I love how the Bible is a giant, well-written story. God could have just made sure we were handed a set of bullet-point instructions, or one of those super vague assembly manuals you get with IKEA furniture, but instead he gave us stories.
Stories of creation and man’s fall into destruction. Stories of redemption. Stories of suffering. Stories of flawed protagonists making tragic choices. Stories of heroic women. Stories of God’s long-suffering patience toward his people. Even in the major/minor prophet books which are less narrative driven, God speaks to his people through metaphors and surprise reveals. And then, of course, there’s Jesus, who spent most of his time using stories to explain things.
To be clear I don’t mean the word “story” to imply “made up.” My point is that God’s relationship with us, his plans for us, his instructions to us, all exist in the rich tapestry of God’s redemptive plan for the world. I would argue that most of humanity’s best made up stories (like movies, books, television shows) capture bits of the one true Story God is telling in our world.
And yet when so many of us pastors get up to preach week to week, we aren’t storytellers, but proposition-givers. There’s nothing wrong with the “three point sermon where all the points begin with ‘P,’” but sometimes we get so caught up accurately exegeting life-principles we don’t invite people into the compelling, terrifying, inspiring, life-altering narrative of God’s kingdom invading our world.
Storytelling sermons are about more than illustrations
I’m not suggesting pastors fit more stories into their sermons, by the way. We don’t need more opening anecdotes or clips from movies (although both can be fine if used well). What I’m suggesting is that we approach our sermon preparation from the ground up, as storytellers first, proposition-givers second.
What I mean by this is, as we engage with whatever text we’re bringing to our community, we start by asking the following questions:
- What is God saying to these people in this time? How is that different than what they knew or believed before?
- What is God saying to me through this text right now? How is that different than what I’ve known or believed before?
- What is God saying to my community through this text right now? How is that different than what they’ve known or believed before?
This process reminds us that the Bible was written to real people, with real lives, who are being invited through this passage into a new way of living. We then invite their journey into our journey, and then our community’s journey. This sets us up to become storytelling pastors, who are inviting God’s word to once again guide his people into a new land.
Storytelling sermons invite people into the biblical narrative
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re preaching on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This story isn’t just about how Jesus has the power to conquer death, it’s a story about human suffering. Mary and Martha call for Jesus to come and save Lazarus. They believe in his power to do that. They know he’s the Messiah. And they’re his best friends! Surely he’ll stop what he’s doing and rush to their aid … but instead he waits. For days. And Lazarus dies.
This is where Mary and Martha’s story starts. They trusted in Jesus, and he didn’t come through. I would argue the most effective way to teach on this passage is to invite people into that same tension. Tell a story of a time when people prayed for healing and the person died. Or when you trusted God to take care of you and he seemingly didn’t. The Bible doesn’t shy away from this moment and neither should we: Sometimes God seems to let us down, so what do we do with that?
I guarantee you at this point in your sermon people are leaning forward in anticipation, because they have all felt that way, and they want to hear the answer. But you don’t let them come out of the tension right away because Jesus’ first words to Martha are basically “just have faith.” How often have we been told that and not known how to “just have faith”?
And then we get to the good news: Jesus both enters our pain (“Jesus wept”) and conquers it by speaking life into darkness. What we remember from this passage is that for reasons we never fully understand, God is not on our timetable. Sometimes even really painful things WILL happen, but we have a God who both weeps WITH us and will work “all things together for good.”
This is a story as a sermon: when we go on the emotional journey of the people in the texts.
The Bible is always a narrative, even when it doesn’t feel like it
But obviously we’re not always preaching from narrative texts. Let’s say you’re preaching on Romans 12:3-8, where Paul tells the church to be humble and submissive to each other, and for each person to use their gifts in the body of Christ. How does a storytelling sermon work with that?
The key is remembering the bigger picture of Romans. Romans 12 comes on the heels of several chapters (11 of them in fact!) where Paul is laying out a theological case for Biblical unity. In chapters 1-3 Paul explains how both Jew and Gentile are in trouble, because “all have sinned.” In 4-5 we learn that we’re united in the solution, which is faith in Jesus regardless of our heritage. And then in 6-8 we’re united in a new life available in Christ that has nothing to do with our goodness or moral qualifications, but by the life-saving power that raised Jesus from the grave. So Paul isn’t saying “hey guys, try to work together okay?” He’s saying “if you really get everything I’ve just said, unity is the only rational way we could live!”
There are a few ways you could turn this into a storytelling sermon, but one way exciting to me right now would be to start a sermon by asking the question: “In a world as polarized and divided as ours, how can we ever find unity and common ground?” I would then talk about how divided the church often is, and how many of us have even been deeply hurt by our churches. So what’s the solution?
This is when you break out your three point sermon (if you want) and work quickly through Romans: we’re united in the problem, united in the answer, and united in our new freedom. Not only have you engaged people emotionally in some deep theological truths, you’ve also now set the stage for some powerful vision-casting describing where God is taking the story of your church community and how you’re going to live this out.
How to craft a storytelling sermon
So how do we learn to tell stories with our sermons, week in and week out? Here I’m indebted to Andy Stanley’s amazing book on preaching, Communicating for a Change. He advocates for a storytelling format of preaching that I love, and you should absolutely check the book out if you haven’t read it.
As I’ve taken this book and let it sink into my preaching style here is how I structure most of my messages:
ME: how can I emotionally engage my community in the narrative tension I want to create while being as personal as possible (think of the Lazarus example: ‘here’s a time God let me, personally, down.’)
WE: have you ever felt like that? What do we DO when we feel that way?
GOD: What does God say about this problem we’re stuck in? How is that different than how we’re inclined to think or feel?
YOU: What are the obstacles in the way of you believing/trusting/obeying God? Why is this hard? How can we take steps out of the world’s kingdom story and into God’s story?
WE: Can you imagine what life would be like if you, and me, and all of us actually trusted God and did this? How would things be better?
In my experience, not only do people engage with storytelling sermons better (who doesn’t like a good story?) but they’re more fun to give. Rather than being proposition-givers, we get to find connective pathways to our community’s fears, dreams, and hurts and point them to a God who has entered their life’s story and is offering to redeem it all.
And what could be more fun for a pastor than that?