Sociologist Nancy Ammerman did some interesting research recently, recounted in her 2013 book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes. She found that the people who demonstrate the greatest commitment to their faith or religion are the people who talk easily and frequently about the overlap between their faith/religion and their daily life. Ammerman has seen evidence that people who can talk comfortably about this overlap are the people most likely to be involved in mission. Ammerman’s research helped me articulate something I had known instinctively: that one of the central tasks of Christian pastoral ministry is to help people learn to perceive and talk about the ways that the Triune God is present and involved in daily life. In other words, to help people notice that overlap between their Christian faith and their everyday lives, and to grow in confidence in talking about it. We do that in many settings in congregations, and preaching is one of those settings. When we preach, we want listeners to hear about and think about the ways God, as described in this passage from the Bible, makes a difference in everyday life.
In sermons, one of the major ways we make the connection between God and daily life is through stories.
Stories really matter. I preach only six or eight times a year, and on the other Sundays I attend church with my husband. On the way home from church or over Sunday lunch we almost always talk about the service and the sermon, and one of my husband’s most common complaints about sermons is that the preacher didn’t tell a good story to illustrate the principle he or she was talking about.
Yet stories are always open to multiple interpretations. When we think about ways sermons add to or subtract from the truth of the Gospel (the theme of this kiwimade preaching blog for 2014), one of the ways that happens is through stories. Here’s how it happens:
1. We study a passage from the Bible in preparation for preaching.
2. We come up with the major point we want to make, or several points we want to make.
3. We think about situations in our life or others’ lives that illustrate what those major ideas look like in practice in everyday life.
4. We try to illustrate the overlap between faith and daily life by telling a story.
5. The listeners hear the story and interpret it.
6. The interpretation of the story in the minds of the listeners may or may not be the same as the interpretation we give to the story. In fact, the interpretation the listeners give to the story may be very different, or even opposite, to the meaning we were trying to convey and may add to or subtract from the Christian Gospel.
We can avoid multiple interpretations by explaining very clearly the point we’re trying to make in a story, and that works sometimes. Often, however, constant explanations of stories make the sermon seem heavy and weighed down by too many abstract words. Jesus was a master at telling stories that were alive and vivid, and his stories usually didn’t include a lot of interpretation for his listeners. He seemed to be comfortable with the reality that his listeners might not give his stories the same meaning he gave to them.
I am less comfortable with ambiguity than Jesus, and I’m trying to grow in that area. But I also increasingly see the significance of abundant prayer during the sermon preparation process, asking God for help in choosing stories and telling the stories, because I don’t want to add to or subtract from the Gospel. The need for prayer continues during the delivery and after the sermon, because the interpretation process in the listeners’ minds continues after the sermon is preached.
Stories in sermons are essential for illustrating the overlap between the Gospel and everyday life, and the ability to see and talk about that overlap is a key to Christian faith commitment and mission. We can’t be scared that people will misinterpret our stories – Jesus wasn’t – but we do need to carefully pray and ponder the stories we tell.