In the history of our civilization millions of stories have been told and retold. No doubt, there are many ways to tell an effective story. One of the most helpful ways to learn is to observe a process and then try it ourselves. Therefore, why not take a look at one approach to the construction of a story sermon?
In the course of analyzing and presenting a story sermon — “Granny’s Leaven” — a number of important aspects of the craft as well as a consideration of the creative process are in order.
Any story, whether it be secular or religious, has to begin with an idea. It is especially hard to conceive of any good story being written in which the author is not inspired by the given idea.
Ideas can come from a variety of objective sources — books, newspapers, magazines, and friends. However, those ideas which are based on personal experience stand the best chance of being developed. People write best about those things which are most familiar.
In the case of proclaiming the gospel through story, an idea might be based on a theological conclusion about life which is taught in scripture and has been deeply felt in the preacher’s experience. When people allow their experiences to be touched by parts of the gospel message, strong feelings can help to develop their ideas.
In the story at hand, entitled “Granny’s Leaven,” the development of the central idea emerged out of the many inspired hours this writer spent as a young boy watching his grandmother bake and listening to her tell Bible stories.
The question that had to be asked for the purpose of Christian storytelling was what those experiences with Grandmother conveyed in terms of a New Testament conclusion or proclamation on the way the world is or ought to be. The answer to the question seemed to be in the fact that Grandmother embodied the spirit of the church.
There was never a person she would not invite to sit at her kitchen table. In fact, people from all walks of life came and found nourishment there.
Her great service to others was in the fact that she had this unusual ability to inspire others to believe in themselves and do the very best with their personal resources. That the church is called into the building of God’s kingdom through trust and sharing is certainly a possibility in the formulation of the central idea of the story.
Now that there is some general sense of direction in terms of writing about Grandmother and her personal portrayal of the church, the focus has to be narrowed.
The preacher must be able to state concisely three things in relation to the central idea: 1) What will be the major task of the story? 2) How do you feel about this task? 3) What can be proven or established through the story? Knowing beforehand the answers to these questions will prevent one from drifting.
In writing “Granny’s Leaven,” I paid special attention to the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians. “Granny’s Leaven” was written with the strong belief that ministry is not one-sided, but is rather a corporate effort in which everyone participates through an open contribution of their own unique gifts and talents.
“Granny’s Leaven” was an attempt to show that a ministry absent of trust and sharing — a ministry forced upon or expected from a select portion of the fellowship — is fated to be without substance. It was an effort to establish or paint a picture of the joy and life that emerges out of loving and mutual participation.
Once the preacher is clear on the intent of the story, there is the matter of plot or story line. Most stories have a protagonist, or main character, whose principal drive is to accomplish some objective. The preacher should be able to state what this character hopes to accomplish.
The protagonist in “Granny’s Leaven,” which is Granny, is new in town and seeks to be a part of an effective and loving Christian fellowship. The question is whether or not this objective will be attained.
Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald in their book, Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript, make an important distinction between the story line and plot. According to these men, a story line places its emphasis on the development of character while the plot focuses on “things that happen,” or events.
In the story sermon with a story line, the preacher will strive to develop the protagonist’s character for better or worse. In the end the listener will notice that the protagonist has changed.
With the focus on the development of plot, the main character will come through the story with his or her character relatively unchanged. The resolution of a plot will chiefly center on whether or not the protagonist has succeeded in overcoming adverse external circumstances.
The use of story line in Christian storytelling can be very effective. Redemption is a major theme in the gospel message. The protagonist can be struggling to overcome any number of personal flaws.
A preacher might want to show that living entirely out of one’s own resources will lead to character degeneration and failure. The moment of truth in the story might come when the listener recognizes that the protagonist’s own self-asserting has cost him those he loves.
On the other hand, the preacher might choose to portray failure as the first open door to the regeneration of the protagonist’s character. Your character may fail to obtain power and great riches. That character may even be faced with death, but if there is a new vision of life the story will end on a positive note.
“Granny’s Leaven” incorporates the use of plot. At the outset of the story Granny is a Christian whose chief quest is to locate and play a vital part in the growth of some local church. At the end of the story, Granny is the same Christian who has now helped to spread the gospel and establish a meaningful fellowship.
