Fifteen-year-old Charles Spurgeon, a few months after his conversion, began teaching a Bible class for younger boys. One day a lad interrupted his lesson. “This is very dull, Teacher. Can’t you pitch us a yarn?” Young Spurgeon could and did. Later the Prince of Preachers said he learned to tell stories in that class because he was “obliged to tell them.”1
Lisa Lax, NBC-TV’s Senior Sports Producer needed to know how to keep viewers watching the Atlanta Olympics. The network paid $456 million for the broadcast rights and budgeted $3.5 billion for Olympics coverage through the year 2008. They simply could not afford for you and me to tune out as so many did the Seoul Olympics. So, in the six years leading up to Atlanta, the network interviewed some 10,000 viewers. What do people like and what do they dislike about sports on TV?
The big finding of all that research came down to one fact: Tell them stories and they will watch. The result was more than 135 two-to-three minute narratives the network produced and scattered throughout the very successful Atlanta Olympics coverage.2 People pay attention to a story.
How can preachers enhance the narrative quality of their sermons? Instead of resorting to omnibus volumes of stale anecdotes, try these exercises. Here are seven ideas for adding storytelling power to your sermons.
1. Summarize a short story.
A short story or even a whole novel may be reduced to one or two hundred words. Keep the plot in place. Here’s one that illustrates the destructive power of the tongue warned of in James 3.
A little old man stooped on the dusty road to pick up a “Piece of String” in Guy de Maupassant’s tale by that name. He was embarrassed to note that someone saw him do so, and he quickly hid the innocent scrap. By the time he got to town to discover that a wallet was lost, he was already accused of finding it. His denials and explanations about “a piece of string” seemed only to confirm growing suspicion. Then, a week later, someone did find the wallet and return it. Instead of clearing the old man, this gave the rumors momentum. Shortly after that, he died. Talk killed him.3
If the sermon can afford twice the space for this illustration, add dialogue, names and other details from the story.
2. Turn a cartoon or comic strip into a narrative.
Comic strips have something of a story line built in, but even a cartoon can provide a bit of narrative with setting, characters, and plot. A Forbes magazine cartoon shows a grandfatherly gentleman in an oversized easy chair talking to a little girl seated opposite him in a matching chair. Around them in the elegant sitting room is ample evidence of wealth. He is answering her question about how he made his fortune.
“It was really quite simple. I bought a pencil for a penny, sharpened it, and sold it for two cents. With this I bought two pencils, sharpened them, and sold them for four cents. And so it went until I had amassed $10.24. It was then that your Great Aunt Selma died and left us $10 million.”4
The cartoonist probably never meant that to illustrate spiritual truth, but it might. Think of the testimony of one who does not really appreciate salvation by grace. “I joined the church and was baptized. I started working in the church and giving to the church. Then I discovered that Christ died for all my sins.”
3. Place a quotation in its historical context.
As a diamond is shown to its best advantage in the right mounting, so a familiar quote sparkles more in its historical setting. A preacher citing Martin Luther might be surprised how many in the congregation think he is quoting a mid-twentieth century civil rights leader rather than the seventeenth century reformer. I was in college and had heard the “Here-I-stand” statement numerous times before I learned the Diet of Worms was a general assembly of the empire and not what Luther had to eat in prison. Let the preacher give a thumbnail sketch of Luther’s life with focus on that crucial scene.
What if you need help with the biographical data and don’t have a good reference book like Moyer and Cairns, Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church? You can do an online search with the help of Google or Yahoo and probably find more than you ever wanted to know. Just be sure to use a reliable source.
4. Glean from leisure reading and TV time.
Sometimes a scene in a Christless book, movie or television show will be useful for presenting Christ as the hope of the hopeless. Get the notebook habit. I keep a few index cards handy while relaxing with TV or leisure reading.
There is a telling scene in the 1986 movie The Trumpet of Gideon still seen occasionally on TV. It speaks volumes to the impasse of hostility that continues between Arabs and Jews and to the larger problem of terrorism and war in general. Steven Bauer plays a young Israeli secret service agent named Avner. He and his select team are on a mission to avenge the Munich Massacre. They have traveled the world killing Arab terrorists. This, of course, stirs Arab retaliation. One after another of Avner’s team members are killed. They are blown up or shot or stabbed until he alone is left. Returning home to Israel, Avner expresses his misgivings to his commander, “We can not go on this way – ‘an eye for an eye’ – pretty soon the whole world will be blind!
The commander retorts: “What is the answer then?” To which Avner replies: “I don’t have the answer!” We who preach the crucified Christ claim that we do have the answer
5. When quoting a verse of a hymn or other poetry, place it in a narrative setting.
The poet Edwin Markham, as he approached retirement, discovered that the man to whom he had entrusted his financial portfolio had spent every single penny. Markham’s dream of a comfortable retirement had vanished in an instant. Of course he was furious; and with time, his bitterness grew by leaps and bounds. One day, Markham found himself trying to calm down by diverting his attention to drawing circles on a piece of paper. Looking again at the circles he had drawn on the paper, Markham was inspired to write the following lines:
He drew a circle to shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle to take him in.
