Introducing the Sermon: The Art of Compelling Beginnings
By Mihcael J. Hostetler
1.2 (Fall 1990) : 205-208
This is a book by a pastor designed to help other pastors with sermon introductions. After quoting advice from several great practitioners of homiletics, the author concisely builds his own case for a carefully planned sermon introduction: "If the introduction falters, the exposition may never be heard" (p. 12). This raises a host of questions, five of which are posed and answered in chapter one: "What is the purpose of an introduction?," "Is an introduction always needed?," "How long should the introduction be?," "Must I write it?," "How about unconventional introductions?"
In the second chapter Hostetler proposes four "contact points" essential to every sermon introduction: the secular, the biblical, the personal, and the structural. He writes, "Omit the secular and you stand a good chance of losing the audience before you really get started. Omit the biblical and you have nothing to say. Omit the personal and the sermon drifts over the listeners' heads and out the back door. Omit the structural and your audience faces a rough ride to an unclear destination" (pp. 25-26). He continues, "No contact, no start. Your precious sermon, reflecting hours of diligent Bible study and careful organization, will evaporate into the rafters of the church building unless its introduction makes contact with the secular world, the Bible, the needs of people, and the main body of the sermon. Don't settle for two or three of these contact points. Go for all four" (p. 85).
Chapter three recommends placing the secular contact point first because the preacher must first lead his listeners from their world to Scripture. Though sermon preparation moves from Scripture to application, sermon delivery must lead the listener to the text in stages. Otherwise, he may never arrive there. The congregation needs to hear a very explicitly stated "contact point" first, ideally one directly from the biblical text. Opening lines are critical, but the author perhaps overdoes it in offering eight pages of typical first lines to be avoided. He divides these into four categories: biblical, religious, historical, and referential. He finds all of these deficient in comparison to secular contact points.
Chapter four deals with secular contact points and is weak in failing to allow for different audience tastes. Some listeners prefer one or more of the four opening sentence types ruled out by the author. Hostetler generalizes too much about audience interests and about the universal appeal of a secular contact point. Because even secular contact points may fall flat, the sermon's opening line must generate interest or curiosity. Two litmus tests for the opening-line effectiveness are specificity (detail) and relevance. Specificity of detail creates sharper images in the minds of listeners and enhances the speaker's credibility, but too much detail is counterproductive, dulling the interest of the listener.
The relevance of an opening line is measured in two ways: appropriateness to the sermon's biblical content and relationship to the audience. The subject of the sermon must guide the choice of a contact point. Awkwardness and confusion in transition from introduction to sermon body results from an unrelated initial statement. "You need to establish an initial contact with the text in the introduction in order to demonstrate how and why the sermon really is biblical" (p. 57).
In a series of sermons the introduction can both introduce the individual sermon and link it with the preceding and following sermons. Chapter six proposes several principles to aid in making transitions in a sermon series.
To accomplish personal contact, the topic of chapter seven, one should address universally felt needs of people. Yet the particular needs of subgroups within the congregation should not be ignored. In fact, the sermon should use the second-person pronoun to be "downright personal." If the sermon does not so engage the listeners regarding their sins and failures, their fears and hopes, "it is both a homiletical and a pastoral failure" (p. 68).
To ensure secular, biblical, and personal contact, the sermon's introduction must be packaged so as to take the listener from his world to the Bible. In view of this, the final chapter addresses another critical issue, the transition into the sermon's body. This structural contact point bridges the gap between the introduction and the individual points of the sermon through the proposition, the sermon's main idea. While on the one hand the introduction "does not determine what the main points will be, . . . it does greatly affect how they will be described" (p. 81).
Several statements of the author need clarification. In maintaining that "Bible lectures need introductions as do sermons," the author argues, "Though often passed off as sermons, they [Bible lectures] are different in both purpose and thrust. The Bible lecture is essentially educational. Its primary purpose is to explain the biblical text. The sermon, on the other hand, is essentially motivational. It uses the explanation of the text as the basis for a personal or corporate response to God" (p. 13). Hostetler's main purpose for this dichotomy is to emphasize the need for an introduction to Bible lectures, but in so doing, he establishes a rigid distinction between sermons and Bible lectures and omits a category of sermons whose objective is both educational and motivational. In fact, one could question the existence of a worthy motivational sermon that does not educate or a worthy Bible lecture that does not motivate.
The author dislikes historical introductions, contending that the older the historical data, the less interesting it is. This is not altogether true. Much depends on how historical information is presented. Old human problems repeat themselves and provide a framework for examining contemporary struggles. David's struggles with sin are not unlike our own.
Hostetler's primary emphasis on bringing the congregation from their world to the Bible's is refreshingly sensitive. The book echoes John Broadus' timeless wisdom regarding sermon introductions: "Our aim should be to excite not merely an intellectual interest, but, so far as possible at the outset, a spiritual and practical interest" (Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, p. 267).