If, in the course of complicating the plot, Granny’s experiences are allowed to sour her attitude toward the church and turn away from it, the point of the story will be defeated. To prove the point, Granny must have an authentic encounter with the body of Christ.
Moreover, the original intention is not to tell a story about a woman whose character is flawed or who is sour on the church and later comes to embrace it. We begin with a Christian woman who has the love of Christ. In this sense, Granny reflects the church.
Christ’s love is permanent, unchanging and everlasting. Granny represents this permanence and plays a part in the establishment of God’s kingdom.
As the story begins, the preacher must create concrete situations which keep the protagonist at a distance from his major objective. Pitting the protagonist against an adverse environment and allowing a testing of personal powers and resources creates interest and lures the hearer to want more.
In real life, the conflict between the protagonist and his world may not appear exaggerated. In good storytelling there must be exaggeration. The struggle between good and evil has to be polarized.
In “Granny’s Leaven” I attempt to show true fellowship by presenting what the church is not. For instance, in real life people are often made to feel welcome in a new church. If not, they often give the situation a chance to develop or mature.
In the story at hand, Granny first visits an established church and discovers that the fellowship is basically a Sunday affair. Her baking interests are not shared with many of the women and when she asks the baker’s wife for some starter dough, she is told that some trade secrets have to be maintained.
The sequence of events move Granny on to explore an alternative fellowship. In the new environment we see what appears to be a very active and outward-going church. The preacher and his wife are gracious and cordial to Granny and both share her interest in baking. In fact, they include Granny in their own baking operation.
The situation is then complicated by the fact that only the preacher and his wife have been feeding the congregation. Their bread tastes good but the process has been hurried and the taste could be improved. The threesome join in an effort to get the entire fellowship involved in the baking process in order to improve not merely the bread but what the bread symbolizes.
The story builds to a climax and there is a resolution. The status quo is maintained, but a fresh fellowship begins to develop. This is not unlike the experience Christ underwent in His dealings with the establishment. He sought acceptance by the status quo, was rejected, and yet there remained a remnant to carry on His work.
It must be remembered that following the rules of sermon writing or storytelling is absolutely necessary, but not always sufficient in completing a work. The preacher should not rely so much on mechanics that the story appears to be pasted or patched together.
When the work is completed it must be unified and coherent but not contrived. It should feel right, as if all elements were in their proper places. The story should provide the listener with the sense of having undergone a full experience.
One way to add the dimension of organic unity to the story sermon is to go to the scriptures, pick an appropriate metaphor and proceed to weave it into the overall fabric of the story. In looking for an appropriate metaphor, strive to match what you want to say or establish with a concrete situation which has the potential of dramatizing that statement.
In “Granny’s Leaven” the aim is to show a wholesome community of believers sharing to the fullest. The entire process of breadmaking, going from starter dough to finished product, symbolizes the entity we hope to portray: the church.
If the metaphor is sustained throughout the major part of the story, it is possible to observe not only a surface struggle, but what is referred to as a deep struggle.
On the surface, Granny wants everyone to bake bread. In real life everyone can’t bake bread or share only in Granny’s particular interest. On the deep level, however, the entire community has the responsibility of sharing in ministry. The church is nourished by everyone and not just a select few.
On the deep level, the meaning of the story has little if anything to do with the actual baking process. We tell story sermons and use metaphors in order to convey what the Christian community would call spiritual meaning.
This leads to a consideration of the biblical text and its incorporation into the narrative of the story. The twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians embraces the intended theology, but the story at hand centers around the many dimensions of Granny’s kitchen and her leaven. It would be contrived to use any other text than Luke 13:20-21: “To what shall I liken the Kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”
It could very well be that many writers would advise against inserting the text into the story. Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, suggests that the modern trend in storytelling has been not to “tell” anything but to “show” and let the story speak for itself.
Certainly the preacher will want the story to stand by itself and convey its message without the text being used as a crutch. The text can be used to restate the message and ring with prophetic, hopeful or glad tidings without the purpose of saying what the writer meant to say.
By tradition, the sermon demands proclamation. The story sermon can, therefore, afford to be more confrontive and directive than other contemporary forms of the art. Where possible, I will end the story with a declaration of the text.
