A young man went away to college, the first in his family to finish high school. His hardworking parents had never learned to read and were very proud of him. One day a letter came from their boy in college. Eager to get the news, the father waved down a neighbor on the road and begged him to read the letter from his boy away at the big university. The neighbor was impatient and rude and ran through the letter as if it had no punctuation: “Mom-and-Dad-School’s-hard-I’m-making-the-grade-Running-short-of-money….Send some! Your son, Tim.”
The neighbor tossed the letter back to the father and hurried on his way. The old man shuffled slowly back to the house with his chin on his chest. “If that’s the way he talks to his parents now, I don’t know if college is such a good idea. Maybe I won’t send him any money.” When he told his wife the gist of the letter, she too was hurt but thought there might be a mistake. She persuaded her husband to ask another neighbor to read it.
He made his way to a nearby farm where lived a more helpful neighbor. He read the letter in a slow and tender voice, pausing as the punctuation required. “Dear Mom and Dad, School is hard, but I am making the grade. Right now I am running a little short of money though. I would be very grateful if you could send some. Your loving son, Tim.”
“Now that’s more like it,” said the father, as he brushed away a tear. “When my boy talks that way, I’d give him my last dime!” In storytelling, too, it makes a difference how you tell it.
This article offers guidance on sermon delivery as it relates to storytelling. In a fine restaurant the chef gives diligent attention to presentation of the meal as well as to ingredients and cooking. Let the preacher take care to serve his feast in the most appealing way. Here you will find a suggested method for preparing a story for telling. Next you will find a number of suggestions that will help you with an approach to a storytelling style. Then arises the question of whether a certain story is appropriate for the pulpit. What enters into that decision?
Preparing for the Pulpit
The moment of delivery is the moment of truth. Part of sermon preparation is planning for delivery. As an old proverb says, a good story ill told is a bad one. Prepare the story well enough that pulpit notes do not become a barrier. Here is a deep mystery: a capable pulpiteer is not otherwise bound to sermon manuscript or pulpit notes except when he pulls out a clipping and reads a narrative to the congregation. A story is the easiest part of the prepared sermon to recall; why read it? An exact quotation of an important person might need to be read verbatim, but a narrative is too easy to learn to justify reading.
How does a storyteller prepare to tell the story? Advance preparation involves the selection of the story, even if it is a story of your own composition. It needs to be one that you are eager to tell. If you have put it into your sermon, may we assume you have the conviction that God wants you to tell it? Once you have settled on your story, there are basically five steps to getting yourself ready to tell it. The goal is not to memorize the story but to absorb it until you can retell it without use of notes.1
First, read the story for its own sake. Let the story make its impression on you without pausing too much to reflect critically on what that impression is or how it is made. Just enjoy the story and otherwise appreciate it. The second step is to read the story several times more. Read it aloud as well as silently. At this stage you want to fix the story as a whole in your mind before dealing with the parts.
Then in the third step, begin to think about the parts. Think about the beginning, the middle, and the end. Notice the setting of the story if it is important. What is the starting situation? Is there a stress or conflict that arises? What search for a solution follows? And how is it resolved? In looking at the details, spend time with the characters. It may take time for them to become real. Give them time.
A fourth stage is to visualize the story. This may be combined with stage three, but it is a separate matter. See the sights. Hear the sounds. Imagine the aromas and textures and tastes that may be in the story. What colors do you see in your vision? Take time to fix them in your mind. You may not mention any hue or scent in the telling, but whatever is vivid to you will more easily stick in your memory.
Finally, practice telling the story. Tell the story orally as many times as necessary to fix it in your mind and assure yourself that you have it. It can be frustrating to be telling a story and recall late in the plot that you left out an early and important detail. It will happen. When it does, may you have presence of mind to work it in and ad lib without saying, “Oh, wait a minute! I forgot to tell you…” Flashback can be useful at such times. At other times, avoid backing up the plot. Keep the narrative in the natural chronology.
You might find it helpful to follow this plan with a two-minute story before moving on to five- and 10-minute stories. If you have a longer story such as a sermon that is one long narrative, here’s another hint for getting ready to tell. In addition to the five stages above, practice with pen and paper, jotting down key words or symbols that will help you recall in order the whole with all of its parts.2
An Approach to Style for Storytelling Preaching
Style is a preacher’s characteristic way of expressing himself. Your style is your own personal way of using the resources of language to accomplish the objective of your address. To communicate a message from God ought to be every preacher’s overall purpose in every sermon and in every story. How well you do that depends much on your attention to clear, interesting, and forceful speech. This includes your choice of words, their arrangement, and finally speaking them. Some choices help gain the goal; others get in the way. With practice and attention to detail, a preacher can evolve an effective style for pulpit or platform. The following is not a list of rules but some matters that might help you toward becoming an excellent storyteller.
