Dr. Richard Dawkins, a leading spokesperson for evolution, once remarked on a radio show that most Christians are not very intelligent. He pointed out, for example, that most Christians cannot even name the four gospels of the New Testament. At this point, a listener called in and asked Dawkins whether he was familiar with Darwin’s book The Origin of Species. When Dawkins replied that he was, the listener asked, “Can you tell me the full title of the book?” But Dawkins could not do it! Maybe he could have if the title hadn’t been so long: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Most people do not remember long titles of books or sermons. In fact, for the past forty years of my ministry, my sermon titles have not been longer than three words! The title is the first impression the congregation has of your message. And long titles usually bore the reader, so sermon titles should be short, snappy attention-getters. It has been said that “writing maketh an exact man,” and, for that reason, summarizing a budding sermon into a three-word title really helps pull it all together.
You may not adopt the “three word title” rule, but we all could use some suggestions on selecting titles. As a general rule, a title should be no more than seven words (though I consider even that a little too long). Be succinct. Use an economy of words. Do not try to summarize the entire sermon in the title.
John Newton, who penned “Amazing Grace,” the most popular Christian song in the world, certainly needed help. He originally named his song “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” What a difference a title makes! Even a poet can blow it when it comes to 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. Do not let yourself assume that a sermon title is unimportant. A good title is all it takes to make someone want to listen!
Here are some practical guidelines for developing a sermon title:
Provoke Interest: The sermon title advertises the message by grabbing attention and promoting the content of the sermon. It could be 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 your 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 you reveal its connection to the sermon subject.
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 all aspects of your sermon, including the title. I would recommend that you work from text to title, not the other way around. Avoid fitting the title around a quote or illustration in the sermon; it is much better to anchor it in Scripture.
Be User-Friendly: The title is not for you; it is for the listeners. So choose a title that is meaningful to the audience. Do not assume they will figure out obscure references. Do not be unnecessarily complex.
Do not use technical jargon that only a seminary professor could understand.
Do Not Over-Sell: The sermon title should accurately represent the content; it should not “bear false witness.” In other words, the title should not make promises the sermon will not fulfill. It should not raise questions the sermon will not answer. It should not 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 sermon to what people are talking about and watching. For example, play off the Survivor phenomenon with a series such as “Survive Your Work” or “How to Survive Parenting.” Or use titles like “Be a Millionaire” or “That’s Your Final Answer?”
Be Practical: Is the title clear? Does it relate to everyday life? Is it culturally relevant? Using sermon titles that appeal to needs is not shallow—it is strategic.
Highlight the Benefits: People sometimes think it is boring to obey God. Change their perception by highlighting the benefits. Titles that highlight the benefits of obedience are “Sex: Safe, Satisfying, and Sizzling,” “God’s Unfailing Promise,” or “Love is the Answer.” Focus on Jesus and the benefits of the gospel!
Emphasize the Positive: Understandably, people do not like to hear bad news. If your sermon identifies a problem, use the title to highlight the solution. For example, instead of naming your sermon “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 address a series of related questions, issues, or Bible texts. Consider these ideas for series themes:
- Questions I’d Like to Ask God.
- Three Minutes with Moses (and other Bible characters).
- If Our Church Were a Football Team, Would We Make the Playoffs? (characteristics of a winning team).
- What Do Atheists Believe?
- Unsolved Mysteries (if the television show by that name were to go to the Bible, what mysteries could they use to make a great series of programs?).
Remember: 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, USA. This article was first published in Best Practice (March 22, 2018) and has been lightly edited for Elder’s Digest.