One of the most taxing aspects of producing the story sermon involves fleshing out the story. The process entails much more of an intuitive or creative endeavor than deciding on the specifics of the craft.
After the preacher has chosen an idea and can state the major task of the story and what it is that must be established, the plot or story line (along with the protagonist’s chief objective and struggle) can be set down on paper as in brainstorming.
The same is true with the use of a particular metaphor. If the metaphor has to do with the leavening of bread, then everything that can be thought of that relates to that process must be listed. The object, then, is to weave together a sequence of events which contain elements of the metaphor.
Every paragraph, every sentence, of the writer’s story must fit into the whole. The writer should stick to the prescribed direction of the story and practice visualizing every scene and narrative aspect. This visualizing process takes time. Moreover, meditation and prayer–which should center upon the text and the relevant theology — are absolutely necessary in connecting with the deep struggle.
Sometimes the overall vision of a story will come instantaneously. More often than not, however, continued prayer and meditation will increase the effectiveness of the story.
Often it is necessary or helpful to pull away from the manuscript, take a walk, jog or go fishing. In a state of relaxation the preacher can allow the subconscious to continue to be a receptacle of grace. Possibilities and connections will come to the surface that are both delightful and surprising. Experiences with others will filter into this creative endeavor and provide resources which will make the story a tribute to the gospel message.
The development of craft and personal growth in the process are virtually unlimited. Most traditional stories and novels will contain a structure comparable to what has been discussed; it will be helpful to study these stories and do your own analysis.
For additional resources which will prove helpful in both the craft and the creative process of storytelling, a brief bibliography is included.
Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.
Fugate, Francis., Viewpoint: Key to Fiction Writing. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1968.
Gordon, David, Therapeutic Metaphors. Cupentino, California: Meta Publications, 1978.
Harris, Foster, The Basic Formulas of Fiction. The University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.
Hildick, Wallace, Thirteen Types of Narrative. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1970.
Killinger, John, Fundamentals of Preaching. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Killinger, John, “How to Enrich Your Preaching: An Eight Session Cassette Course For Individual or Group Use.” Abington Audio-graphics, 1975.
McFague, Sallie, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Meredith, Robert C. and Fitzgerald, John D. Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea To Finished Manuscript. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1972.
Rockwell, F. A., How To Write Plots That Sell. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1975.
Granny’s Leaven
(Text: Luke 13:20-21)
I used to sit on a high stool and watch Granny cook and make fresh bread when I was hardly in grade school. I remember solitary afternoons with her in the old wooden house where the antique kitchen served, to the best of my memory, as a kind of depot and living quarters for others in the family.
It was in that kitchen that I remember copper kettles and black pots and hoe cake pans hanging above a large old fashioned gas stove. Papa John had built a pie shelf into the corner of the room and had fashioned a long work counter that stretched the entire length of the kitchen.
The countertop on either side of a heavy porcelain sink was like the round oak table in the center of the room — clean but worn and smoothed by decades of steady use.
At the time, it wasn’t so much that I liked to watch Granny about her kitchen chores as it was listening to her Bible stories and how folks used to live before the turn of the century. I can see her now at the counter beside an open window with light shining in on the bread dough that she’d be pressing and turning with her gnarled hands. She had added to it another dough — sour dough — from a large crockery jar which she kept on the shelf overhead. As she began to mix the ingredients together she’d quote the King James Bible: “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole loaf?”
“What does that mean Granny?” I asked as I watched her continue to knead the batch and then half it and cover it with a damp cloth.
While the bread was rising I’d sit with her on the front porch where she’d compare making bread with the building of God’s kingdom. For Granny, the sour dough was the yeast or leaven that gave the bread its flavor and caused it to rise. True Christians, she said, were the flavor and ingredient that built the church.
The way Granny talked about her sour dough made it sound like it was the Holy Spirit and her crockery jar was the Ark of the Covenant. When she and Papa John married and moved to Florida, she liked to have never found the right starter dough. When I asked why she didn’t go out and buy it in the store she said that real leaven just couldn’t be bought.
