The Angel Said, “Hakuna Matata”

That was the title of one of my Advent sermons.

It is a reference to the animated musical, “The Lion King,” which our music director punctuated with an upbeat piano rendition during the sermon.   

I spent a lot of time deciding on a title for that sermon. I always do. It could be that I’m still carrying scars from a little-known reality in the publishing world: authors seldom get to choose titles. That privilege is reserved for the marketing people, who are supposed to know how to choose a title that will get people to buy a book.

Even my chapter titles were subject to a higher authority. I once did a chapter on the DuPont chemical company, which persevered through a series of deadly explosions in the manufacture of gunpowder to become a major U.S. corporation. I titled it, “The Powder of Positive Thinking.” I still have not forgiven the publisher for axing that.

When I think about my experience with titles, it becomes clear to me why a sermon title is so important. Titles are considered a primary marketing tool. That lets you know how important they are in reaching and influencing people. Isn’t the job of a sermon to reach and influence people?

One of the most effective evangelism tools our congregation has is a sign outside of the church. It faces one of the busiest streets in Creston, Iowa. We can put a message on that sign and it will be read by a large percentage of the town’s population, every day. You can’t buy this kind of advertising, and it doesn’t cost a cent.

Many churches use this space to put up clever slogans and sayings with a religious twist. But our e-mail boxes are overflowing with such things. Besides, who can make a persuasive case for the Gospel in a one-line slogan? What I can do with a title is spark curiosity. I can get people asking questions and wondering just what is going on in that building, to the point where they might want to come and take a look.

Because this is an evangelizing tool, most of my sermon titles are directed at those who don’t attend church or do so only sporadically. I try to connect something from their world with something from the Gospel. So I end up with titles like, “The Force Be With You,” “Pumping Iron: Lenten Style,” or “The Art of Bunting.”

I try to arouse curiosity with incongruous titles such as “Banana Slugs & the Bread of Life,” “A Practical Guide to Self-Amputation” and “California Zebras & Grace.”

I try to challenge stereotypes and provoke questions with titles such as “Stewardship: A New Approach to Shakedown Sunday,” “What If We’re Wrong?” and “Does Lady Luck Work for God?”

In some cases, the titles themselves have prompted some serious thought. For example, “Christmas Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” and “Putting the `Christ’ Back in Christian,” have led to some useful discussions during the holiday season.

It is surprising how many times I get approached by community members outside the church who want to know what a particular sermon was about. The one that triggered the most comment was, “What God Did Wrong at Christmas.” There have been people, particularly young people, who hadn’t planned on coming to church but who showed up because they wanted to know why we were talking about “Jedi Mind Tricks.”

I know many pastors do not consider sermon titles important, and some choose not to title their sermons at all. I think that’s a mistake. They say you don’t judge a book by its cover but, let’s face it, people do. Maybe they shouldn’t judge a sermon by its title, but people do. This is a great, vibrant, exhilarating, fascinating, mysterious, and enlightening message we have to proclaim. But who is going to know that if we slap a bland, generic title on it?

While driving in Des Moines during the Iowa State Fair, I saw a board outside a church sporting this sermon title: “Sermon on a Stick.” (If you’ve been to the fair, you know the reference.) I have no idea what that sermon was about. But I really wished I could find out.

I don’t know that my titles would impress the professional marketers any more than my “Powder of Positive Thinking” did. But I try because I am certain it is worth the effort.