“He taught them many things by parables …” (Mark 4:2 NIV).
I’ve never watched them but I must admit understanding the fascination they hold for millions of viewers. Daytime television programs or “soaps” have captured a permanent place in America’s heart. Avid fans have VCRs permanently set to record “their” show.
I used to condemn “soap” watchers with more than a little self-righteous indignation. “There’s nothing but trash on those programs! You shouldn’t watch that kind of stuff! Give it up! It’s just a television show!” I didn’t see the attraction they held for people.
But when speaking with Senior Adults about daytime television the language changed and so did my understanding. They didn’t call them “soaps” or “daytime dramas.” They called them “stories. On more than one occasion on a weekday morning I’ve heard an older adult lady say, “I have to be home by 1:00 to see my stories.”
That hasn’t changed my opinion about the lack of morality or the sleaziness of most of what comes on television but it did provide me with insight into why these “soaps” so captivate the world. The reason is simple: using engaging plot twists and character development, they tell a good story.
Several years ago when I preached for the first time using a story as the entire message I did so with much anxiety. What would people think? Would they understand that the message was a message nonetheless? Would they understand that “Biblical” preaching could take a form other than expository or three points and a poem? And, as a pastor, perhaps my biggest worry was, “Will people feel like they’d been to church if someone wasn’t preaching at them?”
That was several years ago and, I admit, I still carry a bit more nervousness into the pulpit when preaching parabolically than when preaching a “normal” sermon. Yet, for a change of pace, it’s become a risk I am willing to take increasingly more often. There are two reasons for this new boldness. First, I realized that a good story holds an audience’s attention very well. Second and more importantly, Jesus preached that way much of the time.
I. A Good Story Holds Attention
Something about a good plot, with unexpectedness and believable yet inspiring characters holds a congregation’s attention better than almost any rhetorical device I know. Even when its expression isn’t as picturesque as something Fred Craddock might create, a story still moves.
Every Sunday we speak to four or five generations of television watchers, and most of what is on television (even what is poorly done) is in story form. If the recent research on the development of the brain is accurate, our minds are television-tuned, hard-wired to seize onto story form. The day of sitting around the fire or the porch swapping folk tales may be gone. But a burgeoning industry known as “Books On Tape” should be an indicator to us that listening to stories is still something people will do. In fact, I believe a congregation’s ears may hear story more readily than other forms of preaching.
Story can also avoid that abiding condemnation that comes from teenagers and young adults. They say it to parents, teachers, and older siblings: “I can’t stand it when you preach at me!” And they change channels, not even hearing the depth, love, the concern that their well-intentioned loved ones might express.
Even churched youth aren’t immune to such feelings. No one, it seems, likes to be talked down to or talked at. Story is one of those unique ways through which we allow others to “overhear” the gospel. No frontal assault, it sneaks up on the listener. It catches the imagination and the heart unawares and drives home a point like no other medium can.
For one who believes that a sermon is intended to be a conversation between the people, the preacher, and the Spirit of God, story creates a wonderful interplay and opens up that inductive side of the listener’s personality. That’s one of the reasons it holds attention so well. It involves the listener in the sermon in a way much traditional preaching does not.
We preachers know that a “traditional” sermon has places that move, flow, carry themselves as well as places that stop. Watching the eyes of the people during a traditional sermon tell any preacher where those stopping and moving places are. Most of the time, “points” are where a message stops. Story is where it moves! That’s why upon exiting the place of worship though people rarely remember the points, they almost always remember the stories!
Employing the power of one carefully crafted story as a sermon means that we preachers ensure that the trumpet sounds a clear call and that its message is ringing in our listener’s ears long after the experience. Maybe that’s one reason Jesus told so many stories.
II. Jesus Frequently Used Story
The Synoptic Gospels are bursting with parables. Some of them are like snapshots (Matthew 5:25-26). Others could be made into mini-series (Matthew 21:33-40; Matthew 22:2-14)! Jesus understood the power of story to communicate hard-to-hear truth.
Jesus probably faced critics who disparaged his use of parables. There may have even been those who accused Him of not doing sound, Biblical preaching! After all, “Jesus parables are something entirely new. In all the rabbinic literature, not one single parable has come down to us from the period before Jesus.”1 Jesus is breaking new ground purposefully.
The people wondered that Jesus gave them a “new teaching” (Mark 1:27). Jesus offered a new teaching through his miracles to be sure. But it was probably as new in form as it was in power! And that form was story. Matthew 13:34 (CEV) says, “Jesus used stories when he spoke to the people. In fact, he did not tell them anything without using stories”
Those of us who preach, who deliver God’s message, must surely recognize and utilize the power of story. We do it on occasion, making a point with a particularly moving narrative. That sermon is complimented (more than usual) by the worshipers as they leave. Yet the next Sunday, we fall back into the accepted style, employ our familiar rhythms, and wonder why eyes glaze over so quickly when only a week before they were shining with emotion.
We get disheartened when our parishioners don’t show up in the numbers we’d like to see. Maybe we even condemn (if only in our minds) those who skip worship to stay home and watch TBS’s “John Wayne Sunday” at 10:05 AM. We’ve missed the point! And we have, in the scriptures, the finest characters as well as “The Greatest Story Ever Told”!
Many of us who preach will sing with the hymn writer “Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus” yet never make the connection to our preaching. If Jesus is truly our model, we ought to employ story much more regularly than we do.
A final word or two about story preaching. It takes more time and effort to preach a story. Why? Because most of the steps of traditional preaching still need to be followed. The preacher must still do the Biblical background work for the message. He must still be able to answer the question before the message is constructed: with one brief sentence what am I trying to say in this message?” And, I believe that he must still go through the process of thinking “What is it this sermon is to do to the listeners?”
Then, after all the “normal” work of sermon preparation, a plot must be constructed, sometimes characters must be created, and the story given form. For those of us who have heard “point preachings all of our lives or who have grown accustomed to short bursts of creativity in verse-by-verse exposition, constructing one single narrative can be a challenge.
One last word: expect some criticism. Those folks who like to have their “toes stepped on,” their consciences appeased by someone slapping their wrists and telling them to straighten up, will not readily adapt their ears and hearts to a different sort of form. Yet, if the story is well-done, easily followed, and has engaging characters, expect a new level of attention during its delivery.
1Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), p. 12.
“He taught them many things by parables …” (Mark 4:2 NIV).