On the very first Sunday the congregation wants to know a few things about you, but the really important thing is what all parishioners want to know: “Do you love me?” No matter what else you say in your first sermon, you must say “I Love You!”, and everything about the service has to say it.
The old understanding is that you have three seconds to make a first impression. In truth, that’s both too long and too short. People will form a first impression of you in less than a second. The very first impression people will have is based on a set of information they have in their minds about trustworthy people. If you are absolutely average in every way, you get a pass. If you are abnormally tall, short, heavy, skinny, or have green hair – it will make an impression instantly and you will be lumped with all the people who have those characteristics in their past.
But you are the pastor they have come to hear. The question in everyone’s mind is simple: “Will I give up an hour on Sunday morning to listen to this person?” And they will give you sixty minutes to decide. All sixty minutes are important, but the twenty or so when you preach are critical.
A. The Service
If you intend to change the order of worship the very first week, tell them why. Explain in your most humble tones, and in less than a minute, yet with sincere and deeply held theological convictions, why it is important to you that they worship with you in this way. People will go a long way with you if you explain why you are doing something. If you just change it and assume they will be fine with it, you are telling them that you don’t care what they think. Even if they are prone to like the change, they will be unhappy that they were not informed. Talk to them. Tell them why.
At one church I served, I had an instant dislike for the way the chancel was laid out. It was awkward and difficult to use. It was also just esthetically displeasing to the eye and theologically Old Testament. I asked the chair of Trustees whether I could move things around (fortunately all the furniture was mobile). One of the moves was to bring the communion table forward from the back wall, where it was used as an altar, to the front of the chancel where it was clearly a table. The first week I explained why I had felt the need to do so. At the close of service I got no complaints from anyone. Later in the week an older member came into the office with a picture of the architect’s drawing of the original chancel; it was exactly as I had laid it out. The move made everyone happy. But if I hadn’t taken the time to explain, I would have heard some complaints.
B. The Sermon
This might seem obvious, but many pastors today preach from the common lectionary and will preach on the first Sunday from one of those scriptures. While I realize there are a lot of resources to help you with the construction of a great sermon, that’s not what people really want to hear from you on day one.
- Tell them what is most important about your faith in Jesus Christ. You don’t need to tell them about your call, or your history, or your hobbies, though you can do so if you want if it helps you explain that you know that Jesus loves you, and because of that you love them. Make sure you tell them in clear and certain terms: God loves them and so do you.
- Tell them that you are happy to be there with them. (And you must believe this with all your heart – even if yesterday you were not happy; on your first Sunday you must be happy to be there.)
- Tell them you are going to lead them forward. Be fearless. No matter what the past has taught them and you, this is a new day, and God can do new things in a new day. Let them know that you understand that all of you must be on the same team and work toward the same ends. Tell them that you will be listening to them and to God as you decide together the directions in which God is calling you to go as a team.
Then having said those things, exemplify them; as you meet them in the narthex, on the patio, in Fellowship Hall, at the super market, at school plays, let them know that you love them. Preach that first sermon as often as you can.
But, make sure you tell them firmly on your first Sunday.
Preach a great first sermon.