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steve taylor: stories can be a sermon’s best friend

They make great introductions, serving to capture attention, orientating people from their world to the world of the Biblical text. They can aid application, serving to illustrate exegetical material or embody the gospel in life today. They can provide a way to engage the Bible, amplifying plot and character in the narrative genre’s of the Bible. Indeed, some of the best feedback I have had in recent years came from telling two Jesus encounters in Mark 2:1-5 from the perspective of the friend of the paralysed man. The feedback was extraordinarily positive. Such is the power of story. 

Yet stories can also be a sermon’s worst friend. This struck me as I sat in a funeral last year. The sermon commenced with two stories. Both made an excellent point that illuminated the hope of “my Father’s house.” But both stories were told as “I” personal stories and so the focus became the preacher, rather than the deceased or the Biblical text. Story had in fact become the sermons’ worst friend.

So how to use story well?

Here are three suggestions and I am sure you will have more.

First, consider the crafting. A jotted note “tell story of falling off bike”, is bound to include extraneous details that can obscure the point and waste the listeners time. Stories require as much care as any other part of the sermon. This includes the opening sentence, the closing sentence, the punchline and the careful selection of detail.

Second, be aware of point of view. It can be helpful to think of a story in the same way we hold a video camera. Will we zoom in, or stand back? At what moment will we start shooting? How will we end? Will we tell from a first, second or third person point of view?

Take the example from the funeral. All that was required was a change in the point of view, from “When I was young I fell asleep in one bed and woke up in another. You see, my parents carried me when I was asleep” to “Consider being young. Imagine falling asleep in one house and waking in another, carried by the arms of a loving parent. Which can help us make sense of John 14.”

It’s a simple change in the point of view, yet allows the focus to move from the speaker to the Biblical text. Both remain truthful accounts of what really happened, yet crafted, act to serve the sermon, rather than spotlight the preacher.

Third, keep a mental checklist of your stories. When a sermon includes a number of stories, or when you use stories regularly, it is easy for blindspots to emerge. It is more embracing to tell stories from a range of leisure activities, rather than use yet another rugby story. Do our stories regularly profile women, migrants, Maori, children, or the elderly, as heroes of the faith? Or are mainly middle-class men always end up the good guys? I love the way that Luke 15 introduces Jesus first with a story of a women searching, before moving to a story of a shepherd. In so doing, a woman in a domestic situation becomes a model of discipleship.

It is a great example of how, with a bit of care and forethought, stories can become inviting and embracing, working as our friends rather than our enemies.

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Steve Taylor is a Baptist-on-loan and a kiwi-in-exile, working as Director of Missiology for the Uniting College of Leadership and Theology, Adelaide, Australia. He is author of Out of Bounds Church?, Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change and writes regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for a helpful post Steve, I think your point about “middle class men” saving the day is especially important, our stories teach more than just the main point, in fact I have sometimes hidden little message in the story just for fun and have been surprised when people pick up and respond to them just as much as or more than the main point. Time spent crafting is time well spent!

  2. Scott Mackay says:

    Thanks Steve, especially for your comments on the funeral sermon. Partly that was just a matter of tact wasn’t it!

    The ‘point of view’ thing is particularly significant when preaching from gospel narrative. In my experience, we are often encouraged as listeners to put ourselves in the shoes of a particular character in the narrative. For example, a sermon I heard went through each of the characters in a pericope (the supplicant, the crowd, the Pharisees, Jesus) and investigated how each would have experienced the encounter.

    But I’ve often wondered if this type of ‘point of view’ exercise is a little arbitrary. Would it be more fruitful to ask the question: ‘From which point-of-view is the author encouraging us to see the encounter? How is the narrative itself constructed to place us in the story?’ So for example, early in Mark’s Gospel the narrative often seems to place us among the thronging crowd, expectant for what Jesus will do next. In Mark 5:24-34, the reader is brought close, next to the woman with bleeding, almost hovering behind her as she sneaks in and touches Jesus’ cloak. Here, Mark determines the readers point-of-view. Perhaps the common practice of asking ‘which character do you most identify with?’ robs us of an attentiveness to the story-telling of the Gospel writers?

  3. steve says:

    Not sure what you mean by “tact” in relation to funeral. Sorry.

    Great insight re point of view in gospels. I would say you are putting us in the story of Mark the narrator. ie how does this story fit in the whole narrative arc. Obviously narrative works best with narrative, but it need not exclusively. For instance, you can choose contemporary story telling to play with and in around Biblical material. That type of framing I find immensely helpful to my creativity,

    steve

  4. Scott Mackay says:

    Sorry Steve, I simply meant that your retelling of the illustration would have been more tactful in that particular setting.

  5. steve says:

    thanks Scott. that makes sense

    steve

  6. […] to tell it. What details will you include and which will you leave out? As I read in a blog post by Steve Taylor on this same subject: “A jotted note “tell story of falling off bike”, is bound to include extraneous details that […]

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