Series that Resonate: Crafting a Compelling Hook

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This article is featured in the The Ultimate Sermon Series Issue (Feb/Mar/Apr 2013) issue of Circuit Rider
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Many preachers now preach almost exclusively in series, and promote them as such. Some use a series framework on which to build sermons but don’t reveal that to their congregations. Others adhere to other models and dismiss the series as a stylistic tool in the tool belt or a gimmick that tries too hard to be “relevant.”

Relevance is an abused word, a good word that has been taken in by bad guardians. Many have tried to make it wear hipster clothes. Relevant gets confused with recent. Intentions behind such work are good. The attempt to redeem cultural expression is an act of incarnational ministry; but, ironically, a misguided focus on what is recent often hurts the work of the kingdom, because attempts to be relevant fail when we chase culture, a slippery devil.

It’s a mistake to associate relevance and trendiness too closely. As able, I eschew relevant for another word. To be relevant really means to resonate, or to ring in the ears of the receiver.  This type of “relevant” is like “recent” but goes deeper, past our minds. As George Hunter said in The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement,

The European Enlightenment taught that we human beings are unique creatures because we are rational creatures: while we still experience the emotions that we have inherited from our primitive forbears, education has come to lift us into the life of the mind.  With the fading of the Enlightenment, it is becoming apparent that . . . we are not basically rational creatures who sometimes feel; we are basically emotional creatures who sometimes think.

To resonate is to tap into the emotional well. It’s not to abandon the life of the mind, but to create a new synthesis. It is what happens when the message connects not just to mind but to heart and soul, in the meeting of the places where we feel and the places where we think. Messages that find their way to this deep fountain change lives.

Series help create resonance, or a clarity with which a storyreceiver sharpens his or her focus on your ideas. One way a good series offers this resonance is with a compelling hook with which we can catch the storyreceiver with intrigue. The idea of a hook isn’t new, of course. The mistake we make is when we think of a hook as a device on which to hang an idea; an ornament, which is at best flowery fondant and at worst a dangerous gimmick. Good communicators don’t use a hook as a convenient place to hang an idea. Rather, they use a hook as the means to embody the idea. It’s like a symbol but doesn’t require explanation.

Think about your favorite song. A favorite song is therapy. It creates inspiration or cheeriness or melancholy. Music speaks to the soul. It resonates. Sometimes I’ll play a game where I act like I’m absentmindedly singing a familiar song just to see how long it takes someone else to pick it up and sing it without realizing it. It's fun to get someone to unwittingly sing Rick Astley or Robert Goulet. This little game doesn't have a name, but I could call it The Hook Game, because I’m using the hook of a song to “catch” the listener.

At the heart of every great song is a killer hook. It is a single lyric or riff, like the opening guitar in Smells Like Teen Spirit or the titular lyric in Yesterday, that defines the entire song. It is the part that rings in our ear. It intrigues us; it catches us and draws us in for more.

A pastor once showed me a sermon series on discipleship. He had outlined solid biblical exegesis on the topic, and several good anecdotes. It was correct, but kind of ordinary. It didn’t inspire. In such a situation, which is common, the majority of time one secret ingredient is missing: a hook. A good hook incarnates an idea.

Learning to create compelling hooks is not a master skill. Any pastor can learn to do it. It just takes practice. Here are a few tips for finding a good hook.

Make It Exact.

Don’t be general. Good hooks start with specific concepts.

Provide a solution to both a tangible “market” need and an emotional need. A market need is the hole in the conversation; a problem waiting for insight. The emotional need is the gut feeling, often fear, that drives your audience. Identify both. People are looking for answers to specific problems. A busy mom doesn’t attend mid-week discipleship class for the fun of it. She is looking for answers to specific problems in her life, like finding balance or easing stress, and is only willing to carve out the time to do it if she sees a direct benefit.

Ask yourself: what problem does this idea solve? How do people perceive the problem?

Make It Visual.

When I worked in publishing, a Japanese-American regional church leader sent me a presentation he’d written. He wanted to improve the leadership skills of the pastors in his care, so he surveyed the latest business leadership thinking. The concepts were helpful, but... yawn. One concept repeatedly surfaced in the material, though: leadership can be improved. That is a hopeful message and one with which most leaders might agree. Many of us look to learn and improve. This is a felt, or emotive, need. It just needed a hook.

As I reviewed it, an idea jumped from my memory bank: kaizen, a post-World War II corporate concept that many credit with the resurrection of Japan. It is a compound word: the first symbol, “kai,” means “to change, to correct;” the second symbol, “zen,” means “good.” Formed of these two words, kaizen means roughly, “continuous correction and improvement.” Of course, his book is for church leaders, so I tweaked it a bit to read Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader.

With this new metaphor, he reframed his work around his background in martial arts. We created striking images for the cover using the Japanese symbols. Suddenly, his concepts had resonance. Similarly, this is what a good series does.

Make It Intriguing.

You don’t have to explain everything in the title or tagline of your series. Just offer enough to capture a person’s interest. In large group communication settings, Jesus didn’t explain his ideas. He presented hooks. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like a net. He raised questions rather than answered them. If you answer everything... yawn. Hooks intrigue people and, as with the disciples, make them come back for more.

Make It Authentic.

The hook needs to be indigenous to you and to your audience. Spiritual Kaizen works for the church leader I consulted because he’s Japanese American and Japanese culture is strong in his West Coast setting. The same concept might not work in the Southeast.

If your goal as a communicator is to change hearts and lives, consider writing out a few series for the coming year. In each, let images for the series shape your approach. Look for points of resonance, allow the hook to incarnate the idea, and use what emerges as a skeleton for the flesh of your messages.

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