9513010_s“I am not sure your preaching style would work in Singapore.” I had just preached in a church in Malaysia. Apparently the sermon had gone down well. (My personal policy is to withhold any judgement as to the effectiveness of anything I do till I see Jesus.) One of the pastors suggested that my preaching style may have worked for a Malaysian audience but may not work for a Singapore audience. I replied that I have only one style. I use a lot of stories.

I usually begin with a story to engage an audience. I use stories throughout a sermon to illustrate, to engage, to explicate. I am happiest preaching from narratives — a story from one of the Gospels, or from the book of Acts, or an episode from Israel’s history. I normally take the audience through the biblical story itself, letting them see the inner logic of the passage, letting the magic of the story do its work.

I think I am in good company when I use stories as a key way to communicate God’s truth. After all, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. (Matthew 13:34 NIV).” Clearly there were times when Jesus gave non-parabolic teaching. But even then there was a parabolic dimension about them.

. . . Jesus’ public teaching, even when not cast in a form we would recognize as parable, remains elusive, challenging, and unsettling . . . (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007, 530.)

Jesus understood the power of stories.

In his recent book, The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall is but the latest of many to point out the power of story. He speaks of being ambushed by the story in a country and western song:

I sat there for a long time feeling sad but also marvelling at how quickly Wick’s small musical story had melted me – a grown man, and not a weeper – into sheer helplessness. How odd it is, I thought, that a story can sneak upon us on a beautiful autumn day, make us laugh or cry, make us amorous or angry, make our skin shrink around our flesh, alter the way we imagine ourselves and our worlds. . . How bizarre it is that when we experience a story . . . the story maker penetrates our skull and seizes control of our brains (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, xv).

Not only are stories a powerful means of communicating, there are some who argue that we need stories to make sense of life.

In order to understand our world, to make sense of our lives, and to make our most important decisions about how we ought to be living, we depend upon some story. In fact, among some philosophers, theologians, and biblical scholars, there is growing recognition that “a story … is … the best way of talking about the way the world actually is.” (Craig G. Bartholomew & Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004, 18).

There is another approach to preaching. The concern in this approach is to ensure that the audience remembers the points of the sermons. In this approach a sermon will consist of three or four memorable points, usually couched in slogan-like terms. Here, the speaker grapples with the text, draws out the main points and then recouches the points in short slogan-like statements. The audience does not engage with the text directly. He or she hears and remembers the points. Of course the speaker will illustrate the points with anecdotes but the hearer does not encounter the text directly. He or she is dependent on the speaker to interpret and to present the theological points of a passage.

There may be times when we need to preach like this. I am sure the points are memorable. But do we want people to just remember points? Or do we want the truth to bypass defences and shape hearts and minds? Do we want people to remember points or to remember the logic and meaning of a passage so that they will be moved by it next time they revisit that passage? And what do we want people to remember? Points or a life-giving story? As Tony Campolo, a master communicator reminds us:

God created us to respond to stories, and that is why few speaking techniques engage an audience better than a good story. Stories not only catch and keep our attention but also create memorable, challenging, and convicting visual images. A well-told story can powerfully connect with us emotionally, bypass our defenses, and find a clear path to our souls. (Tony Campolo & Mary Albert Darling, Connecting Like Jesus, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010, 130.)

I first started preaching when I was in secondary school. I recall my early sermons with horror. I recall inflicting my hearers with moral precepts and theological statements. I wonder now how they kept awake. I realise now how kind they were to sit through my sermons. Indeed it is a reminder to me to be kind as I listen to various speakers. That was 40 years ago.

I realise now that people who listen to sermons are not looking for bare intellectual theological points. They come with their own stories, stories of need and tragedy, hoping that they can hear a story that will give them hope and healing and purpose. They need to connect their story with God’s story. They need to be part of a story of hope, a story with a happy ending. Lord forgive me. I often do it poorly. But I want to, in the power of the Spirit, use stories so that Your Story can be heard and so that people can be whole.

Let me end by quoting a nifty piece of narrative from one of my favourite authors and storytellers. Indulge me. Here Buechner is describing the moment just before a preacher speaks.

The preacher pulls a little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them? Let him tell them the truth. (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth, San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1977, 23.)