The Bible is full of stories, and this is a good pattern for all gospel preachers. Genesis opens the biblical narrative with the story of creation; and Revelation closes it with the extended story of the triumph of God. From cover to cover, the Word of God comes to us in stories.
The birth of Jesus may be the most widely known story in the world; if not, it is second only to the story of his resurrection. The life of Jesus is primarily a series of stories strung together to make some theological point about God and God’s purpose in the world. This is precisely the basic strategy of gospel preaching: use stories to say something about God and God’s purpose in the world.
People like stories; which is why they dominate most conversations, in church and out of church, at home and away from home, in books, on television and at the theater. Stories are the stuff of human life, and the gospel preacher will spend her life gathering stories, telling stories, and interpreting stories in order to say something true about life and death, truth and error, courage and fear, love and hate. During my lifetime, the mega-stories of Star Wars, Narnia, Middle Earth, Harry Potter, and the Hunger Games have dominated the imaginations of entire generations of readers and viewers.
Miles Holt, AoP ’13, was a student at Mercer University when he came to preach at the 2013 National Festival of Young Preachers. He carefully sliced in two the powerful story of Jean Valjean, beginning his sermon as the novel does with the narrative of mercy shown by Monsignor Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel and concluding his sermon with the other episode of mercy shown by Jean Valjean as he carried Marius to safety through the underground sewers of Paris. It is hard to undermine the impact of such stories, and they are best told straightforward and without ornamentation.
Jesus told stories; stories are powerful avenues of communicating whatever is true and useful and of good report. People are more apt to remember a good story than any other part of the sermon.
So why would any preacher neglect to tell a story? Yet many do, but I insist on this—that every sermon include a story. It can be a biblical story, and often should be; our people are very ignorant of the Bible and great good can come from simply telling from the pulpit the stories of the Bible. A student once approached me about preaching about Nicodemus but could not “find the handle” of a sermon. “Just tell the story,” I advised, “all three acts of the Nicodemus drama in the gospel of John. Do not assume your people know the story let alone what inspiration might be drawn from it.”
The story of a sermon can also come from public experience: of war or tragedy or danger or despair. Stories from the civil rights struggle or a political campaign or a Super Bowl season are in the public realm and make for compelling rhetoric. Movies, books, magazines, television, conversation, even songs are wonderful resources for stories. Constance Cherry, noted preacher and writer on worship, used a famous Nazi-death-camp story from Corey Ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place to make a memorable sermon during the 2014 National Festival of Young Preachers.
But many stories worth telling are those connected with your own experience. I have often told the stories of running away from school on the very first day of first grade, of sitting in a court room while a judge sentenced my son to 93 months in federal prison, and of surviving not one, not two, but three death-defying automobile accidents. While there is much debate on how often and how thorough such autobiographical material should be employed in the preaching ministry, this much is sure: testimony is a powerful element of any public speaking. More than once, Paul the apostle stood before a hostile audience and told the story of his conversion to Christ. It was compelling them and is compelling now.
Being alert and open to stories that come to us through media, that are embedded in our own history, and that greet us in the ebb and flow of our own daily activities is an essential skill of the preacher. At the 2015 National Festival of Young Preachers in Dallas, plenary preacher Joel Gregory made a plea for just this type of gospel attention to what we see and hear and experience all around us. “Sometimes you are on your way to the best of stories, and you don’t even know it. Let me give you a hint: when you are on your way to something big in preaching, a story that is just right, heaven doesn’t open and a big voice doesn’t say, ‘Now here it is!’ The best stories are those things that come to your life by a divine synchronicity, and you’re not just telling that story; that story becomes part of you.” Gregory is, of course, the master of that, and his just-quoted sermon illustrates that well.
This much is true: any sermon is made better by the inclusion of a good story; and good sermons come close to greatness when they include a good story well told. Sometimes, more than we wish to admit, simply telling a story is sufficient for preaching what our people need and want to hear. Jesus did it, and so can we.