If you heard that there was one mistake that you were making week in and week out—and that one mistake was dramatically hindering the effectiveness of your preaching—would you want to know what that one mistake was?
Or if you heard that there’s something that you’ve been doing for years that was causing a large number of the people in your congregation to tune out and start daydreaming about the rest of their day or week during your message, would you want to know what that one mistake was?
If you do, then you just discovered what that one mistake is. Over the past three decades I’ve listened to hundreds of preachers, speakers and teachers. And the number one mistake that they almost all make—and this even includes pastors of large churches—is they don’t hook their congregation/audience in the first few minutes.
Why? Because like experts in any field, they believe they know what the people listening to them need to hear. Just think through your own process of deciding what to preach on. If you’re like most preachers you have one of three primary processes.
1. What do I feel like speaking on?
2. What book (of the Bible) or topic haven’t I spoken on recently?
3. What are other preachers speaking on (i.e. you reference other pastors' podcasts or websites)
What do you notice about all three of those approaches? Not one of them starts with the people you’re going to be speaking to. Isn’t that interesting?
I’ve taught communication for years, and I’m guessing you have, too. So I’m pretty sure you’d never tell anyone that communication is all about what you want to say. Communication 101 is about you and me considering the person (or people) we’re going to be speaking to and, based on whom they are and what’s going on in their world, deciding what we should to say to them. In other words, we start with them, not us.
Starting out a message without creating a hook is really hubris, if you think about it. It’s based on the belief that “I’m the preacher. I’m speaking. You should listen.” That’s just a bad strategy. And it’s what gives way to the typical content-oriented introduction.
"Good morning. I'd like all of you to open your Bibles and turn to the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 37. Let’s begin reading in verse one …"
That’s the introduction of a preacher who starts with what they want to say. There’s no hook, no connection to the people who are listening that day. It’s “Here’s the Bible" (or "Here’s what I want to say").
But what you and I know is that from the time of Genesis 3 until today, every single person has been afflicted with a disease—a sin-nature that makes all of us prone to self-interest. We’re all only interested in learning about or listening to something that’s interesting to us.
That means that starting out a message without appealing to the self-interest of the people we’re speaking to is self-defeating. If you or I want a higher percentage of the people who are present for a weekend service to listen to us, we have to force ourselves to do the hard work of taking an idea and connecting it to the hurts, wants, desires, needs, frustrations, problems, obstacles, fears, pains, etc. of the people who are listening to us.
When we do that, everything changes. For example, let’s rework the introduction for Ezekiel 37 using a hook that connects to a person.
"Have you been feeling dry spiritually lately? Have you found it difficult to connect with God? Do you feel like He’s distant?
"Or maybe you’ve been feeling lately like you're just going through the motions of being a Christ-follower. You're coming to church, attending small group, having your devotions, yet you still feel powerless inside?
"Well, if you've been feeling any of that lately, God has some good news for you today. He does not want you to remain there. In fact, if you'll turn with me to the book of Ezekiel, chapter 37, I think you'll find the answer to what you've been wrestling with lately."
The difference between those two introductions isn’t even close. Yet day after day and week after week, I listen (as do millions of Americans) to messages in which the preacher misses this simple mark. And it'd not just about creating one good hook for one message; it's about creating a great hook for every message, every week.
So how do you go about creating a great hook? It all starts with your mindset. It starts with you believing that everyone in your congregation has a sin-nature that means they only care about what’s interesting to them.
Once you own that, you’ll want to practice what John Stott calls “quadruple thinking.” First you think about what you want to say. Then you think about how they’ll hear what you want to say. Then you rethink what you want to say so they’ll hear what you want them to hear. Master that and you’ll become proficient at the hook!
And my final recommendation would be this. Before you start writing or outlining your message, make sure you write, at the top of your paper/page, in big bold letters, “WHAT’S MY HOOK?” If you do that, you’ll be way ahead of most preachers and you’ll find that a whole lot more people in your congregation are more fully engaged with your messages each week (and no longer daydreaming about what’s for lunch).
Why don't you ask yourself these two simple questions: "In my last message, what was my hook?" And secondly: "How do I know if I hooked them?" If you'll start asking those questions of every message, you'll be astounded at how much better people listen to you and then are changed by your message!