When Jesus preached His greatest sermon on the love and grace of God, He didn’t say “Let me share three principles about God’s love.” Instead He said “There was a man who had two sons …”
Story preaching, sometimes called narrative or parable preaching, has been an important method of Christian proclamation since Jesus told parables. However, during the past decade, story preaching has grown increasingly popular in American Christianity. Large numbers of preachers have moved away from propositional preaching toward a more narrative, story-telling method. Richard Eslinger calls this shift from precept to parable preaching “The Copernican revolution in homiletics.”1
Simpy put, story preaching is a preaching style that is fundamentally storytelling in its methodology. A story sermon may take the form of an extended biblical story, taking the listener from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” However, story sermons are often a combination of several stories, both biblical and non-biblical. An example of the multiple story is found in Luke 15, where Jesus told three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Other variations of story preaching exist but, for the purposes of this article, it is enough to say that story preaching is preaching that communicates primarily through the telling of stories. Although the heart of a story sermon is a biblical narrative, story preaching also uses stories from history, literature, theatre, motion pictures, current events, and personal experiences.
Story preaching has captured the imagination of many contemporary preachers. Calvin Miller describes his conversion to story preaching this way: “I will never forget the first time I heard a narrative preacher. The rattlebang homiletics of all the one-two-threesy preachers of my youth dissolved sweetly like the reels of old horror films in the charm of his narrative. From that time on, I was hooked on the idea.”2
Like Miller, I’m hooked on story preaching. Although it’s certainly not the only valid form of preaching, it is an extremely effective method. With the help of numerous writers in the field of homiletics, let’s consider ten strengths of story preaching.
1. Story preaching’s style is congruent with the biblical record.
Indeed, it can be forcefully argued that story preaching is the most biblical method possible for preaching a sermon. Years ago, H. Grady Davis reminded preachers that while only one-tenth of the gospel is exposition, nine-tenths of it is narrative. This fact made Davis question why propositional sermons roared on, entirely out of sync with the Bible’s narrative mode.3
Charles Rice gets to the heart of this issue in his book, The Embodied Word. “It is easy to forget,” says Rice, “that the Bible is, whatever else we may say about it, a storybook. We may divide it into chapter and verse, parse its poetry, turn its tragicomedy into texts, and make so much of its jots and tittles that we cannot hear the stories as stories, but the Bible remains, nonetheless, a storybook.”4
Frederick Buechner understands this truth. That’s why he titled one of his books. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.5 As William White forcefully reminds us, “Story, not doctrine, is the Bible’s main ingredient. We do not have a doctrine of creation, we have stories of creation. We do not have a concept of resurrection, we have marvelous narratives of Easter.” White concludes, “There is relatively little in either the Old Testament or the New Testament that does not rest on narrative or story of some form.”6
In my tradition as an evangelical Baptist, the phrase, “the Bible says,” is the most important concern of preaching. Our people want to know, “Thus saith the Lord.” Therefore, at least from the evangelical tradition, the greatest strength of story preaching is that it takes its cue from Scripture.
2. Story preaching follows the example of Jesus.
Hebrews 1:1-2 tells us: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son …” And how did God’s Son speak to us? Through stories! As we read in Mark 4:34: “He (Jesus) did not say anything to them without using a parable.”
In their book, Learning to Preach Like Jesus, Ralph Lewis and Gregg Lewis convincingly argue that Jesus’ way of preaching is inductive and narrative. They claim that since Jesus trusted narrative logic, so should we. Their thesis can be summarized in two short sentences from their book, “Jesus would not preach without a story. So why do we?”7
Listen to William White’s thoughts on this subject. “Few of us can imagine children sitting in rows as Jesus paces back and forth lecturing on the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation. His message demanded that His method be descriptive, concrete, and full of pictures. To announce the kingdom of God, he used parables, metaphors, and similes. Jesus was a storytelling man.”8 If we want to follow Jesus’ model of communication, we must learn the art of story preaching.
3. Story preaching touches the heart.
Effective preaching must make an emotional impact on the listener. Fred Craddock claims that emotional impact is not only acceptable to the listener, it is welcomed and even desired, as long as there is no attempt to manipulate.9 Preaching cannot afford to neglect matters of the heart. As Welton Gaddy suggests in his collection of university sermons, effective preaching “tunes the heart.”10 A growing number of theologians and homileticians are realizing the importance of emotion in religious experience, and the role that stories play in that dynamic.
