"Let me tell you a story": The transforming power of narrative preaching and teaching
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Stories connect with the tenacity of glue, sometimes holding for decades while intermittently releasing memories that recalibrate personal values.
The “first” story was one God told Adam as they were naming the animals. As with all the best stories, its purpose was to reveal the character of God.
“How did all of this get here?” Adam asked.
“I spoke it into existence,” God answered.
“Really? How did you do that?” asked Adam as the two sat together near a herd of newly named giraffes.
“Well,” God answered, “In the beginning . . .”
And, you know the rest of the story.
Storytelling begins with story-catching, and that begins with liking people enough to listen—to listen to their hearts, their hopes, their pains, their needs, their anger, their tears of hurt and tears of joy. Unless you listen, your sermonic stories will not fit and will not help make your people whole. On the other hand, if you listen, you will detect when broken hearts need to be hugged and when angry thoughts need to be calmed.
As you listen, stories will rise in your heart, narratives that reflect the lives your members are living, tales begging to be told in ways that will bring the congregational family together toward God, stories that will bring people to believe that Scripture speaks today just as it did “way back then.”
As you listen, your sermons will become transformational, a weekly shared experience that answers questions they have been struggling with at the breakfast table, in the boardroom, at the office, and in the chairs of the beauty salon. People talk, you know. They tell each other about their lives—usually stories that leave God out. Your ministry, your sermons, can change that. They can make God so real and personable that He will become the stuff of their stories. As business storytellers Ryan Mathews and Watts Welker say, “Long before the first formal business was established, before the first deal, the six most powerful words in any language were Let me tell you a story.”
Narrative preaching does not ignore God, truth, doctrines, or biblical exposition. It builds on all those, weaving them together with stories that make the stuff of God meaningful in the world where we live. Stories illustrate the precepts of truth, covering them with skin and giving them the breath of life.Continually be asking your Lord to reveal to you what stories He wants told. Without a personal relationship between God and the preacher, sermonic words rattle like tumbleweeds across the dust of dry souls.
“Homiletics,” or “homily,” is about conversation and the enchantment of relationships.
I used to ask, “What shall I preach, and how shall I preach it?” Then a professor told me I was preaching only for myself, not for the people. Now I ask, “How does this audience listen, and what would they love to hear?” Biblical truth is timeless. But the way each generation hears and appropriates truth is quite different. Asking how my congregation listens forced me to notice how they live. They look at their phones. They take a thousand pictures. They watch videos and movies on multiple platforms. They leave the TV on during meals. Often four or five devices are playing at the same time, and all of them are image and story-based rather than fact-based.
My friend Pastor Morris Venden once told me that the success of a sermon is in the pictures you leave in the minds of listeners. “They’ll forget your words but will remember the stories.”
In “the olden days,” whenever those were, people seemed satisfied with three points and a poem. Listening doesn’t work that way anymore. What if, I thought to myself, I chose to preach in ways that matched how they’re listening? After trying this for four decades of preaching, I’ve settled on five reasons narrative preaching is a really good idea.
Five reasons narrative preaching is a good idea
1. From complex to simple. Narrative takes massively complex information and makes it simple, understandable, and actionable. If my church family is struggling with how to respond to violence, distrust, and exploitation in the community, I go back to 2 Kings 5 and the story of “Abigail,” the Israelite girl who chose to stand for God in Naaman’s house. She stood firm as God’s Girl, and before the story is over, her choice heals a rift between nations. A simple story like this provides an opening for a conversation about how to be “God’s Kids” in our own community.
2. From informational to life changing. Narrative preaching slips into hearts and minds, giving God better access to the soul. “You don’t know me,” hundreds of people have told me, “but when I was a teenager, you spoke at my school and told a story about Elijah running from Jezebel. That story changed my life and gave me a new way of seeing God. I think about it every time I’m in a tough place.”
I could have preached a three-point sermon about why it’s foolish to run from troubles. I could have shared 12 texts that prove God never leaves us, even when we leave Him. I could have done many fact-driven things. Instead, I chose to tell the story of a loving God who ran with a foolish prophet all the way to heaven. As Calvin Miller said, “Most people hear stories better than they hear megabytes of truth framed in point-driven logic.”
3. From age-specific to age-neutral. Next time you preach, watch to see whether the kids are listening. I have discovered a fascinating truth about preaching. When I tell stories, everyone listens. Age is not an issue, except for the really old folks who honestly need a nap every morning. A good story, well told, captures the minds and hearts regardless of age. If I have listened well, the story I tell my congregation will help clarify challenges that health professionals are facing, will be meaningful for teenagers falling in love, will be helpful for mothers nursing babies, and may even reach audio-visual operators trying not to listen while they work.