She compared buying leaven to listening to radio preachers (33 years ago they hadn’t purchased a television). “You don’t get the Holy Spirit over the air,” she said. “It doesn’t taste right and it doesn’t fill you up. In the end it’s like store-bought bread — tasteless and full of air.”
Granny literally believed that her sour dough could only be found in the church — that is, “in the right church.” Today I guess we’d call it a kind of superstition, but back then Granny believed in signs — and the sign of being in the right fellowship was to be baking a tasty and filling loaf.
Papa John and Granny visited a lot of churches before they settled in. The first church they visited was one of the oldest established churches in town. The people who went to this church were the more affluent — local merchants, the bankers, the doctor, the lawyer, and several landowners. It was difficult to see any of these people except during Sunday services, and Granny didn’t think that an appropriate time to ask about baking bread.
Finally she visited one of the lady’s socials and discovered that only rarely did any of them bake their own bread. The baker’s wife raved about her husband’s recipe from the old country, but when Granny asked for a “starter piece” for her own kitchen, the woman insisted on maintaining the secrecy of the ferment from the family tradition. When Granny finally got around to purchasing a loaf she and Papa both said it tasted like cake.
One of the other churches that the couple got around to was a bit smaller but more more outward-going, at least among themselves. There were revivals, picnics, pot luck suppers and Sunday afternoon gospel singing — and hard preaching at least three times a week. The group raved about their preacher and thought that nobody in the world could bake homemade bread like his wife.
The preacher’s wife was very gracious and cordial to Granny and it was no time before she invited her over to bake bread. When Granny arrived she was extremely surprised to find out what a baking operation was going on in the parsonage kitchen. It turned out that both the preacher and his wife were baking dozens of loaves of bread for the entire congregation every week.
Granny didn’t say anything at first but jumped right into the operation with the pastor and his wife. When the last of several dozen loaves were taken out of the small oven later in the afternoon the exhausted preacher hurriedly loaded them in his car and started on a delivery route that could end much later in the evening.
Granny wiped her hands on a dusty apron and sat down at the kitchen table with her host. The tired and depressed-looking woman was glad that Granny had come to help.
“You’ve been God sent,” she told Granny, picking up a French knife to cut from the oven’s last loaf. As the woman sliced into the piping hot bread Granny noticed that it was the smallest loaf of the day. It represented the dough that had been left over and was placed into the oven at the last minute.
When the woman delivered the slice, she offered it with real butter and rich preserves, but Granny insisted that she always sampled the bread straight on — without any of the extras. The woman watched intensely as Granny took a bite and thoughtfully savored it for several minutes.
“Well, what do you think?” asked the preacher’s wife solemnly.
Granny was always a tactful person but even more importantly, the preacher’s wife wanted to hear the truth.
“Well,” said Granny, “it could be the best bread in town but I’m afraid we’ve hurried through the process. Baking good bread takes time and it can’t be rushed.”
The fact of the matter was that the preacher’s wife had, at other times, not only baked good bread, she had tasted it too. She knew the truth. She knew that she had been falling short of the task.
The starter dough had not been freshened and it gave the bread a flat and dull taste. The loaves had not been allowed the proper time to rise before baking and were somewhat doughy on the inside. Even the baking time had been cut short.
The preacher and his wife really took pride in their baking and, in fact, saw it as an important part of their ministry. In order to better the quality of their baking, the parsonage couple was quick to admit that some changes had to take place. They were happy that Granny had joined their family and eagerly sought her advice. The threesome joined hands and asked God for a solution.
It took three days to get the new operation underway. On the first day the old operation was brought to a complete standstill. The oven was shut down. Old sour dough along with every remaining condiment and ingredient was thrown out.
Every appliance and every stick of furniture, including the shelves and cabinets, were carried out of the kitchen into the backyard where they were scrubbed spotless and left to dry in the sun. The floors and walls of the kitchen were scrubbed with bleach and heavy bristle brushes. Every pan and dish and jar — everything down to the last utensil — was thoroughly cleaned and dried.
On the second day, after the furniture had been set in order and more efficiently arranged, fresh condiments and ingredients were brought in. When everything had been set in place, the two women began to make a fresh batch of sour dough.