Place yourself in the background. Keep in mind that your goal is to express God’s Word, not to make a good impression for yourself. Someone said, and I’m not sure who, “No preacher can convey the impression that he himself is clever and at the same time that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.” Stories that promote and puff the preacher should be judged in the pastor’s study and never make it to the pulpit so that they will need never be judged at the judgment seat of Christ. It is possible to overdo the ego bit and to underdo it. You should be the first to notice if you are saying “I” too often, but some preachers are too sensitive here. As the classic definition by Phillips Brooks says, “Preaching is truth through personality.”
Write and speak in a way that comes naturally. Some people write in a style entirely different from their speaking style. If you write your sermons, as I strongly recommend for at least the first 10 years of your ministry, take care to write in an oral style. Write as you speak. The late Charles Allen, a preacher who occupied the greatest United Methodist pulpits in the late 20th century, used to write his sermons longhand. He paused to speak every sentence out loud before he penned it. When he finished his first draft, he rarely changed a single sentence before he preached it. Then very much of what he preached found its way into one of his books of sermons published with little or no editing. Cultivate an oral style in writing stories.
Stimulate the senses. Help the listener see and feel and even smell the story as well as hear it. Fifty years ago I heard N.A. Woychuk at Bible Memory Camp relating an incident from his childhood. He described the arrival in the mail of a book he had ordered. He carefully unwrapped the package until the volume lay open in his hands. “I can close my eyes,” he said, “and still remember how it smelled.” That was enough to connect with us, for everyone has experienced that special mix of printer’s ink and binder’s glue or whatever it is that gives a new book its unique aroma.
Tell the story; don’t read it to the congregation. The story sermon makes preaching without notes a realistic goal. Personal stories and experiences are especially easy to tell without notes. A number of preachers have turned to narrative in sermons in the quest to preach without notes-that goal which seems to be the holy grail of every pastor and is without a doubt admired by those who gather to hear sermons. Clarence Macartney is one who turned to biblical stories and Bible biography sermons as the way to learn to preach without notes.3
It’s not a good idea to memorize and recite the story. It will almost always sound recited. We want to hear a preacher tell a story, not perform one. The protocol suggested above will help a preacher absorb the story and tell it to the congregation rather than perform it before them.
What about gestures in storytelling? Let them be unplanned, spontaneous, natural. Planned gestures run the risk of coming across as planned. They are likely to be just a bit off timing. Then they become comic gestures since missed timing is a staple of slapstick comedy. Eye contact is also an important use of the body. I recall a preaching professor describing how he makes use of eye contact by looking away from the congregation while telling the story, then turning decisively to look directly at the congregation in making the application. Any such planning is likely to appear planned. If you get involved in the story, as you should, you will feel the story and convey those feelings by your body language. If a passage is pensive, there is likely to be a diversion of the eyes naturally, perhaps looking down while talking. Or there may be a far-away look that conveys thoughtfulness. In any case, planning any such gesture is not recommended. Nevertheless, we do speak volumes with our eyes.
Dialogue is an asset in a story. It breaks up the narrative, but when told orally, it does not take much dialogue to turn this asset into a confusing liability. Remember that the listener does not have the advantage of a printed page before him or her to give a glance of review. How do you avoid the confusion of who-said-what oral transmission? One way is to use less dialogue. Use few extended passages of direct quotes or none at all. Another way is to let the narrator summarize some of the conversation and include only such direct quotations as may be helpful. A variation of this is to use direct quotes for only one of the speakers while narrating a synopsis of the other speaker.
What about imitating the tone or dialect of different voices in dialogue? It’s better not to try. A male preacher, for example, trying to impersonate a female voice is another opportunity for the preacher to make himself ridiculous. And unless you have a really good ear for dialect, don’t try that. Black dialect, Latino accent, and imitation of other racial or ethnic minorities is unacceptable.
Keep your younger listeners in mind. That you use stories at all is a big step in that direction. Children listen and love the story even though the theological truth may escape them for now. Don’t talk down to them; they can follow a story line when they are 2 and 3 years old. This is an amazing fact of the human brain. We will know we have developed artificial intelligence when a computer can create and appreciate a story.
