Honing Your Sermon’s “Act 2”

From blockbuster movies to Broadway plays, most presentations come down to three “acts”. Act 1 is the introduction. Where did this come from? You can probably thank Aristotle who put forth the idea that “A whole is what has a beginning, middle and end”. Now the drama people will clearly tell you that a dramatic arc has five acts, not three. But that’s just semantics. Three acts—beginning, middle and end—makes total sense to all of us who do not live in Hollywood.

During Act 1 you learn who the characters are, flaws and all, what the basic plot line is, and the problem our hero will have to tackle. Act 3 of course is the resolution. It’s got the big production number, or it’s where are all the special effects dollars are spent. Act 3 wraps everything up in nail-biting fashion, and sometimes leaves room for a sequel.

But Act 2—the middle part—is the bread and butter of the story. In order for the presentation to work, Act 2 has to function well. It’s a crude comparison, I know, but your sermon also has three acts. Act 1 is your introduction, and Act 3 is your conclusion. It’s Act 2, the middle part, that is usually the most challenging to pastors in preparation and execution. So, taking a few ideas from the screenwriters, here are some suggestions for honing your sermon’s “Act 2”.

Keep it moving. If a presentation has a good intro, Act 2 is where it will normally fail. Don’t get too bogged down after your introduction. Keep the pace moving and use your words wisely. Act 2 will normally be about half of your total teaching time. Draw a timeline and put your intro and conclusion at each end, then fill in the steps necessary to get from one to the other. Allot adequate time for each step along the way.

Rising exposition. Act 2 is most concerned with why something is happening. Why is a character this way? Why is there no clear solution? Why is our hero’s thinking flawed? Introductions can be grand, funny or surprising. Conclusions can be inspiring. Act 2, however, can be downright boring if you’re not careful. The important word here is rising. Act 2 has to build to something. You’re trying to get to a point. For the perfect example of rising exposition, watch a good courtroom drama.

Do not substitute a tangent (funny joke or story) for real exposition in your sermon’s Act 2. There may be an appropriate illustration, but don’t use an illustration if it will take away from exposition. What is the point of your message? It’s really that point that is going to be communicated in Act 2. It’s time to go deep.

You might think, “Isn’t the point going to be made at the conclusion?” Well, no. You have to reach that point of revelation and understanding before the conclusion, because it’s that understanding that will drive Act 3 (and in fact, Act 3 may be very short). If you’ve got several points to your sermon, they’re all going to be a part of Act 2. What do you want people to really grasp in God’s Word as a result of this message? What are the consequences of not getting it? Act 2 is where you look at all the angles.

Clearly marked transitions. The transition from Act 1 to Act 2, and again from Act 2 to Act 3, must be clear and easily identified. In the movies, you’ll notice Act 2’s beginning immediately. It’s the scene right after the aliens have attacked. Or the scene right after the evil genius makes his demands to the United Nations. When you move from your introduction to Act 2, pay careful attention to the transition sentence or two that you use to get into the meat of the message. “…that’s why today we’re going to look at…” or “…now that we know what God has said, how are we going to respond to it?” The transition is where you stop asking the question and begin providing the answer.

The transition from Act 2 to your conclusion, as well, should be clear. Going back to the movies, you know Act 3 has begun right after the hero lays out the plan of attack his sidekick says, “That will never work,” and then they zoom in close as the hero says after a dramatic pause, “No, it’ll work. Trust me.” The answer, you see, is presented in its entirety in Act 2—all that remains in Act 3 is to carry it out and see what happens. Sure in the movies they keep up the suspense to make you think the hero is in danger, but the reality is that by the time you transition to Act 3, you already know exactly how things are going to turn out.

Room for a surprise. Nothing is better in a three-act presentation than a surprise. I remember the first time I saw the ending of the movie “The Sixth Sense.” Chilling. Shocking. Didn’t see it coming. Now, that movie follows the classic three-act formula. Go watch it—they tell you exactly what is going to happen during the second act. The interesting thing is that almost nobody catches it because it’s so well written, and so Act 3 comes as a surprise.

Don’t be afraid of the unexpected. God is full of the unexpected so your sermons can often contain the element of surprise. The world has fallen, all is lost, everyone is sinful, nobody can pay the penalty, which is death, and survive. We need a hero. So God sends—His Son? Biggest surprise ending of all time.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.