Granny was sure to remind the preacher’s wife of a very important point: they had just started to bake in the kitchen and the new bread would be good, but in time it would be better. She understood the cleansed kitchen as having to “catch the spirit” and explained that in kitchens where leaven baking has gone on for centuries the leaven becomes plentiful and success more quickly assured.
On the third day the sour dough had been made ready and was carefully placed in dry crockery jars. The threesome then got into the car and headed out on the preacher’s delivery route. When they made stops at various homes, rather than handing out the loaves of bread they passed out lumps of the starter dough.
The good news was that the congregation could improve on the quality of their bread if they joined together in the baking. It was even suggested that others might want to enjoy the nourishing and tasty results. That being the case, they were encouraged to share the starter dough with them.
It didn’t take long before the results started to return. Within a week Granny had been labelled a busybody — a meddler. No one in the church wanted to bake their own bread, much less annoy a neighbor with some old sour dough.
A number of elders thought that since the preacher’s wife baked the best bread in the church it ought to remain her responsibility. Delivering the bread was even good for the preacher. It gave him a chance to visit around and be with the folks.
For a while things got a bit shaky for the congregation. Attendance started to drop off. Picnics and pot luck suppers were less frequent. The Sunday afternoon gospel singing attracted fewer numbers. The preaching, although regular, was received as less authoritative and demanding.
People on the inside and people on the fringes were screaming for the preacher and his wife to get back into the business of baking and delivering bread. They were even willing to pay more for it when things got back to normal and more people started coming to church again.
Granny kept telling the preacher and his wife that it took time for the kitchen to “catch the spirit” or the leaven to raise the bread. “Patience and faith,” she kept saying, but the couple became increasingly restless and insecure.
At last, with a multitude of hungry people knocking on the door, the couple capitulated. She again began her full-time baking and he returned to full-time delivery.
The congregation once again began to delight on the hurried bread. Soon there were added revivals and picnics and pot luck suppers. The Sunday afternoon gospel sing and the hard preaching added numbers almost overnight. The group again raved about the preacher and thought that nobody in the world could bake homemade bread like his wife.
For about a year or better the church continued to grow in numbers and bustled with excitement and energy. Right at the point when the energy had peaked and revival was at its height — when people were growing dependent and fat on the hurried bread — the pastor and his wife were suddenly and unexpectedly and hastily called to another mission. The congregation was left not only hungry and perplexed but without a smidgeon of starter dough or leaven.
But soon another pastor’s family was brought in and then another and after that many others — each bringing their own leaven. Granny said that the church continued to grow and bustle. Later the church became known as the Bread of Life Church. The name was given because it developed and fostered a tradition of bread-making in the parsonage. The group continued to rave about each preacher and still thought that nobody could make homemade bread as good as their wives.
For Papa John and Granny their search for a tasty and filling loaf of bread continued. It just so happened that in the course of passing out the starter dough with the preacher and his wife, Granny became friendly with a lady who I came to know as Aunt Willie-Mae.
Before that time, Aunt Willie-Mae had not baked the first loaf. Thirty years later Granny would speak of her kitchen as the best baking kitchen in the country. Granny said that Aunt Willie-Mae’s kitchen was so righteous that any piece of plain dough would “catch the spirit” if it were only held up to the air.
She and Aunt Willie-Mae spent practically their whole lives baking and passing out starter dough. Their bread was good enough to get others interested. Soon others shared the joy of making their own bread and passing starter dough to others.
The women were getting together like a bunch of addicted quilters. Every day husbands and strangers were attracted to their kitchens. There was enough caring and sharing and joy in the spreading that starter dough that Papa John and Granny stopped looking for their church a long time ago.
It was fun to sit on the porch and listen to Granny talk about the things that happened in their growing church. “Just to be around Jesus was to be healed,” she said. Then she’d compare the church — God’s children — to a good baking kitchen. “All you have to do is to be around one and before you know it, you’ve caught the spirit.”
And as we sat there rocking, Granny would be in a reverie and suddenly break forth with some delightful and surprising gospel message: “To what shall I liken the Kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened” (Luke 13:20-21).
When the bread was baked, Granny would give it to me plain and piping hot. It was thick and chewy and tasty. It was a meal almost sufficient unto itself. Granny’s bread was the most righteous bread I ever tasted — and I want to share it with you.

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