Preach Better: Identify and Expose the Tension

Take any great TV show and you’ll see it. No, you’ll feel it. You’ll feel the tension they create within the show and it will keep you watching. I’ve gotta know what happens! For my wife and I, one of our favorite shows is Friends and boy do they do a great job of creating tension. An easy tension point in the show is the relationship between Ross and Rachael. Everyone sees that they should be an item, however, the writers of the show do a great job at not just letting it happen. Your greatest desire in watching that show is to see them end up together. Why? Because they created massive tension around their relationship. 

Preach Better: Identify and Expose the Tension

Just like you can do this with any TV show, you can do the same thing with any movie. And you should be able to do this with any sermon. Why? Because a sermon is speaking from the grand narrative of Scripture to the grand narrative of your life. These are two stories or narratives that have identifiable tension points.

Most Sermons Fail at This

If we’re not intentional with identifying and exposing the tension in a text and in the life situation it speaks to, we’ll lose our listeners and the sermon won’t take root in their minds, let alone their hearts.

What happens too often is the preacher will, maybe, intentionally identify a tension point from the text, but then they will immediately resolve the tension with their grand explanation and application. All the while, they missed a great opportunity to help people realize the necessity for such an explanation and application. 

Don’t resolve the tension too quickly. Wrestle with the tension so that your listeners will wrestle with it. By the time you get to resolving the tension with God’s word, they should be deeply desiring to have that tension resolved. But even now it would be too early to resolve the tension. Why? Because while there’s tension in the narrative of our lives, there’s also tension in the narrative of Scripture. 

Even if you take time to identify and expose the tension in life and then go to God’s word to resolve that tension, you missed a vital step: identify and expose the tension in God’s word. How does what you read identify and expose that tension in an even greater way? It does, you just have to see it.

Again, don’t resolve the tension too quickly.

Identify the Tension: 7 Common Tension Points We All Face

If you want to preach better, identify the tension in life. What do I mean by that? Take a look at these examples:

  1. We hear that God has forgiven us, but we haven’t forgiven ourselves.
  2. We want to bring glory to God in our job, but we don’t know how that looks practically.
  3. Scripture says to not worry about tomorrow, but that’s all we ever do – worry about tomorrow.
  4. We want a great marriage, but no matter how hard we try we feel like we fail.
  5. In comparison to the world, we’re among the wealthiest of people, but we feel strapped and broke.
  6. God loves me, but I feel abandoned in the midst of this pain and suffering.
  7. We hear that God desires us to live in community, but I still feel lonely and isolated.

I could go on and on with identifying tension points in life. The key, though, is identifying the tension point in life in light of what the text is speaking to. 

Start With the Text Every Time: Answer These 5 Questions

Preach expository sermons or topical sermons. I don’t care. I have adopted a way that can use both: exposical sermons. In this method, I can preach a series that is topical or expository. But once I’ve identified the actual passage I’ll be preaching from, I dive into it. If I use another passage or two, it will be only to emphasize something from the main text. This keeps the message focused, and easy to remember and apply.

Once you have the single, main passage identified, read it, study it, and then answer these 5 questions:

  1. What do I or others believe that goes against this text?
  2. What do I or others do that goes against this text?
  3. How might some people interpret this text in a way that resolves the tension of application and action?
  4. What problem in life does this text address?
  5. How do people justify that problem in their lives so they don’t have to deal with it?

Expose the Tension: Move Them From Dissonance to Resonanceidentify and expose the tension: dissonance to resonance

The goal here is to not only identify the tension, but to expose it for what it is. Take the tension that you identified from the text and speak to that tension as much as you can, relating to as many different stages of life as you can. Give real examples of how you feel this tension in your own life. Tell a story of how someone else feels this tension.

When you go from identifying the tension to exposing the tension you’ll begin to expose the dissonance in people’s lives between what they’re living and what God is saying. The key is to tune that tension so that people move from dissonance to resonance.

Dissonance occurs where there is disagreement between a musical chord or inconsistency between someone’s actions and their beliefs. When people are being confronted with tension, they want to resolve it right away. It’s why we can and do justify stupid things. Let the dissonance sit there, though.

Resonance occurs where a sound in one instrument is caused by another instrument’s sound or where someone sees the truth in the tension – God’s word is the answer. Do you see the connection? God’s word goes forth and causes a change or conviction in a person. 

God wants to take people from dissonance to resonance. It is in the place of resonance where God’s word becomes the answer for people’s questions. 

Preach Better: Tension Helps Connect Scripture to Life

All we’re doing when we identify tension points in light of the passage of Scripture at hand is connect it to real life that people are living right now. 

Use tension to engage people, but don’t stop there. Creating tension around God’s word and around life is connecting God’s promises to life. 

Show your people that the tension they feel in life can be resolved only in the truth of God’s word. 

Maybe if we do this tension thing better, more people will be driven to read God’s word on their own.

What About You?

Do you make it a point to identify, expose, and resolve tension in your preaching? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below or on Facebook (group | page) or on Twitter.

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Written by Brandon Kelley

Brandon Kelley is the co-founder of Rookie Preacher and the author of Preaching Sticky Sermons and Crucified to Life. He serves as the Lead Pastor of First Church of Christ in Bluffton, IN. He also writes at You can follow him @BrandonKelley_. Watch his sermons here.


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  1. Hi Brandon!
    You did a beautiful job of exposing tension between God’s Word and where we actually live in our daily walk with Christ.
    Terry Harris

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