It is better not to introduce a story. Just tell it. If the story cannot stand on its own in a sermon, perhaps it does not belong there. For the same reason, it’s better not to “apply” the story. Belaboring the point of the story becomes “preaching” the illustration. The story is a wonderful servant but an oppressive master. If you have to explain the story, it is not helping you explain your biblical truth.
Some Stories to Avoid
A few common mistakes regularly appear in pulpit storytelling. Just a word of caution may keep you from making some of them.
Avoid implausible stories. A preacher story I first heard in my childhood has resurfaced several times in my recent research though it may not be familiar to the reader. It seems a pilot was on a transoceanic flight when he heard the distinct sound of a mouse gnawing on metal. He was sure the creature would gnaw through a control cable and the plane would crash. What could he do? The pilot was too far into his flight to turn back. There was no place to land. He decided to climb to a higher altitude where the air would be too rare for the mouse to survive. Thus did he save himself, his plane and his passengers.
Most of us will cock our head at that story and know that something is just not right in there. Is it the mouse gnawing on a steel cable? Any pilot will know right away why it never happened. In my younger days I flew a variety of small planes from the J3 Piper Cub to a World War II Navy Trainer. Anything with an airplane engine will make too much noise for the pilot to hear any mouse gnawing. Once I even flew a Schweitzer Sailplane with no motor at all. Even then, except at the top of a climb or a loop when airspeed approaches zero, the sound of the wind whistling past the smoothest canopy would make that mouse too quiet to be heard. Ian Macpherson credits to John Gray this cautionary
couplet: “Lest men suspect your tale untrue, keep probability in view.”
Lay worn-out stories to rest. A visiting preacher got a word of advice from a lay leader about doing the children’s sermon when he visited the pastorless church. The layman told the visitor that in the past 12 months no fewer than 10 preachers had used the same worn-out tale of the little boy who gave his mother a bill for chores done.
Avoid stories that are crude, coarse or offensive to sensibilities. Bedroom and bathroom are best left out of sermons. This applies to attempts at humor as well as serious narrative. And we can do without stories that make us cringe at some crucial detail. A Clovis Chappell story that I would not tell in a sermon and will only describe for the purpose here is about a great bell that was cast and recast repeatedly until the bell maker’s daughter threw herself into the molten bronze and made it work. It was meant to illustrate God’s sacrifice of His Son. I’m afraid the message is marred more than illumined. Guard the dignity of the pulpit.
Avoid stories that hijack the sermon. Sometime you will find a story that is so compelling that you just have to use it. You may prepare a whole sermon just to fit that story. That is not bad if you really do wed the story to the right text and theme. The danger is double here, however. You may end up with the tail wagging the dog. The story must never draw attention to itself. The other danger is that the preacher will count on the strength of one story and not give due diligence to searching exegesis of the Scriptures and submission of the story to the divine truth in the Word. After that, it is an advantage to have a story that the preacher really feels strongly about.
Finally, it’s not just old preachers who tell the same old stories over and over. Repeating favorite stories is tempting to us all. Most preachers know they can repeat a sermon to the same congregation if the narrative illustrations are different. On the other hand, the preacher can deliver an entirely new sermon, different text, different title, different organization; but if the preacher repeats a story in that sermon, numerous members of the congregation will remark about having heard the sermon before.
If you repeat a story, introduce it in a way that acknowledges it is a story revisited. “You might remember the story of Mr. X, Olympic swimmer, etc.” Or, “I told this story to some of you a couple of years ago, but it is worth hearing again in the present context.”
Keep records on when and where you told this story. And go easy on that “old preacher” stuff. If you live long enough, you will be an old preacher yourself someday!
From The Preacher as Storyteller, by Austin B. Tucker, pp. 140-147. Copyright © 2008, Austin B. Tucker. Published by B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee. Used by permission.
1. You may have notes in the pulpit if they comfort you and spare you the anxiety that may cause you to freeze up and go blank. But I warn you, until you have become comfortable with your own method of sermon delivery, having notes will be like an alcoholic carrying a little bottle in his pocket just in case he needs a drink.
2. Margaret Read MacDonald, The Story-Teller’s Start Up Book (Little Rock, AR: August House, 1993) offers a similar plan in chapter 1, “Learning the Story in One Hour.”
3. George M. Bass, “The Story Sermon: Key to Effective Preaching?” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Homiletics, Princeton, NJ, Dec. 5-8, 1984, 2, 5.