But remember, narrative preaching is not just “telling a story.” It’s connecting people with God. Preacher Harry Emmerson Fosdick, way back in 1956, said it well: “A good sermon is an engineering operation by which a chasm is bridged so that spiritual goods on one side . . . are actually transported into personal lives upon the other. . . . It need never fail to make a transforming difference in some lives.”
4. From just head to head and heart. Any presentation designed to effect life change requires access to both the mind and the heart. You cannot win one without the other. Preacher Paul understood this well and, after describing Jesus as the Creator, Savior, and coming King in the first two chapters of Colossians, he puts it all together in chapter 3: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1–3, NIV).
A well-told story convicts the mind of truth while also romancing the heart with hope. Here’s another way to explain what happens with narrative preaching. For right-brained people, the emotions of an interesting story allow the “truth” to slip in and capture both mind and heart. Left-brained people, on the other hand, focus on the “truth” and suddenly find their heart has come along. It takes both to effect life change. You cannot win one without the other.
5. From speaking to, to conversing with. A well-told story results in interactive listening, and when we’re all in the story together, the result is understanding and impact. Narratives demand response. Good stories bring me in until I am part of the plot, emotionally involved in the tension, the brokenness, the challenges, the opportunities, and (finally) the resolution. A narrative sermon makes listeners ask questions, seek more information, jump ahead, and become part of the story as you tell it.
What the best storytelling does is establish a three-way connection among the audience, the storyteller, and the characters in the story. A story well shared creates something new from genuine experience. This is one of the most powerful forms of bonding there is.
One of my favorite stories came from a young man and woman who told me how they were testing God on the issue of tithing. Still living a motorcycle- and-drugs lifestyle, they gave God 10 percent of their welfare check for three weeks, but God didn’t give them any of His Malachi 3 blessings. Then they chose to pay tithe on the man’s side business. It wasn’t much, but that week the business doubled. The next week it doubled again.
Are you with me? Isn’t it fun to see how the story sucks you in? You are thinking about how you ought to be tithing, but right now, you are wondering how the couple is dealing with the increases.
After about 10 weeks of the business doubling continually, the couple asked to speak with the pastor.
“Pastor,” they began, “you’ve probably noticed the large tithe we’ve been giving.”
“I have,” he answered.
“We’ve been testing God to see if your sermon about tithing was true, and we’ve learned that when you give God 10 percent of everything, He really comes through. We now have one of the largest marijuana businesses in the county.”
It’s a great story, and when I get to the “marijuana” line, everyone is fully committed. Then we begin a fully interactive conversation about tithing and why God might bless even a marijuana business. No, God does not encourage or aid drug use, but He is amazingly skilled in reaching people where they are.
What stories should I tell?
We have talked about why narrative sermons are a good idea. Let’s look at what kinds of stories you can use. Though these provide a useful set of categories, please remember that every great sermon is a gallery in which there hangs a single portrait—the portrait of Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite authors, Ken Gire, provides an overview of the relationship between God and His followers, one that pastors would do well to remember every time they sit down to write a sermon or stand in the pulpit to deliver one. “The Christian life is about us following Christ’s lead, not about him following ours.
“He doesn’t ask us to write the notes to the music or choreograph the steps to the dance. He asks us merely to take his hand and follow him.”
Jesus, the greatest storyteller of all time, had a unique approach to communicating through narrative. He told stories so that the people would not understand the message He was sending (see Luke 8:10). Then, around the campfires in the evening, He would explain the stories to His closest followers so that they would be able to explain them to the people—and to us. He knew that if He came right out and spoke the facts of the message clearly, His ministry would end before He was finished. So that the message would sink in slowly and stick in the minds of His listeners, Jesus used stories, parables, and narratives that told the truth more effectively than if He gave three points and was possibly stoned.
Jesus did not tell just parables. He retold stories from the Torah, referred to news reports from the contemporary press, talked about how a nearby farmer was planting his field, and illustrated the largesse of faith with a diminutive mustard seed. Leadership guru Stephen Denning provides a handy menu of several different kinds of stories leaders can utilize, which I have adapted into seven points that should be in your sermonic cookbook.
Seven story styles for effective preaching
1. Stories to bring life change. Life-change stories usually come from a recent and relevant event and include a hero with whom listeners can identify. They have a genuine, happy ending with successfully implemented change. A life-change narrative provides a model that can be followed. (See, for example, the story “The Red Fire Truck” at ministrymagazine.org/stories.)
