Preaching using storying techniques
Isn't this the preacher's dream? For members to not only remember the story (and forget the speaker) but also be hungry to apply it.
Storytelling and preaching
Does storytelling have any implications for preaching?
What differences, if any, would occur in preparation and presentation?
What might we do about epistles and other non-narrative passages?
Dr Sam Chan is a medical doctor and theological lecturer at Sydney Missionary and Bible College (Australia) with a PhD in the theology of preaching. He lectures on preaching, theology, evangelism and ethics. Prior to encountering storytelling he had extensive experience in preaching both regularly in churches and for special events and conferences. Once Sam had used storying in Bible study groups he began to think about how the approach could be applied to preaching. He had always followed the expository method that was modeled to him. To most people he seemed successful as he did lots of guest preaching in churches and at conferences. His style was interesting to listen to and each point was well illustrated. However, he felt that the models he’d received didn’t work so well with narrative. He also wasn’t convinced he was connecting with teenagers, non-native English speakers and those without a university background. Could a storying style make people engage with the biblical text and apply it better in to their lives? Would using a storying approach lose him the interest of the more educated?
Sam decided to try a new approach. He spent most of his preparation time learning a story and meditating on it. At the same time he thought about his audience and pondered what questions they might have when they heard the story. He chose the most relevant of these questions and arranged them as his sermon points. His sermon became a retelling of the story and then a talk in which he answered the questions he thought they’d be most curious about.
At Easter, Sam and another storytelling advocate did the Bible readings in an unconventional way. Rather than reading the passages, they told stories based on John 19 on Good Friday and John 20 on Easter Sunday. Then the preacher spoke on these stories. A professional woman in her seventies with numerous degrees came up to Sam afterward and said, “That was wonderful. You could hear a pin drop. We were listening to every word.” As someone who communicates for a living, Sam says he has learned to read people’s eyes. He has found that his new way of preaching engages listeners far more deeply. They’re not only more attentive but they’re remembering the Bible and becoming enthralled by it.
Differences to conventional preaching
1. The story is told rather than read. I still do not fully understand why this is so different but people much prefer to hear it told. It engages them in a new way and quite often they’ll say something like, “It’s as though I have never heard it before.”
2. Therefore, a good percentage of the preparation time is spent learning to tell the story and praying.
3. You work hard to generate a list of possible questions that people might have about the story.
4. Once you have an outline you think hard about answering those questions.
5. Preparation is then done out loud. Usually the talk is done without notes or minimal notes because you have practiced it three or four times out loud.
6. Preparing the actual talk should take much less time than normal, often only about an hour, because more time has gone into learning the story and meditating on it.
7. The talk can be practiced out loud as you do other things like drive, shower or run and so actually the preparation time feels much less. However, in actual fact the story will be working hard changing us and will remain with us long after we have preached the sermon.
As Sam testifies, he has noticed that he is learning large sections of narrative and that he often finds himself mulling over the stories. Through storying he is noticing things about the stories that he’d missed in the past. Storying is taking him deeper into the Scripture. He’s never been a Bible verse memorizer but suddenly he can tell whole chapters of the Bible.
I too have found this to be true. Six months ago I preached on Noah and I am still thinking about what it means to be “righteous because he walked with God” and why God gave another seven days of preparation for Noah after they completed the ark and before the rain came.
1. Don’t forget to pray asking the Lord for which book/story section to tackle. Ask for wisdom in choosing the appropriate stories or books of the Bible and how to divide the series.
2. If this is a one-off sermon then choose the story. However, hopefully you are preaching on a narrative book. Therefore you will need to look at all the possible stories and then choose which ones you tell. Be careful that you don’t just choose your ‘favorites’ and skip out tougher stories. You need to have a balance. For example, if doing a series on Abraham make sure that you don’t just tell the stories of Abraham’s successes. If you leave out the major ‘failure’ stories (at least three of them) then you’ll present Abraham as perfect and fail to engage your audience because they won’t be able to relate to him.
3. Most sermon sets should be 4-10 stories as listeners tend to need a change after a time. If there are more stories, then split your set into several parts and do other sermons in between (perhaps a non-narrative book).
4. Start learning story 1 – alternate ways to learn the story can be found under ‘training videos’
a) Pray for it’s impact on your listeners and for your preparation
b) Easiest way to learn – read out loud, close Bible and tell out loud. Repeat this three times.
c) Tell your story out loud every day as you shower, walk, run, drive.
5. After several days of telling the story over and over brainstorm all the questions you can think that someone might have about this story. You could tell your stories to Christians and non-Christians and ask them what questions they’d have.
6. Think about your listeners and pick some questions that both will reveal the story and that they will want to know the answers to.
So for example, a sermon on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) could have this outline:
a. Why is the rich man in hell?
b. What is hell like?
c. How do I avoid going to hell?
An evangelistic youth talk on the parable of the workers (Mt 20:1-16) asked,
a. Why isn’t this unfair?
b. Why does everyone get the same pay?
c. What is God trying to teach me?
Some of the basic discussion questions could also form sermon points. That is, you could use these three:
a. What do we learn about people?
b. What do we learn about God?
c. How does this apply to our lives this week?