The African-American church has always appreciated the importance of emotion in preaching. Henry Mitchell, an articulate spokesperson for the black tradition, makes a strong argument for emotional impact in the preaching event. He claims that a purely cerebral approach to preaching misses the point entirely. Mitchell argues that since we are both rational and emotional beings, effective preaching must touch the heart as well as the head, and that stories are the most effective way to do so.11
4. Story preaching is effective in a visual age.
We live in an age of television, motion pictures, videos, computer games, and other visual media. Today’s young people don’t just listen to music — they watch it! Television has dramatically impacted our culture — to ignore this fact in our preaching is fatal.
A television culture is not bad news for the story preacher. At its heart, television is a storytelling medium. As Bruce Salmon notes, movies, prime-time dramatic series, soap operas, situational comedies, sports, the news, even commercials — all are basically stories.12 Preachers who want to be effective in a television culture must employ a narrative preaching style.
Raymond Bailey asserts that the storytelling techniques of Jesus will still work in our image-oriented society. “Vigorous dynamic language,” says Bailey, “will arrest the attention of the television generations. Indirect rhetoric such as a story has the best chance of bringing people face to face with God.”13
Propositional, informational preaching does not, and will not, fare well in a visual age. However, preachers who learn to paint verbal images through the generous use of story will still get a hearing in the age of television.
5. Story preaching captures and holds the congregation’s attention.
In his provocative book, The Sermon Doctor, Harry Farra says, “God created the human mind to respond to that which is interesting: suspense, humor, novelty, the startling, dialogue, stories, proverbs, parables — stuff with zip, sparkle, and snap.” Therefore, says Farra, “preaching ought to take that into consideration. Most preachers define preaching as the proclamation of divine truth. It’s possible, though, to proclaim truth and bore people to tears.” Farra concludes, “and people will not easily forgive boredom — even done in the name of God.”14
So what’s the antidote to boring sermons? Stories! For stories, more than anything else, capture the interest and attention of an audience. G. William Jones puts it this way: “The audience becomes suddenly quiet, forgetting even to cough, sniff, or squirm, as the tale is spun … There is something almost automatically captivating about a story that catches our minds and makes us forget to breathe until it is over.”15
I’m not suggesting that capturing and sustaining the attention of the congregation is the most important element in preaching. We are in the business of proclaiming divine truth, not entertaining our congregations. However, if we don’t capture attention, our sermon is wasted. If we want to be heard, we must gain and keep attention, and stories will do that for us.
6. Story preaching makes the sermon memorable.
As Calvin Miller notes, people remember story sermons far better than clever alliterated outlines so common to evangelical, preceptual sermons. “Stories,” says Miller, “have a way of staying in place when even the most cleverly contrived sermon outlines elude us.”16
Many of you have heard Garrison Keillor. If you’ve listened to him spin a tale you probably agree that he is a master storyteller. In an interview several years ago Keillor said, “A minister who stands up and occupies twenty minutes of the worship hour only has to say one thing for the sermon to be worthwhile — just one clear image that you can take home with you.”17 It’s hard to “take home” a precept sermon. However, a good story is hard to forget.
7. Story preaching gives movement to the sermon.
To quote Robert Roth: “Stories begin once upon a time. They move through episodes to a climax and then come to an end … Stories move. They have a plot.”18 And so do good sermons. They are like motion pictures rather than still-life photographs. It’s difficult, however, to make a propositional sermon move. Fred Craddock alludes to this in his book, As One Without Authority. He asks his readers: “How does one get from 2b to main point II? That is a gulf that can be smoothly negotiated only by the most clever. Looked at geographically, a three-point sermon on this pattern would take the congregation on three trips down hill, but who gets them to the top each time? The limp phrase, ‘Now in the second place’ hardly has the leverage.”19 Good sermons move, and stories can make it happen.
8. Story preaching takes seriously right brain/left brain research.
Although there’s no time to go into depth on this subject, it makes for fascinating study. In Learning to Preach Like Jesus, Ralph and Gregg Lewis claim that homiletics has concentrated on left-brain preferences such as words, speech, analysis, theory, theology, abstraction, arguments, and propositions. They say that the right-brain accents of the Bible — the visual, metaphorical, creative, holistic, and concrete have been lost in the rhetorical rules and carefully scripted, cognitive, abstract and logical language favored by traditional left-brain homiletics. Conversely, story preaching engages the richness of right-brain thinking. Therefore, they conclude that much more right-brain preaching is needed in today’s homiletics.20
If you want to explore this idea further, you’ll want to read Learning to Preach Like Jesus. You might also want to examine Donald Chatfield’s creative book, Dinner With Jesus and Other Left-Handed Story-Sermons.21
9. Story preaching eliminates the need for a manuscript and reduces the need for notes.
This is a major benefit of story preaching methodology. Since stories are easily told without notes, storyteller preachers spend more time connecting with their congregations and less time looking at notes or manuscripts.