2. Stories to tell who we are. A personal testimony fits well here. These stories provide honest, real-life pictures with humor and pain. They also include personal learning and behavior change. (See, for example, the story “The Spanish Prayer” at ministrymagazine.org/stories.)
3. Stories to explain the church. These include wonderful stories of early church pioneers and missionaries and stories of how your congregation has grown. Knowing our history helps us move, with God, toward a better future. (See, for example, the story “Pastor Anderson’s Oranges” at ministrymagazine.org/stories.)
4. Stories to transmit values. Value-driven stories help everyone understand how Christians live. They teach why we care about poor people, about racial equality, and about supporting children. This type of story demonstrates how our commitment to honesty, kindness, compassion, humility, and love show up in how we treat people every day. Many well-known, value-driven stories, like the good Samaritan, come from Scripture, but everyday life in your community is also a rich source for common-place illustrations. (See, for example, the story “When Chiquita Cleans a Patient’s Room” at ministrymagazine.org/stories.)
5. Stories to get us to work together. Living as a church family amid a secular community is a constant battle between “good” and “evil.” Unfortunately, the battle often brings discord between the church and the world and between family members who prefer long prayers and those who prefer brief petitions. Or potlucks or no potlucks. Or green carpet instead of the threadbare orange that someone installed in 1962. There are always causes for division.
Carefully chosen stories can change the narrative and help bring unity especially if the story includes enough humor to help us see how crazy this battle has become. Choose stories that rehearse the value of collaboration. Especially, choose stories that begin a time of family storytelling, an open time when storytelling begins to flow freely and laughter loosens hearts. (See, for example, the story “Timmy and the Cement Truck” at ministrymagazine.org/stories.)
6. Stories to share truth. “God loves you even when you’re bad.” This is a true statement and a believable one. However, it becomes a living truth when you retell the story of the prodigal son or when you share the tale of King David and Bathsheba’s baby. Stories put skin on doctrines.
There is a crucial eternity moment in chapter 3 of John. It’s night, and Jesus is caught in an intense conversation with an inquisitor from the Sanhedrin. The conversation has swerved into a discussion of water, baptism, new birth, and wind. Nicodemus, the inquisitor who has come to “check out” this new Messiah, stops the Master in mid-sentence to ask a question that isn’t even on his interview sheet.
“Why are you here?”
“Nick,” Jesus replies, smiling and placing His hand on the Pharisee’s shoulder, “one day my Father and I were looking at the earth and noticed you, right here in Jerusalem. Dad pointed you out and said, ‘I really love that fellow.’ Then He turned to Me and asked, ‘Son, would you be willing to go down to the earth, find Nicodemus, and show him how much We love him so that he will fall in love with Us? It would be so good to have him here living with Us rather than lost there on earth.’ ”
There was a moment of silence, broken by a weak voice asking, “For me?”
“Yes, Nick. For you. And for whosoever else would like to come along.”
7. Stories to lead people toward the future. My grandfather had a dream in 1967. Grandma had recently died, and Grandpa desperately wanted to die too. “Being alone is a bad deal,” he whispered. In the dream, Grandpa was standing at the edge of a wide, rapidly flowing river. The water was muddy, swirling dangerously over an uneven bottom. On the other side, he could see fields of tall corn, each stalk heavy with multiple ears. Birds were singing. Horses were neighing happily. Families were laughing and playing games on thick, green grass. Everything had the aura of heaven.
An angel walked up beside Grandpa, saw the tears of desire on his cheeks, and asked whether he would like to go to the other side.
“Yes, please. Right now!”
“The water is deep and dangerous,” the angel warned. “Here, take hold of this rope, and all will be well on your crossing.”
Grandpa grasped the rope and stepped into the water. The river was rough and deep, far deeper and swifter than he had expected. He held on tightly and, at times, felt the rope was actually pulling him along. After what seemed a complete lifetime, his feet touched the hard ground near the far bank.
He leaped onto the shore, still clutching tightly to the rope that had been his salvation. When he glanced down, he saw that the rope was only about a meter long. Just long enough to reach from his hand into the water. Just long enough for faith to do its work.
Many in your church family are lonely, discouraged, angry, and hungry for something better. Your stories can help them see God’s solutions as that “something better.” Your stories, modern and from Scripture, can flood their lives with the Light of hope.
“Can I learn to tell great stories?”
