One aspect of the human condition is the desire to emulate those you admire the most. During my college years, I was active in a large international collegiate ministry. From time to time, we brought a speaker to campus to give us a boost in sharing the Christian message.
My university was a fast-growing, secular institution that was thoroughly modern with little attention given to the normal distractions of intercollegiate sports or fraternal orders. So, we saw ourselves as an intellectual stronghold in a sea of cultural distractions. Therefore, the Christian community on campus had a strong emphasis on apologetics.
Once a year, we invited a Christian intellectual to address us. While this speaker was on campus, we would seek to involve him in debates with the local faculty. Of course, I dreamed about one day being that Christian apologist who would be able to reduce the secular intellectuals to speechlessness by my superior intellect and debating faculties.
Later in seminary, my desire continued to be an apologist. My favorite professors were those who could recall just the right information to answer any question we might throw at them. For a number of years, I struggled, trying to live up to this dream. Years later, I realized the times my messages had noticeable impacts on congregations were not through superior logic but through a very human connection.
One day I made an effort to think back on the different chapel messages I heard during my seminary days and was able to remember the content of only one message. The seminary normally brought in well-known graduates of our school who had successful careers accented by significant publications. As I thought back, I could not remember any of the messages of those auspicious preachers. The one speaker whose message I could recall best was not a graduate of our institution but a missionary to servicemen in Asia. In his message, he shared one long illustration about how he and his wife taught their children to love work and to love ministry. It was the story that left an indelible mark on me. I then began to notice which messages inside and outside the church penetrated my crowded mind. They always were wrapped in a story with deep emotional connection or a biblical account that connected directly with a personal need. Somehow the factual or logical was much more difficult to remember than an emotional connection.
Following this personal revelation, I began paying attention to what was connecting with the congregation when I preached. It became apparent that when I made sure the audience knew of my research and the unique truths I had discovered the point of the message became lost; but when the message was simple with a very clear emotional connection made through a personal illustration or a relatable scriptural account, listeners were able to incorporate the point of the message into their lives.
Most of my professional life has been involved in the creation and publishing of Bibles and scriptural resources. I took several years off to serve as an administrator in a small Bible college. It was like being back in seminary with a chapel message every day. Once again, one speaker, Jim Catron, stood apart from all the rest of us as having very memorable messages. This Bible faculty member didn’t have an advanced degree, and he gave simple messages. In fact, I don’t remember him ever taking the full 30 minutes allotted for chapel. Yet he always had a very clear point with a well-chosen illustration. I never came away thinking Jim was a great intellectual, but I always came away from his message knowing God had touched me, and the point of the message was with me the next day.
So, here is what I have learned: It is best for me to leave my homework in the study and to wrap my one big idea in a story. The more personal and more clearly universal the story, the more likely the message will be remembered. After all, almost every truth found in God’s Word comes out of a story found in a narrative or the story of a human shortcoming that a proposition was delivered to correct. Jesus taught almost exclusively through story, and the Spirit moved in writers of Scripture to record the story of God interacting with His people to keep them walking on the path He had chosen for them. If God has chosen story as His primary teaching tool, then we certainly can use story to make our messages more memorable.