David Larsen claims that manuscript preaching is the least-acceptable method of sermon delivery, and that preaching without notes or with minimal notes should be the goal. He argues that “The world of print must yield to the speech event.” Larsen reminds his readers that television viewers are accustomed to communicators who don’t appear to rely on written materials. “Paper,” concludes Larsen, “is not a good conductor of heat.”22
10. Story preaching makes an impact.
In a way, this comment is redundant. If story sermons are biblical, follow the example of Jesus, touch the heart, work in a visual society, capture attention, are memorable, make the sermon flow, speak to the right side of the brain, and reduce the need for notes, they obviously will make an impact.
Allow me to be autobiographical for a moment. I’ve been in the preaching business for twenty years. I served as a youth speaker in high school, an associate pastor during college, a student pastor during seminary, and a senior pastor after seminary. I have also served as the editor of Proclaim, the Southern Baptist Convention’s preaching journal. During my four years with Proclaim I also served as a preaching and worship consultant, and an interim pastor. Through the years I’ve written extensively on the subject of worship and preaching. I’m currently engaged in Ph.D. studies in preaching and worship at Vanderbilt University.
Although I have much more to learn about homiletics, I’ve come to an important conclusion during these twenty years of preaching, editing, consulting, and writing. I believe that when it comes to preaching, impact is more important than information. And stories, more than any other method in preaching, create impact.
Martin Buber tells the story of his grandfather who was asked to relate a story about his great teacher, the famous and holy Baal Shem Tov. The paralyzed grandfather replied by telling how the holy man used to jump up and down and dance when he was praying. Being swept up in the fervor of the narrative, the grandfather himself stood up and began to jump and dance to show how the master had done it. At that moment the grandfather was completely healed of his paralysis.23 Now that’s preaching with impact!
Donald Chatfield tells of an experience he had at a meeting of the Academy of Homiletics. It was at that meeting that he first heard Reuven Gold tell stories. Chatfield recounts: “I watched and listened as a man who had never met me told stories — mostly Hasidic tales — that moved me to my depths. I laughed and I cried, but most important, I could feel something in my body as well as in my mind, opening up as he talked.”24
I had a similar experience years ago when I heard Fred Craddock preach a sermon called “When the Roll is Called Down Here.” I couldn’t believe his text. It was Romans 12:1-16, which is simply a list of names. But as I listened to that man with the strange voice talk about Paul’s list of names, I was deeply moved. Craddock’s sermon was a multiple story sermon. He talked about a jury duty list, a list of church member’s names embroidered on a quilt, the list of names on the Vietnam Veteran wall, and so forth. To this day I’ve never had a sermon impact me more than Craddock’s story sermon about Paul’s list. It was a powerful reminder that what counts most in life, including my life, are relationships.
Someone once asked Samuel Miller, then dean of Harvard Divinity School, where he would go to church in New York City to be moved. Miller confessed he was at a loss to guarantee such a pulpit, but he could recommend three or four plays.25 I don’t know how serious Miller was, but his comment clearly illustrates that plays, or stories, move people. If we care about preaching for impact, we would do well to preach story sermons.
Story preaching has its limitations, and is only one of many valid methods of preaching, but for the contemporary preacher who wants to be an effective proclaimer of God’s word, story preaching is a powerful tool.
I’d like to conclude this article by telling you one of my favorite stories. I first heard this story at the National Storytelling Festival.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the Jews were being expelled from Spain, they went all over Europe — France, Germany, Greece, and some went to the Holy Land. Among the latter group was Jacoby. He was a shoemaker by trade. Now, Jacoby was a kind man, but the thing that everybody noticed about him was that he was so devout. He would go to the synagogue every sabbath and listen to what the rabbi was saying — and that was odd because Jacoby spoke Spanish and the rabbi spoke Hebrew. But Jacoby would screw up his face and listen and listen, trying to catch the rabbi’s every word.
One sabbath the rabbi gave a sermon and in the sermon he mentioned how twelve loaves of bread were offered to God when the holy temple was still there. Jacoby heard “bread” and he heard “God” and he got so excited. He ran home and said to his wife, “Esperanza! Guess what? God eats bread! And you are the best baker in the whole country! This week make your best bread and I’ll bring it to God.”
That week Esperanza kneaded in the best ingredients, and with her best intentions she braided the bread with such love. The next week Jacoby took twelve loaves of bread to the synagogue.
“Senior Dios. I’ve got your bread. You’ll see, you’ll love it. My wife Esperanza, she’s a wonderful baker! You’ll eat every crumb!” And with that said, Jacoby took the bread and put it into the holy ark.
