“The Purpose-Driven Wife” (and other sermon titles)

In all my years of ministry, I have never preached on (never had the courage to preach on?) the Epilogue of the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 31:10-31). But if I ever do, I have the perfect sermon title – “The Purpose-Driven Wife” ! It encapsulates the theme of this section and is certainly more memorable than the NIV’s “The Wife of Noble Character”, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a certain well-known book and course!

Not everyone likes or uses sermon titles. I understand that Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones didn’t, yet it is interesting that the editors of his published sermons usually added a title to each sermon – if for no other reason than to distinguish it from others, rather than just identifying it by the verses or passage on which it was based. I recently reviewed “Born of God”, the latest Banner of Truth publication of his final sermon series at Westminster Chapel. which contains 32 sermons from John 1, ten of them on verse 17, and eighteen of them on verses 12-13.  Most of the titles simply summarise the subject of the sermon – for example, “The Relationship of Law and Grace”, “The Abundant Riches of His Grace”, but a few are somewhat broader – for example, “Facing the Future”,Religion or True Faith?”

The Content Title

The simplest and most common title for a sermon is one that summarises its content: like the section headings in most modern English versions. They usually vary little – especially for narrative passages. For example, the NIV heading at the beginning of John  4 is “Jesus Talks with a Samaritan Woman”,  while the ESV has “Jesus and the Woman of Samaria”. However, while the ESV heading covers verses 1-45, the NIV has two further headings: “The Disciples Rejoin Jesus” (verses 27-38) and “Many Samaritans Believe” (verses 39-42). Even in doctrinal teaching in the epistles,where there might be more scope for variety, there is still a fair degree of uniformity. For example, the NIV introduces Galatians 3 under the heading “Faith or Observance of the Law”,  while the ESV puts it as a question: “By Faith, or by Works of the Law?”  The Good News Bible simply has “Law or Faith”.

This is a fairly random check (which might merit more detailed  research) but the content of a passage is not much of a source (if you will excuse the pun) of contention. And as the title for a sermon, it doesn’t tell the listeners anything more than they can read in the Bibles in front of them. For that we need a different kind of sermon title.

The Creative Title

First and foremost, any title must connect in some way to the main theme, the “big idea”  of the passage in question. Ideally, it should also be something which is memorable or “attractive“. So, for example, I once suggested to a colleague who was preaching on John 4 the title “Thirst things first” (which, perhaps wisely, he didn’t use!) But it does focus on the theme of the conversation between Jesus and the woman – and it is certainly memorable (if difficult to say without practice!)

I have just been in email discussion with John Percival, a former colleague and contributor to “Unashamed Workman”, who has invited me to speak at an evangelistic service at the church where he now ministers. We decided that the incident recorded in Mark 10:17-31 would connect with many of the issues facing people in Hong Kong but for advertising the event, rather than a title like “The Rich Young Man” (NIV & ESV),  a more engaging title would be “The Man who had Everything but lacked Something”.

Titles can be useful in highlighting future sermons and events, especially those such as guest-services. However, the title chosen needs  to be as “inclusive” as possible. I once saw a leaflet for a series in Luke’s Gospel which a new church were distributing in their local community. Inside the attractive cover were the dates with the passage and a title. Luke 8:40-48 was entitled “Woman with haemorrhage”  which, I would suggest, had a limited audience appeal! Something like “Hoping for Healing” or “Getting in Touch with God”  would have attracted a much broader interest.

Some Engaging Examples

One of the best exponents of stimulating titles, especially from the Old Testament, is the American preacher and professor, Dale Ralph Davis. In his book, “The Word Became Fresh – how to preach from Old Testament texts” (Christian Focus Publications, 2006),  he tells how, on the Sunday before one Christmas, he preached on the long lists of genealogies in 1 Chronicles 9 under the title, “A Whole Bunch of Dead Folks for Christmas”!  He comments, “We were, I am confident, the only church in the whole USA that carried 1 Chronicles 9 on its bulletin cover.”

