Setting up the delayed hook in a sermon

January 30th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

Setting up the delayed hook in a sermon is a rhetorical strategy that cautions the preacher not to say too much too soon. Listeners can read the biblical text for themselves. But it is the preacher’s task to shape consciousness and bring the gospel forward as gift and challenge.

In fact, from prologue to epilogue, the Exodus story itself unfolds sequentially. Picking up where the book of Genesis ends, Joseph dies in Egypt along with his generation, the Israelites multiply and grow strong as a people, a new king ascends to the throne but knows not Joseph’s legend, and finally, in fear and intimidation the new king sets out to oppress the Israelites and diminish their population. To follow the mind of the narrative is to see that it virtually preaches itself.

As with many good movies, the plot unfolds inductively, hinting all along the way why each character is important to the storyline, noting the obstacles to be overcome, and revealing why God’s involvement is necessary. Biblical narratives have plots, twists, and turns, moving from problem to resolution, that make for the stuff of drama. To shape messages that capture today’s listener, sermon setup is critical.

A good delayed setup should:

1. Capture textual and/or situational intensity and gravity early on to bring text and situation into sharp focus.

2. Set up suspense that creates a bind and establishes a burden that listeners hope and expect the gospel to address meaningfully or resolve.

3. Begin with or set up anticipation for a searching or striking question. When logically arranged, the same question used repeatedly throughout the sermon can be used to great effect in engaging the hearer meaningfully. Caution: A preacher should only raise questions if the preacher has planned a well timed, fitting response to follow. Nothing robs the listener of story or sabotages the sermon more than a stream of rhetorical questions only raised for effect.

4. Share a meaning-making scene(s) using vivid language, directional cues, and carefully crafted words.

5. Be rehearsed. The preacher should strive to commit the first and last minute of the sermon to memory. Both minutes should be memorable.

6. Postpone propositions. Propositions that are made too early are a killjoy to sermon setup. Often introductory remarks or spending too much time explaining the historical context of the passage robs the preacher of an opportunity to connect with the listener. Nothing slows sermon momentum and attentiveness as tell-all titles and sermon openers like, “The title of my sermon is . . . Or, turn with me to the book of Exodus where it talks about the birth of Moses.” Or, fashioned of late and quickly becoming cliché, the preacher says to the congregation after reading the scripture, “touch and tell your neighbor [God is bringing you out of Egypt] and now turn to your other neighbor and say [God is bringing me out of Egypt] . . .” to which the expectation held by the preacher is that this gimmick will somehow make the sermon more memorable when in fact it does four things to the contrary:

– It forces listeners into another’s personal space.

– It will likely foster inauthentic social interaction between preacher and pew.

– It unwittingly communicates that the preacher needs the congregation to be won over before some serious wrestling with the scriptures has taken place.

– It tells listeners at the outset that you don’t trust them to get what you are about to talk about.

If this technique is your custom, you may want to think about using this formula sparingly if at all. Some people deeply value opening their own homiletical birthday gift without the preacher or their neighbor telling them what’s inside.

Postponement also tends to be very effective when attempting to address controversial or sensitive topics (e.g., human sexuality, war and patriotism, homosexuality, abortion, women’s ordination, euthanasia, mental disorders, over-policing and gun violence, intimate partner violence) that may be hard for listeners to hear, but the congregation should address or care about.

7. Have a purposeful function. A sermon can function a number of ways based on sermonic purpose and the sacred text it considers and interprets. The sermon may work by privileging a singular function or combination of them in establishing the sermon’s agenda. Will it be best characterized as a teaching (didache), exhortative (paraklesis), or a parabolic (parabole) sermon? Regardless of principal function, ideally the message will shift to a proclamatory (kerygmatic) address. [1]


[1] David Bartlett, “Sermon,” Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, ed. William Willimon and Richard Lischer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 433–35.

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