my transition about being born again, through grace, by faith in Jesus Christ as the resurrected and living Savior, but also from my opening illustration. And that illustration was, in fact, based on the wonderful story told by Dr. Ogilivie (I changed the story slightly to focus more on the Fallen Condition Focus [see Robert Rayburn’s method expertly taught by Bryan Chapell in his Christ-Centered Preaching] of the passage and my listeners [and self]; “homiletical license is another “blog lessons!”). So, that is how I name a sermon. But in the end, you will often find that your people will name the sermon for you. We all know that listeners take away an illustration more than anything else. And this is ok, if that illustration is connected to the Scripture, which alone brings life. When their “take away” and your title have matched somewhat, you can be sure that you had the right title.
Well, I must go now. I have a wedding sermon to produce. I am going to Ephesians 5 and the picture that God gives of how His grace and love (5.1,2) is pictured as Christ and His Bride, the Church, in the lives of wives and husbands (21-33). Marriage is perfected by imitating God in His picture given in Ephesians Chapter Five. I am naming the sermon, “Picture Perfect.” By the way, that is a shot of my wife in a beautiful summer field. And for me that is picture perfect!