How to Keep Sermon Listeners on the Edge of their Seats: Why You Should Build Tension into Every Sermon

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The Israelites crave freedom.

Pharoah won't give it to them.

Will the Israelites escape?


A Psalmist is desperate for safety.

None is at hand.

Who will help?


The Samaritan Woman yearns for the water that will keep her alive.

Jesus seems to know where that water is. 

Will the Samaritan Woman "get" it?


Tension keeps us reading, watching, or listening. 

Think about any book or movie that kept your attention.

  • There's a need... a desire, wish, want, hope
  • that's blocked... thwarted, redirected, obstructed, obscured
  • which creates a questionIf? Who? How? When?
  • Questions create tension...suspense, anticipation, dissonance, uncertainty
  • that we need resolved....settled, resolved, determined, answered

which keeps us on the edge of our seats.

In fact, tension is the foundation of any story.

Scripture follows this pattern, too. 

Scripture hands us the tension we need to keep listeners on the edge of their seats, eager for the tension to be resolved by Good News. Because Scripture is full of stories.

So how do you identify the tension in the lesson in order to keep your listeners wondering what happens next?

Ask these five questions:


1) What's the need or wish?

What do the characters want or need?

What aspect of the God News do they crave, even if they don't know it yet themselves?


2) What blocks that need from being met or prevents the wish from being fulfilled?

Is it a person, like Pharaoh?

Why is that character thwarting the other's need?


Is it the human heart?

Is there a lack of trust or faith, or looking in the wrong place for help, like the Psalmist?

Is it our desire for control and power?

Is it that we don't trust that we're lovable?


Is it culture or tradition that gets in the way?

Samaritans aren't supposed to talk with Jews, and women aren't supposed to talk with men alone.

The laborer last to the fields shouldn't be paid as much as the ones who arrived earlier in the day.

"You have heard it said, but I say to you..."


Is God the problem?

Jonah is certain God shouldn't help the Ninevites; they aren't worth it.

Jesus often doesn't give straight answers.

Sometimes people respond, "This saying is hard," as if God asks too much of us.


3) What's at stake if the need isn't obtained or the wish fulfilled?

In other words, what bad thing happens if they don't get what they want? What's the source of stress/anxiety/fear?

  • Will the Israelites get away? How will they defeat Pharaoh and his army? Will they remain slaves forever?
  • The Psalmist is painted into a corner. No human help is available. Who's left to assist? Will he live or die?
  • The Samaritan Woman needs water to live. Will she find the source of eternal water that Jesus knows about? Or will she always go alone to the well and hope it contains enough water to slake her thirst?


4) What's the resolution?

What happened? How is the story resolved?

  • The Israelites flee miraculously through the Red Sea. (They got away! That was close!)
  • The Psalmist finds God to comfort in time of need. The Psalmist's faith grows. God is the best source there is, better than human help.
  • The Truth slowly dawns on the Samaritan Woman. She finally understands and finds the true source of living water. (Whew! I thought she'd never get there!) 


5) What's the Good News?

The Israelites are given their freedom in and from God. 

The Psalmist reminds us that God is with us, always, even when we forget that for a while.

The Samaritan Woman teaches us that Jesus is the living water given to us perpetually.


Then, based on what you identified in the scripture lesson, ask these questions of us.


Based on the lesson:

1) What need or wish do we have?

2) What's blocking us from receiving it? 

3) What bad thing will happen if we don't receive it?

4) Can it be resolved? 

Is there a solution? (Of course there is a solution in God, but that's part of the tension; to make us feel as though there's no way out of the situation.)

So if a resolution is possible, then how? What is it?

5) What's the Good News?


A sermon can produce a lot of tension if you follow this pattern. Generally, a story follows this order from one through five, but the steps can also be mixed up...with one exception.

I recommend (strongly) that the resolution and Good News are not offered until close to the end. 

If the resolution is offered up front (that includes sermon titlesthen listeners know the end of the story. That's like telling them the end of the movie or "whodunnit" at the start of the crime novel. This spoiler lets most of the air out of the balloon. There's little tension left to maintain interest.

Otherwise, these questions can be described and the tension built up in any order.

No matter how these questions are presented, they keep us on the edge of our seats, and we are ready and grateful to have the tension resolved and to receive the Good News when it is revealed at last.

And that's how you keep your Listeners on the edge of their seats.

Be Good News to Preach Good News,


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