In the early days of my preaching, I would write out my notes on note cards and bring my note cards to the pulpit. I rarely wrote out my sermons in full nor did I try to memorise them. I wanted more eye contact with my audience. But I was nervous about forgetting stuff, so I wrote a lot of detailed notes on note cards which meant I brought a thick stack of note cards to the pulpit. One day I accidentally knocked over my set of cards and they fell and scattered everywhere. I was shocked and embarrassed and decided I couldn’t use note cards anymore. I decided to write the skeleton of my talk on one A4 sheet of paper and bring that to the pulpit. I have been doing that ever since. But what I tried to do then, and I still try to do today, is to use stories in my sermons.
Recently I was rereading Advocacy by John A. Daly. (1) He has a chapter in the book entitled “Your Idea Is Only as Good as Its Story” (pp 119–138) where he gives five reasons why powerful stories help to make “clear and compelling points” (p 125 ff). He says:
- Compelling stories are engrossing.
- People understand what’s being proposed when a story is told.
- Stories synthesize ideas.
- People vividly remember narratives and the messages that derive from them.
- People find it difficult to disagree with a story’s persuasive content.
Daly, like many others, reminds us that “We are hardwired to think narratively”. The many streaming services today that offer all sorts of programmes attract us with the stories they tell. When Bernice and I started watching Korean dramas we wondered how a series could keep our attention for 16 episodes. (Many Korean dramas are 16 episodes.) Well, though some series were boring, we managed to finish most of the series we watched. Why? Compelling story telling. All preachers must take seriously the fact that their audiences are hardwired to receive truth narratively.
Jesus understood the power of stories. In fact, we are told that “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:33–34a NIV). We must also remember that the gospels are records of stories about Jesus and His teaching that were first passed on orally before they were written down. Paul, on the other hand, wrote letters to address various problems in the early church. So, the Pauline epistles were written documents with very few stories. But Jesus’s teachings were oral ones before they were recorded and became the gospels we now have. Jesus’s oral teaching was very much done through stories.
Teaching through stories has also helped speakers like myself who do not write our script in full. A story has a logic of its own — what happened, what happened next, etc. It is easier to remember a story and most of my points are anchored on a relevant story.
In preaching, however, it’s not just about how we speak but what we speak. Christian teaching and preaching must be expositions of the Word of God, based on a proper interpretation of God’s Word. But I think we shouldn’t just look at what Jesus said, but how He said it.
(1) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011