Here are a few of my favourites from his “Looking on the Heart – Expositions of the Book of 1 Samuel”  (Christian Focus publications,1994):

  • 1 Samuel 17 (David &  Goliath): “Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth – Thud!”
  • 1 Samuel 24 (David in the cave with Saul at his mercy): “This is the Day! Or is it?”
  • 1 Samuel 27:1-28:2 (David among the Philistines): “What can a Godless Text teach us?”
  • 1 Samuel 29 (David sent back to Ziklag): “Accepting the Philistines as your Personal Saviour”

Notice in two of the titles the use of questions – questions which are asked of the text and also of the hearer.

Sometimes, a creative title can replace a familiar yet misleading title.  This is especially true of the parables of Jesus. Everyone who has preached on “The Parable of the Sower”  knows that the distinguishing point of the parable is not the sower (or the seed or his sowing method) but the soil, so the title “The Parable of Soils”  is  more accurate. Similarly, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”  is not about one but two sons, the elder of whom (representing the Pharisees) is the main point of the parable. And the main character in the parable is the father which is why (way back, pre-Keller!) I preached on it under the title “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”  (using the secondary meaning of prodigal – “extravagantly generous“) to catch people’s attention.

Jonathan Gemmell, pastor of Bruntsfield Evangelical Church in Edinburgh, recently preached on Mark 13 (“Signs of the End of the Age“) under the title “Is the Fat Lady Warming up?” and entitled a previous sermon on Lot’s Wife “From Sodom to Sodium Chloride“! These kind of titles are not for everyone but once the hearers (and you!) have heard them, they are unforgettable.

Here are a few of my (much more conservative!) examples:

  • “The strength of meekness” (Matthew 5:5)
  • “Back to the future” (Matthew 6:10)
  • “A surprising prayer in a strange place” (Jonah 2:1-9)
  • “The green-eyed monster” (Genesis 37:1-11)
  • “Just say,’No'” (Genesis 39)
  • “From eternity to here!” (John 1:1-18)
  • “Where there’s death, there’s hope” (John 11:1-44)
  • “Give up your great ambitions”  (Jeremiah 45)
  • “War and Peace” (Psalm 2)
  • “24” (Mark 1:21-34)
  • “Closed minds or open mouths?” (Acts 5:17-42)
  • “Can you sing in prison?” (Acts 16:16-40)
  • “People matter more than pigs” (Mark 5:1-20)
  • “The mathematics of a miracle” (John 6)
  • “Forty days with Jesus” (Acts 1:1-5)
  • “The most alarming verses in the Bible” (Matthew 7:21-23)
  • “A tale of two cities” (Acts 17:1-15)

Titles for Sermon Series

When preaching through a book of the Bible, it is often helpful to highlight a title theme for the whole series. The tradition in Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh where I ministered for 17 years, is that we would preach through a book from the Bible for the year, and choose a title and a key verse for the sermon series.

Here are some examples:

  • “Living in Hope” (Jeremiah – key verse 29:11)
  • “Building on the Rock” (The Sermon on the Mount – key verse  Matthew 7:24)
  • “Good News for Bad People” (Romans – key verse  1:16)
  • “The Lion Roars” (Amos – key verse  3:8)
  • “Treasure in Jars of Clay” (2 Corinthians – key verse 4:7)
  • “Shining like Stars” (Philippians – 2:15-16)

(See my “Firm Foundations”, Christians Focus Publications, 2011, for 15 sermon series and over 200 sermon outlines with titles, and the sermon archive on www.charlottechapel.org for over 800 sermons!)

Planning ahead

Although many churches produce a programme card for each “term” giving sermon topics and titles, I have found that, unless I am very familiar with the passages in question or have preached from them before, it is difficult to choose the right title ahead of time. I have tried to do this but often found, when I have done my intensive study in the week before the sermon that there is a better title (based on a different “big idea“) than the one I chose three months previously. For this reason, I would tend to give the passage but no title ahead of time unless it is for a special event. I also find this is a problem as I now preach around churches and in University Christians unions – that I sometimes have to introduce  my sermon explaining why the title they chose for the passage on which they want me to preach is not the best (or even completely misses the point!).

In conclusion

Not everyone has the imagination to think of creative titles, and I see nothing wrong (providing you give due credit – see the recent article on plagiarism) with borrowing a good title from someone else. You may have noticed that some of my titles from above are borrowed from people ranging from William Shakespeare to Leo Tolstoy, and from Charles Dickens to Stephen Spielberg!







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