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Message Titles: Hooks, Lines & Thinkers

By Brian Mavis, SermonCentral.com

A book was written and released with two different titles. They received identical marketing. One was called "The Art of Courtship," the other "The Art of Kissing." Which would you buy (not that you need it)? "The Art of Kissing" outsold "Courtship" by 60,500 to 17,500 copies!(1)

A book titled "Compact Classics" was not selling well. The book was renamed with this provocative title, "The Great American Bathroom Book." The added subtitle was "Single-Sitting Summaries of All-Time Great Books." It went from an obscure reference book to a national best seller within weeks. The demand was so great that they created a series of these books.(2)

A Virginia high school offered a class called "Home Economics for Boys." It generated little interest. The next year it was renamed "Bachelor Living." The result was tremendous: 120 boys eagerly enrolled. The curriculum didn't change, but the image did. It needed a new identity before the boys would identify with it.(3)

Your sermon's title is its identity. If people identify with it, they are more likely to want to hear it. Don't miss this point. Many pastors don't think sermon titles matter. On the contrary, a good title may help give someone ears to hear, and it can even make the difference between someone – especially a seeker – attending your church or not.

We all could use some help with titles. Even John Newton, who penned the most popular Christian song in the entire world, needed help. "Amazing Grace" is a fantastic title, but he named his song "Faith's Review and Expectation". Even this poet could blow it with a title. Here are my Top 10 ideas to take your next sermon title from "O.K." to "Outstanding."

1. THE POWER OF POP CULTURE
Connect to what people are watching and talking about. For example, play off the Survivor phenomenon with a series – "How to Survive Work", "How to Survive Parenting", etc. Or you can have titles like "Protecting Your Torch," "Creating Peace in the Tribe," "Getting Eternal Immunity." "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" titles could be "Is That Your Final Answer?," "Are You Ready for the Hot Seat?," "Who's Your Lifeline?" etc.

2. PLAY WITH WORDS
I had written a sermon about Jacob wrestling with God. My working title was "Jacob Wrestles with God." Pretty clever, huh. I then titled it "Fighting with God." Better. Then I called it "How to Pick a Fight with God and Win." This was even more provocative. Later, I thought about a cultural event that could tie into my sermon – Touched by an Angel. Too mushy for me. But then I played with it and came up with "Punched by an Angel." I had it.

3. PUT CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ON ITS HEAD
This is easy because so much of God's wisdom goes against conventional wisdom – just say it. "Good People Don't Go to Heaven". "God Helps Those Who Can't Help Themselves." "Jesus Is Not a Good Teacher."

4. CALL TO ACTION
Why wait to give your application until you preach? Tell people what God wants them to do in the title. Here are two application titles: "When Wronged, Turn the Other Cheek". "Pray for Someone Who has Hurt You." Someone may miss the point of your sermon, but he won't miss the point in the title.

5. LOOK FOR YOUR TITLE IN SCRIPTURE
There may be a great title hidden in the passage you're preaching. I preached a sermon on how to renew our love from Revelation 2:4-5. The phrase "Do the Things You Did at First" was so captivating that I used it as the title and as a refrain throughout the sermon.

6. SPOTLIGHT THE BENEFITS
Why do people think obeying God is such a drag? Change their perception by highlighting the benefits of obeying God. These titles highlight the benefits of obedience. "Praying Will Bring You Peace." "Forgiveness Frees You From Bitterness." "Sex God's Way is Safe, Satisfying and Sizzling." 

7. SPECIFICALLY SPEAKING
Ironically, the more specific you get the wider and deeper it hits your listeners. "Addiction" is a poor title. "Breaking the Bonds of Addiction" is a good title. But if you preach on "Break the Bonds of Lotto Fever", you just moved from vague helpfulness to "we're going to see what God has to say about this problem in today's society."

8. HOPE SELLS
People today are looking for hope in their lives-they have experienced grief, loss, unmet expectations, broken homes and shattered dreams. Straightforward, hopeful titles like these can be good medicine: "God is Near the Brokenhearted." "God Will Bring Good Out of Your Suffering." "God Has a Hope and Future for You."

9. THE POSITIVE SPIN
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."

10. BY THE NUMBERS
Something as simple as adding some numbers to your title can make it more interesting. Instead of "Ways to Tell Good from Evil," title it "5 Ways to Tell Good from Evil." Instead of "Satan's Temptations," name it "Satan's Top 10."

Conventional wisdom says a sermon title is only good as an advertisement, that it can't help you write a better sermon. Well, it can. I had an ok sermon on renewing our love, but when I found the title "Do the Things You Did at First," it worked its way though my whole sermon and made it far more authoritative and memorable.

When I came up with "Punched by an Angel," it changed my introduction and gave me a cultural reference point to compare and contrast throughout the sermon that engaged my audience. Follow these ten guidelines to help your sermon titles and sermon become more

(1) culturally relevant
(2) memorable
(3) provocative
(4) applicable
(5) authoritative
(6) beneficial
(7) specific
(8) hopeful
(9) positive or
(10) definite

You'll draw a crowd and keep them listening!