Home Pastors Articles for Pastors Why Most Sermons Fail in the First 5 Minutes

Why Most Sermons Fail in the First 5 Minutes

The preacher walks to the pulpit. He’s got his notes. He knows the Greek, the Hebrew, the narrative flow, the syllogisms, the symbolism and, hopefully, the main point. He opens his mouth, he gives a bit of background and then …

they’re gone.


Because he broke the five-minute rule. Not the one about leaving if your professor doesn’t show up after five minutes, because that one self-destructs after college. The other five-minute rule, which is this: If I don’t absolutely need to hear what you’ll say after five minutes, I won’t listen.

The Space Cowboy for Experimental Chimps

Think of it this way. You are a space cowboy. You are preparing to launch a rocket. You have spent three years making the necessary calculations—one inch off, and you’ll end up miles from your target. The spaceship is duly aimed.

It’s launch day. You step into the spacecraft. But you have one final task: you still need to get all the experimental space chimps on board.

You might say, “But the rocket is aimed properly, nothing else needs to be done.” Well, if you’re working with professionals, that may be true. But you’re not. You’re working with space chimps. And now, all of your brilliant expertise concerning the navigational trajectory of space crafts needs to be set aside because, after all, the mission is wasted if you don’t get the space chimps aboard.

Now you see the analogy. Jesus said we are like sheep; I’m being modern, so I say we’re like space chimps. The pastor’s spent all week getting the trajectory right—but if he doesn’t take the first five minutes to get the chimps on board, it’s all a waste.

And that requires meeting the space chimps where they are. It requires speaking their language (work with me here). It requires dangling the banana before their eyes, so they’ll get on the ship. And if you start pressing buttons and firing cylinders and barking orders before everyone’s on board, you’re going to be a lonely space cowboy.

What this means, humanly speaking, is that before we hear what the preacher says about the text, we have a hook. And by “hook” I don’t mean a cutesy story you found in the 1984 version of “Sermon Illustrations for Absolutely Desperate Pastors With No Creative Bandwidth and Little Shame.” I mean HOOK, as in, Hook, Line and Sinker. A hook is not a suggestion. It is not an invitation. A hook forces my eyes on you—I cannot look away because I absolutely need to hear what you’ll say next.

And if you don’t do that in the first five minutes—well, have a nice boat ride, but you’re not catching any fish.

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Nicholas McDonald is husband to lovely Brenna, father to Owen and Caleb, M.Div student at Gordon Conwell Theological seminary and youth/assistant teaching pastor at Carlisle Congregational Church. He graduated with his Bachelors in Communication from Olivet Nazarene University, studied literature and creative writing at Oxford University, and has spoken internationally at camps, youth retreats, graduations, etc. He blogs about writing, preaching and the arts at www.Scribblepreach.com, which has been featured on The Gospel Coalition, Knowlovelive.org and Challies.com. He currently resides in South Hamilton, MA.