I hadn’t preached much, and I didn’t preach well. Unfortunately, I was unware of this, but it was crystal clear to the people in attendance at that small country church. At first it was just yawns. Then I noticed the distant stares. Eventually I watched as the eyes across the room succumbed to the mind-numbing droning coming from the pulpit. I had successfully ended months of insomnia for many worshipers that morning. But the worst part is I had no idea how to keep from doing it again. I was fresh out of seminary. I had been taught how to parse Greek verbs and exposit Scripture, but I had no idea how to keep people awake in a sermon. I needed to learn how to give the audience a break.
Burlington, Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s has done this successfully. It not only encourages bringing your dog to work and personal yoga classes, it also offers a room with beds and pillows where tired employees can get some much-needed shut-eye. While working in an ice cream factory would be incentive enough for me to be productive, a nap would be the cherry on top. The point is clear: When you’re tired, you need permission to take a break.
Our churches are full of people on Sunday mornings who are tired from staying up late the night before. They watched the end of the game that went into overtime. They were out late with friends. They caught the end of “Saturday Night Live.” The people in attendance on Sundays have grown accustomed to 30-second videos on social media and 140 characters in tweets. They’re used to being entertained and distracted at the touch of a button, and we expect them to be enthralled as we explain Paul’s teaching about circumcision for 30 to 45 minutes. There’s got to be something we can do. Putting blankets and pillows in our seats on Sundays may not help our cause, but we do need to give them permission to take break. We can do that with a good story.
We’re suckers for a good story. What will happen to Tom Robinson as Atticus Finch defends him on rape charges? Will Scout ever find out the truth about the elusive Boo Radley? There’s a reason “To Kill Mockingbird” has sold nearly 40 million copies. Will the rebel forces ever be able to conquer the evil empire? Will the Jedi fade away into nonexistence? The “Star Wars” industry has made a dollar or two based simply on telling a good story. We have bookshelves stacked with books because of our love for stories. We spend close to $11 billion a year at the box office. 1 Doing what? Watching stories! And how often do you lose track of time while binge watching something on Netflix? There’s a reason. We were wired to love stories. Don Miller in his book “Building a Story Brand” says: “Nobody can look away from a good story. In fact, neuroscientists claim the average human being spends more than 30 percent of their time daydreaming … unless they’re reading, listening to, or watching a story unfold. Why? Because when we are engaged in a story, the story does the daydreaming for us.” 2
At some point in your sermon your audience is going to start daydreaming a story. We have the opportunity to choose that story. Take their minds to the jungles of South America, to your parents’ backyard when you were a kid, to the football field in the 1993 Division 3 championship. Take them somewhere. Anywhere. Countless times I’ve been on stage and watched the body language of people change and eyes light up at the simple telling of a story.
A good story highlighting the purpose of your sermon will connect with your audience in a powerful way. You give permission to their minds to take a well-planned break. I don’t suggest filling your sermon with random stories. Pick one or two that drive home the main idea of your text. Place them strategically after an extended explanation or where they will need to see what a particular truth looks like in someone’s life. By doing so you give them a much- needed break on which to hang the sermon in their minds. You give them permission to do what they want to do anyway. But now they are doing it with purpose and intention, and when they leave, they have not only stayed awake, but they will remember what you said.
1 Statista, “Box Office Revenue between 2012-2021, found at https://www.statista.com/statistics/259988/box-office-revenue-in-the-us/
2 Miller, Donald, “Building a Story Brand”, Harper Collins Publisher 2017, p.15