Those words today are by far the most famous among Markham’s hundreds of poems. They helped the poet give up his anger and find grace to forgive the man who stole his lifelong savings.5
6. Narrate in a few sentences your own thoughts on the passing parade of life.
Bumper stickers, for example, are often thought provokers. Who of us has never played mind reader with the cues people placard on their autos? I passed a ’70s era Chevrolet on the Interstate that looked about used up. It was so rusted you could hardly tell the original color. The bumper sticker, too, was almost faded away, but I managed to read it: Jesus Christ, the Great Provider.
I nodded a smile of affirmation to the young man driving it and wondered what his life was like. “Not a very great Provider, is He?” jabbed the Devil. But then, the old clunker was transportation, after all. It was getting him there about as well as my nicer car. And maybe he was learning a most valuable lesson of stewardship: live within your means. I would almost bet his car was paid for. The Word promises: “My God will meet all your needs” (Phil. 4:19 NIV).
7. Recast a news story.
Journalism students are taught to write a lead sentence with the answer to all of “Kipling’s six honest serving men: What and Why and How and When and Where and Who.” Then the editor further summarizes the lead in a headline. Read the following story, and then we will see how the newspaper reported it.
Dianne Mitchell of Blalock’s Beauty School in Shreveport, Louisiana gathered her students at the beginning of the day and gave them a pep talk. “We have to stay together as a team,” she told them. She encouraged them to watch out for one another, never imagining how soon they would need and how dramatically they would heed her admonition.
A little before noon the students and workers were cleaning up. In walked a man wearing a handkerchief over his face and a skullcap over his hair. He carried a large caliber revolver. He entered past a sign on the door that read:
This property protected by
The man with the gun was Jared Gipson, age 24, 5 feet, 8 inches, 140 pounds. He put the gun in the back of instructor Dianne Mitchell who is somewhat taller and considerably heavier. At first she thought it was a joke when she heard “This is a holdup.” Then she “saw that big old gun” and heard him order everyone to get down on the floor.
“Get down, big momma,” he barked at Mitchell. She didn’t yet know what court records would show: Gipson has a history of armed robbery and other crimes. Some of the thirty students and staff on the floor started crying as they saw their grocery money and rent money leaving them. When the robber had gathered all the cash, he took the one male student in the class and pushed him with the pistol toward a door. Mitchell thought, “Oh, my God, he’s going to shoot him!”
As the robber stepped over his prone victims, Mitchell saw a bare moment of opportunity and stuck out a foot to trip him. The robber tumbled into a wall and dropped his gun. Someone shouted, “Get that sucker!” And that is exactly what they did. They pounced on him with curling irons, chairs, a wooden table leg, clenched fists, shoes, and a flood of pent-up anger.
The police took the bleeding culprit to the hospital for treatment of numerous wounds, especially lacerations to the head. At his arraignment the next day he wore a white bandage across the right side of his forehead. His right eye was blackened and swollen shut. He hung his head when the judge set his bond at $100,000, but he may consider the jail a safer place than the neighborhood.
The newspaper, however, did not tell the story in chronological order. It never does except in an occasional feature article. The headline tells it all in five words: “Beauticians stomp, stop armed robber.” The first sentence or two gives a little more detail.
An armed robber brandishing a revolver and some rough talk entered Blalock’s Beauty College demanding money Tuesday afternoon. He left crying, bleeding and under arrest, after Dianne Mitchell, her students and employees attacked the suspect, beating him into submission.6
Now the newspaper reader can skip the other sixty column inches. We need newspapers to be written that way. We scan the headlines. If they interest us, we read the lead. If we are still interested, we may read more. If not, we have the synopsis. We would never get through the newspaper if the stories were not encapsulated in the headlines and summarized in a lead sentence or two. But that’s not the way of the storyteller! No one would read a mystery entitled The Butler Did It! Would you tell a joke with the punch line first? Newspapers are a great source of sermon support, but a preacher must take care to revise the story in favor of a true narrative with a genuine plot.
The New Testament tells us that Jesus “spoke all these things to the crowds in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matt. 13:34 NIV). Shouldn’t we make the effort to boost our own storytelling power?
Austin B. Tucker is a preacher and author in Shreveport, LA.
1. Drummond, Lewis. 1992. Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 157.
2. Impco, Jim. “NBC Goes for Women Viewers and Platinum Ratings” U.S. News and World Report, (July 14/ July 22, 1996), 36.
3. De Maupassant, Guy. 1884. “Piece of String” www.classicshorts.com/stories/string.html
4. Killen, B. J. Cartoon in Forbes, (July 15, 1985), 20.
5. David Jeremiah in “Turning Point Daily Devotional,” 11-17-05) http://website.lineone.net/~andrewhdknock/StoriesA-H.htm There are a number of good books that tell about authors and composers and the circumstances surrounding the writing of our hymns. One of the better sources is Kenneth W. Osbeck’s 101 Hymn Stories. Kregel, 1982.
6. Times of Shreveport-Bossier, The “Beauticians stomp, stop armed robber,” June 15, 2005, pp.1A, 3A. and follow-up item “Bond Set . . .” , June 16, 2005, 2A, revised by Austin B. Tucker for Preaching Now, July, 2005.