No sooner did Jacoby leave than in came the shammes, the man who cleans up the synagogue. “Lord, you know I want to be here in this holy place, that’s all I want to do. But for seven weeks now I haven’t been paid. Lord, I need for you to make me a miracle. I believe you’re going to, maybe you have done it already. Maybe I’ll open the holy ark and there will be my miracle.” And he walked to the ark and he opened it and there was his miracle: twelve loaves of bread — enough for the whole week!
The next day, when Jacoby and Esperanza opened the ark and saw that the bread was gone, you should have seen the look of love that passed between them.
The next week it was the same. And the week after, it was the same. And this went on for months and months. The shammes, he learned to have faith in God; but if he hung around the synagogue, or came too early, there was no miracle.
And so, thirty years went by. Thirty years later, Jacoby came to the synagogue with his loaves of bread. “Senior Dios, I know your bread’s been lumpy lately. Esperanza’s arthritis, you understand — maybe you could do something? You’ll eat better!” He put the bread in the ark and started to leave when suddenly the rabbi grabbed him. “What are you doing?”, the rabbi demanded. Jacoby said, “I’m bringing God his bread.” The rabbi responded, “God doesn’t eat bread!” Jacoby said, “He’s been eating Esperanza’s bread for thirty years.” The two men heard a noise, and they hid.
No sooner did they hide, than in came the shammes. He spoke to the holy ark: “I hate to bring it up, Lord, but you know, your bread’s been lumpy lately. Maybe you could talk to an angel.” Then the shammes reached into the ark to grab the bread, but the rabbi jumped out and grabbed him.
The rabbi began to yell at the two men, telling them how sinful it was that they were doing this, going on and on until all three began to cry. Jacoby began to cry because he only wanted to do good. The rabbi began to cry because all of this happened due to his sermon. And the shammes began to cry because suddenly he knew there was going to be no more bread.
Suddenly they heard laughter in the corner. They turned and it was the great mystic, Rabbi Issac. He was shaking his head and laughing and said, “No, rabbi, these men, they are not sinful. These men are devout! You should know that God has never had more pleasure, or more fun, than watching what goes on in your synagogue. On the sabbath, He sits with His angels and they laugh, watching this man bring the bread, and the other man take the bread, and God gets all the credit! You must beg forgiveness of these men, rabbi.”
And then he looked at Jacoby and said, “Jacoby, you must do something even more difficult. You must now bring your bread directly to the shammes, and when you do you must believe with perfect faith that it is the same as giving it to God.”
You and I work hard to bring bread to our congregations on Sunday mornings. I like to think of it as an offering to God. I hope that when we prepare and deliver our sermons we will, in the words of the wise rabbi, “believe with perfect faith that it is the same as giving it to God.”
1. Richard Eslinger, A New Hearing: Living Options in Homiletic Method (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), p. 7.
2. Calvin Miller, “Narrative Preaching,” Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Michael Duduit, editor, (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), pp. 105-106.
3. H. Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958), p. 157. Cited in Edward F. Markquart, Quest for Better Preaching (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), p. 22.
4. Charles Rice, The Embodied Word: Preaching As Art and Liturgy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), p. 101.
5. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
6. William R. White, Speaking in Stories (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982), p. 32.
7. Ralph L. Lewis and Gregg Lewis, Learning to Preach Like Jesus (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), p. 26.
8. White, p. 21.
9. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), p. 206.
10. C. Welton Gaddy, Tuning the Heart: University Sermons (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990).
11. Henry Mitchell, The Recovery of Preaching (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 125.
12. Bruce C. Salmon, Storytelling in Preaching (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), p. 37.
13. Raymond Bailey, Jesus the Preacher (Nashville: Broadman, 1990), p. 68.
14. Harry Farra, The Sermon Doctor (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 73.
15. G. William Jones, The Innovator (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), p. 12. Cited by Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot, pp. 15-16.
16. Miller, p. 16.
17. Interview with Garrison Keillor, Wittenberg Door, 82 (December 1984-1985), p. 15.
18. Robert Roth, Story and Reality (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), pp. 23-24.
19. Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (Enid, OK: The Phillips University Press, 1974), p. 56.
20. Lewis and Lewis, p. 48.
21. Donald F. Chatfield, Dinner With Jesus and Other Left-Handed Story-Sermons (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988).
22. David L. Larsen, The Anatomy of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), pp. 187-189.
23. Brian Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds (Paulist Press, 1990), p. 3. Source unknown.
24. Chatfield, p. 12.
25. Rice, p. 118.
When Jesus preached His greatest sermon on the love and grace of God, He didn’t say “Let me share three principles about God’s love.” Instead He said “There was a man who had two sons …”