7. Choose the questions you want to ask and start working on the answers in any way that suits your style. You could just start talking out loud about the points and see what comes to mind from the story. Some people might want to make notes of their points.
8. Think about an introduction and conclusion that will draw people into the story and then leave them still thinking at the end.
So for example, I spoke at a women’s conference. The topic was ‘Living a life of eternal significance.’ I decided to use the lives of Daniel and his three friends to give us clues (found ten clues in the six chapters). This one was unusual because I told six chapters of the story (which I had learned previously and used in other contexts including an evangelism set of six).
The introduction I used was to talk about the sudden death of a friend in her 40’s. Every time someone dies I find myself asking, ‘If I was to die next week, would I have lived a life of eternal significance?’ I would like to introduce you to four people who lived that kind of life and we will see what clues we can glean from their lives to help us live a significant life. I continued my introduction by saying, “These people had many things that they could have complained about and if they had done so they would have wasted their lives. These hard things included: seeing friends and family die; being taken into captivity; being forced to learn a new language; losing their names; perhaps being made eunuchs but they didn’t start complaining and they lived lives that we are still talking about 2700 years later! Then I told chapter 1 and drew out the clue (deciding to honor God in the small things even if it cost them). Then chapter 2 (people who will have an eternal significance will turn to God in prayer and then thank him as their first response; they will also make sure God gets the glory and not steal it themselves) – and so on to chapter 6.
I then practiced the whole talk out loud with the application comments as we went along. With practice I was able to do this talk in 40 minutes.
To listen to the sermon in your web browser, click the link below. To copy to your computer, right click the link and select Save As or Save Link As.
Do you just avoid the non-narrative books?
We are not advocating only a diet of narrative. But we are suggesting that we increase our diet of it and change how we preach it.
I’ve certainly found that when I’m asked to give a Bible talk, my approach has changed. For a start, I now nearly always choose narrative passages to speak from. Often the epistles’ doctrine becomes backup for the story rather than the other way around. For example, in telling the story of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:21-35) I can pull in teaching on forgiveness from doctrinal sections of the Bible (Ephesian 4:25-26; Matthew 5:23-24, 38-48). I also find myself illustrating points from within the biblical narratives rather than using lots of outside illustrations. Many teaching passages have background stories that make it easier for people to identify with. For example, I explain the story of the church at Ephesus as I teach on Ephesians.
Does this mean that we avoid non-narrative sections? At the moment my thoughts on this are untested, so I offer them tentatively. I believe we tend to think of stories as ‘simple’ and doctrine sections as ‘meat’. However, I suspect that all of the doctrines of the Bible are also contained in story form. The more we delve into the narrative sections the more we’ll discover what depths they contain. However, this depth is communicated in a way that all people can digest.
Many of the psalms and epistles have story backgrounds. Sharing on these passages in the context of their stories will make them easier to remember. For example, you could teach Paul’s letters in the context of the missionary journeys of Acts. Psalms like Psalm 51 make far more sense taught as part of a 2 Samuel series on King David. Some of Moses’ psalms would be remembered more easily as part of a series on his life. A series on Peter would work wonderfully if it linked his life and early character with the letters he wrote when mature. This series would lead to rejoicing at the greatness of God in changing such a man and using him so mightily despite all his sin and mistakes.
Sam, with his extensive preaching opportunities, is pushing the boundaries with non-narrative told in a storying style. When his church did a sermon series on Malachi, Sam told a story instead of reading the Bible passage. This worked, even though Malachi isn’t story but prophetic oracle. The story of Malachi captured the dialogue between God and Israel.
A church needs balanced preaching from all sections of Scripture. Storying is not the only way to preach, and using storying exclusively would not be helpful. Congregations need to hear preaching from the Epistles, Prophets, apocalyptic sections, wisdom and poetic sections of Scripture as well as the narratives. But my experience has been that I hear most preaching from the four Gospels and the Epistles and little from the rest of the Bible. A mixture of preaching and teaching styles will engage the full range of learning styles that God has created among his people.
An unusual result of this kind of preaching
Many preachers become frustrated that people only comment on their sermons, “That was a fine sermon”, but very seldom do people really discuss the content of the Bible. One problem is that if you are a good preacher then the comments puff up the preachers pride rather than really encouraging them to continue as faithful communicators.
Shortly after Sam Chan started doing this kind of preaching he noticed that the praise had stopped. What happened instead was that people would immediately start talking about the story and applying it into their lives. Weeks later they would still be mentioning the story.
Isn’t this the preacher’s dream? For members to not only remember the story (and forget the speaker) but also be hungry to apply it.
Here is another sermon by Alan Thompson, preached at Sydney Missionary and Bible College in March 2012. This is almost a story sermon. The difference is that he reads the passage instead of telling the story. If you want to hear the difference between reading a story and telling a story then listen both to the start of Alan’s sermon and to the video about Jesus authority over sickness.
Below is a sermon preached in an Anglican Church in Sydney. This church is very multicultural and between 150-250 people. This was the preacher’s first attempt at this in his pastoral role although he has used storytelling in evangelism …