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preaching article The Preacher's First Mistake

The Preacher's First Mistake

based on 11 ratings
May 14, 2013

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!



Bruce D. Johnson is the President of Wired To Grow, a business growth coaching, consulting and executive education firm located near Charleston, SC. (www.WiredToGrow.com) and the author of “Breaking Through Plateaus” (www.BreakingThroughBook.com). Prior to that, he was the founding pastor of a church he started with two families that grew to 2,000 people. You can reach him at bruce@wiredtogrow.com

 

Talk about it...

David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
Good point. I never knew my introduction was a hook. I just try to get their attention. To me, the first mistake of the preacher is to not pray enough.
James Walker avatar
James Walker
0 days ago
Do any of us pray "enough"? I do not. Sermon prayer for me is being immersed in the condition of my sermon before God to the extent that He fills me with the necessary sense of compassion, joy, certainty of doctrinal belief or whatever else is necessary to the content of my sermon. This article challenges me! Thank you!
Richard  Michael avatar
Richard Michael
0 days ago
I couldn't agree more. Ever since I moved the application to the front of the sermon rather than at the end, I noticed a dramatic increase in attentiveness. Part of doing that was developing a good hook (try various resources: a joke, an illustration or video). One additional tactic that's been successful for me is a great (provocative) title shared the week before the sermon (and used liberally in the weeks communication venues).
Charles Ingwe avatar
Charles Ingwe
0 days ago
Well, this is a good article. Surely coupled up with a life of prayer [strong relationship with God }, you can't go wrong in hooking up with your audience. Thank you alot I needed this one.
Bruce Johnson avatar
Bruce Johnson
0 days ago
David, I think that prayer is a given. It's like being at a party and being asked, "Who's your best friend?" Eventually the fifth person says, "Jesus" and everyone before them feels like a looser :-) No article can be comprehensive. Nor is Jesus. He simply says, "Ask and it will be given to you." He doesn't say every time, "If it is God's will" or "If you obey" or "If you abide in me" etc. So, hopefully, you got the main point that the goal of an introduction is to connect with a real person and their needs, hurts, wants, fears, frustrations, etc. As for prayer, when I teach communication I always teach that the preacher should pray before research, during research, during the writing/crafting of a message, during practice, during preaching and after the message. It's not an either/or, but a both/and. Hope that helps!
Rodney Shanner avatar
Rodney Shanner
0 days ago
Excellent advice on preaching. I raise my subject and always follow it with a joke connected to the subject. "It reminds me of. . ." The listeners seem to look forward to it. Then I transition to the subject on a more serious note. . .
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
Amazingly, I wasn't being critical James or Bruce, but adding to the discussion. Prayer is important. If it makes you feel better, "Good Job". Nuff said.
Peter Spadzinski avatar
Peter Spadzinski
0 days ago
My late Mother-in-law, who was a girl evangelist on the Canadian prairies, back in the 20's, once said to me that there are really two things to remember when public speaking, or preaching: first, you must have a hook to get people's attention, and second, if you haven't said it in 20 minutes, you will never say it, (because that is the attention span of most people). It was great advice. The first one has been easier to adhere to than the second.
Beverly Birchfield avatar
Beverly Birchfield
0 days ago
Good reminder. Sometimes we get into habits -sometimes we just try to get to the meat before the appetizer.
Richard  Michael avatar
Richard Michael
0 days ago
I couldn't agree more. Ever since I moved the application to the front of the sermon rather than at the end, I noticed a dramatic increase in attentiveness. Part of doing that was developing a good hook (try various resources: a joke, an illustration or video). One additional tactic that's been successful for me is a great (provocative) title shared the week before the sermon (and used liberally in the weeks communication venues).
John Mury avatar
John Mury
0 days ago
One formula to address this is: 1) problem in life, 2) (same) problem in scripture, 3) solution in scripture, 4) solution in life. Addressing the felt problem in life is the "hook."
John Mury avatar
John Mury
0 days ago
Another formula is Andy Stanley's 1) I have a problem, 2) you have the same problem, 3) what God says about it, 4) what you should do about it, and 5) what life might look like is we all took God seriously on this. In other words, I - WE - GOD - YOU - WE.
Travis L. Davis avatar
Travis L. Davis
0 days ago
Well this was a very good article. My last sermon was "We all have the same name", based on John 1:6-8, and the responsibility of us all to bear witness of the true light. I keyed on the various names of the attendees of the church and how some have the same name as others within the church, but our real identity is found in Christ and sharing the gospel message. The only question I have is about the "quadruple thinking" concept. It appears to only have 3 steps. Am I missing something?
Cynthia Deocares avatar
Cynthia Deocares
0 days ago
This is not just an article but a very good reminder to all preachers. In our passion to preach the message given to us, we forgot the basic..that is to connect. Thanks for this reminder!
Bruce Johnson avatar
Bruce Johnson
0 days ago
Great discussion everyone. John, my one comment about Andy's approach is that starting with the I is rarely a good hook. I'll write an article about that because it's a long discussion (even though I'm a fan of Andy's :-). But, the basic point flows from the article above and all of us have a sin nature (which means that the people sitting in the audience are far more interested in themselves than the preacher). Hook to the person first, then connect with the I (we're in this together).
Bruce Johnson avatar
Bruce Johnson
0 days ago
Travis, the difference is probably the starting point of how you're counting quadruple think. 1. I think about what I want to say. 2. I think about how they'll hear what I have to say. 3. I rethink what I want to say so 4. They'll hear what I want them to hear (I actually say it). You can read more about it in John Stott's book entitled, "Between Two Worlds"
Charles Wallis avatar
Charles Wallis
0 days ago
I think the idea of starting with a problem (usually theirs) is a good way to start and get attention. More importantly, I have been hearing a lot about knowing specifically what God has to say to the specific group you are speaking to. I feel like I know when that happens and when it doesn't. As Jack Hayford said, is the difference between giving only a sermon and a word from God. A sermon might work for any group, a clear word from God is for a specific group.
Charles Wallis avatar
Charles Wallis
0 days ago
Another thought - I think I am often guilty of preaching to my interests primarily and need this challenge.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.