Aesop tells a story about Demades, a famous Greek orator, who was once addressing an assembly at Athens on a subject of great importance. However, he tried in vain to catch the attention of his audience. They laughed among themselves, watched the nearby children playing and demonstrated complete disinterest in the subject of his discourse. So after a short pause, Demades said, "Ceres one day journeyed in company with a swallow and an eel." Suddenly every person focused their attention on the orator and every ear strained to catch his words.
Most preachers are aware of the necessity of capturing the hearer’s attention as soon as the sermon begins. Even if we have been granted the authority to preach by the church, we need to seize the listener’s attention from the moment we begin to preach. If we fail, we may not be able to get them back.
In her book, The Write Stuff, Sondra B. Willobee recommends that preachers should take Fred Craddock’s advice and assume that listeners almost didn’t come to church that morning. She suggest that preachers should follow the lead of journalists and writers by opening the sermon with a ‘hook.’
A hook dangles something interesting in front of the listener that entices them to listen for more. A hook can establish credibility, set a certain tone, and suggest something about the theme for the sermon. It helps the listener to know how to listen to what follows.
Willobee describes a variety of hooks that writers use that can be employed as an entrance into a sermon. Most of us have probably followed Demades’ example by starting a sermon with a brief story. Willobee seeks to expand our repertoire of openings by suggesting some other devices we might use.
Start A Fight
We don’t like trouble in real life. We don’t like problems and we don’t like to deal with conflict. Nevertheless, writers know that we like to read about people are coping with trouble. A story without conflict is usually a very boring tale.
It isn’t hard to find conflict to use as the basis for the opening of a sermon because the Bible is filled with conflict. Elijah faces off against the prophets of Baal, Jesus spars with the Pharisee, Paul argues against the Judaizers. The list is endless.
We can look for the conflict in a Biblical text as we do our exegesis. When we begin our sermon, we might choose to start with the the conflict in the Scripture passage itself or to use another story that describes a similar type of conflict.
Start In The Middle
Another kind of hook that writers often use is to start in the middle of a story. The Roman poet Horace called this tactic in medias res. Preachers can begin with a scene from real life or from a movie or a written work. Don’t introduce the story, just start telling it. After describing the scene you can tell your hearers about the significance you see in it.
As I look back on the latest sermon I just preached, I wish I would have done that. What I wish I would have said is:
A little boy and a tiger are waiting for a school bus. The boy says to the tiger, “How long have we been waiting?”
The tiger looks at his wristwatch and replies, “About two and a half hours.”
The little boy scowls and says, “I’m sure Mom sent me our here early on purpose.” That’s Calvin and Hobbes getting tired of waiting. Sometimes we feel that way, too, even though right now we are in the midst of Advent, a season devoted to waiting.
Starting in the middle can be an effective way to capture people’s attention.
Disclose And Withhold
Another effective hook can be to offer information and withhold information at the same time. Willobee looks at the opening of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as an example of this. The story starts out, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” These six words create all sorts of interesting questions for the reader/hearer to ponder. Who is Marley? What caused his death? Why is he important? How is his death the beginning of something?
This way of beginning reflects the nature of human life. We often discover that things aren’t what they seem to be at first glance
Ask A Question
Preachers have often resorted to this type of beginning to snag a congregation’s attention. Such questions work when they raise authentic issues and address things that listeners care about. When we read the gospels, we see that Jesus was a master at asking questions. Who do you say that I am? Why did you doubt? Now which one will love him more? If it worked for Jesus, it can work for us.
Sketch A Character
Another way to start a sermon is by describing a striking character. The character might be a Biblical figure, person we have known or someone from a another work of literature or history. When we use a memorable character as a hook, its like looking at a photo in a family album. We can tell stories about that person we depict.
Say Something Striking
Many quotations are remembered because they are strong statements. When John Gardener says, “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser,” it grabs our attention. By studying the epigrams of others, we can learn how to turn a phrase ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with borrowing a quote from someone else (as long as we give credit to the one who said it first).
Willobee notes that when we use a striking statement to kick off a sermon, we must consider whether our hearers will be so intrigued that they sit up and pay attention or so offended that they quit listening completely. Obviously we want to interest them, not turn them off.
Begin With An Image
A noteworthy image described at the beginning to a sermon can serve as an effective way to commence preaching. Sometimes the image will come from the passage itself and other times it will have a connection to the theme of the Biblical text. As we create our image, it is most effective if we can engage as many senses as possible in our description.
It is important that the preacher does not draw out the description too long. As an oral presentations, sermons can’t linger as long on a description as a written work might do. Often the preacher must include only those details that catch the listeners’ attention, set a tone for the sermon and point toward the theme.
Can We Use Jokes?
Preachers have often been known to use jokes to begin a sermon. Funny stories can loosen up the listeners and can foster a warm and lively atmosphere. It is important, though, that jokes are firmly connected with the sermon theme. The can’t be used simple to start things off without having that strong connection to what follows.
There danger with jokes is that they can trivialize or overshadow the rest of the sermon. One effective way to use humor in a sermon is for the preacher to poke fun at himself or herself.
As we consider what hook to use, we want to make sure that it suggest the direction that the sermon will take without giving its theme away entirely.
In her book, Willobee has some ‘Try this’ sections that offer some ways to look at what we’ve used as hooks in sermons we’ve already preached and how we might consider some new ways to enter into a sermon.
In the next post, we’ll look at ways we can cultivate our imagination to make our preaching more effective.