Can you learn to tell great stories? Yes—but with some pointers. Teaching people how to write stories, the author and editor Arthur Gordon says, “Unless the listener has a built-in sense of the dramatic, a natural ear for words, an ability to think fairly clearly, the persistence of a horsefly and the tenacity of a crocodile, you are probably wasting your time.” Though I disagree with his conclusion, I must admit he has several good points, especially the one about the crocodile.
Here’s another pound of advice from the same author: “There’s no foolproof formula for short-story writing. . . .
“. . . If you’re ever seized with an urge to try this crazy business, there are a few things to remember. In most cases, a story needs an appealing central character for the reader to focus on and identify with. This character should come into the story at Point A with some kind of minus—a problem, a fear, a threat, a danger, a broken relationship—and leave it at Point Z with a plus, a problem solved, a danger evaded, an objective gained, a relationship healed. In between Point A and Point Z there should be increasing complication, mounting suspense, and finally a logical and believable Point of Resolution where things get straightened out. Unless they’re straightened out, the reader is going to feel dissatisfied, even cheated.”
Here are some pointers:
1. Use simple words. Simple words are best, especially for beginning storytellers. Flowery language, multiple adjectives, and dusty descriptions are more of a hindrance than a help. Pretend that you are speaking to a 12-year-old. That will cut out all words with more than three syllables (sal-va-tion still fits) and will force you to use simple descriptions. Amazingly, when you focus on 12-year-olds, everyone listens.
2. Read voraciously. Read to see how others tell stories. Read to find words you have never used. Read good Samaritan stories, political stories, biographies of great people. Read what your people are reading so your stories will help them fill in the puzzles.
3. Watch moving pictures. Sign up with a Christian video service like Igniter.com. These people are expert storytellers. Watch news highlights, National Geographic specials about God, and videos your members ask whether you have watched. Though the devil is using video to capture the minds and emotions of us all, God is also a pretty amazing Producer.
4. Choose descriptive phrases. Begin, carefully, to use some of the purple phrases you discover in your reading and watching. These phrases, strings of pearls storytellers use to brighten the pictures, will clarify emotions, bring listeners further into your story, and provide those moments that will stick the story close to each heart, such as:
- “His face was lined with a thousand remembered smiles.”
- “Her singing brought nightingales to their knees.”
5. Connect with the known. Your story will gather the most believers if it connects listeners with an even greater story they already know.
Where do I find good stories?
Most Bible narratives provide you with the basics: a believable character, a minus, a lot of complexity, a plus, and a celebration. Think about Jonah and his fear of doing God’s will. Or the widow of Zarephath, whom God “prepared” to care for Elijah. Or, one of my favorites, the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath and then sent off carrying his bed right into a phalanx of law-enforcing Pharisees. Telling Bible stories is almost too easy.
Then there are the stories you “catch” each week. Remember, narrative sermons require good, constant listening! Listen as you live:
- Read the morning newspaper—in print or online.
- Share a Bible study and breakfast with three good friends every Thursday.
- Read Christian magazines, such as Adventist World, other kinds of publications, such as National Geographic, and the multiple “begging” letters you receive from charities needing money. They are all treasure troves of stories.
- Turn on the news on your car radio.
- Visit with the community service workers at the food pantry.
Get the idea? The best stories tend to jump out and grab you while you are doing God’s work. In addition, bear the following in mind:
- Your family can be a source for sermon stories—but only very carefully.
- Information from your counseling is also off limits—even if you disguise it well.
- Your stories should never be told to make yourself look good. Only God can be the Hero.
- Always give credit to the source of your story.
How will I know if my narrative preaching is working?
An old song says it well: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” If you first invest time listening to the voice of God and then demonstrate how much you love listening to your church family, God will guide you to speak stories that touch their needs and give them hope. That hope will come through as joy, a deep energy that will infuse church with affirmation, inquiry, and rejoicing.
Meaningful preaching is built upon a foundation of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit. Those two, mixed together with equal parts determination and humility, provide a sure voice for God’s love to win even the best-armed heart. You will become known as one of God’s troubadours, a village tale-teller, the voice in the shadows of the campfire. That is a good way to be remembered—as a storyteller. A good storyteller.
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- Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker, What’s Your Story? Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People, and Brands (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2007), 1.
- Calvin Miller, The Sermon Maker: Tales of a Transformed Preacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 14.
- Miller, Sermon Maker, 8.
- Miller, Sermon Maker, 44.
- Ken Gire, The Divine Embrace (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2003), 89.
- Arthur Gordon, Through Many Windows (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1983), 137, 138.
- Gordon, Through Many Windows, 138.