Good stories are spun gold for preachers. They are the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, the baby in the King Cake. I know of pastors who have flown halfway around the world on intercontinental mission trips just for the stories. I cannot say I blame them.
In our last article, we talked about how to spot stories. They tend to follow typical patterns, especially inspirational ones. But here I want to get even more practical and discuss where to spot them. What are the story factories we preachers can turn to in order to produce such valuable material?
There are some natural sources. You can utilize storytelling podcasts such as This American Life and Radiolab, history books (especially biographies), the sermons of other preachers you admire, and even the ministry booths at the pastor’s conference. Here I want to share with you three more of my favorite story sources, and then offer one tried and true tripwire which can set off your story-spotting alert system.
Shepherds visit their flock, wherever they may be. Every pastor knows this is a vital part of the calling, but not all attend to it as they should. If that is you, consider this another prod to get out there and see your people. You can get some really good stories.
The most obvious source of stories is from the visits themselves. Over the years, some of my favorite moments to share in sermons came from interactions in the parlors of homebound folks. Those conversations can be invaluable.
But also, do not discount the stories about their lives that God’s people are all too willing and ready to share. Treat your visit like you are doing an interview for a feature article in the paper. Who knows what gems you will turn up? And lo and behold, you will become a better, more attentive pastor in the process.
Biblical “Deep Cuts”
Even if you use the three-year lectionary, you are covering only a fraction of the Bible in the pulpit every triennium. There is so much material in the Scriptures, not least in the Old Testament. There are stories of terrible sinners being brought to their knees, narratives of super-natural encounters with God, and accounts of love shown to the loveless.
The Scriptures are not drawn on nearly enough for their stories. It is as though they do not “count” or some such thing. Early and medieval preachers had no such scruples. In fact, biblical stories, along with stories of the saints, were often their go-to source (Netflix had not come along yet).
The Scriptures are not drawn on nearly enough for their stories.
Furthermore, even familiar stories are valuable, and for precisely that reason. Not every compelling story needs to be novel. By continually lifting up the well-known narratives of Scripture, you help the Church live “in the mirror of the Bible,” as Richard Lischer puts it. Keep the reflections coming.
The “Five-Second Moment” of Movies
In his book, “Storyworthy,” author Matthew Dicks makes the claim that, “Every great story ever told is essentially about a five-second moment in the life of a human being.” He goes on to say movies are essentially elaborate frames for this one, five-second moment when everything changes for the main character.
For example, “Jurassic Park” is not about dinosaurs. It is about a guy (Dr. Alan Grant) who does not want kids and their impairing his relationship with the woman he loves. His five-second moment is when he is in the tree with Timmy and Lex and suddenly realizes he actually loves these kids, and could, presumably, also love others. All will be well.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is about how a scientist discovers faith in God. Indiana Jones is an adventure-seeking skeptic on a quest to find a religious relic. His five-second moment is when, right as the Ark of the Covenant is about to be opened, Indiana finally finds faith and saves face (literally).
Five-second moments are the filet mignon of a movie’s story. Too many preachers make the mistake of just describing the plot of a movie and thinking it is connecting with their hearers. Instead, recount the scene with the five-second moment, when the tears start to flow. This is what really moves people.
Which brings me to my tripwire for spotting stories.
The Story-Spotting Tripwire
I am not sure what the five-second moment was when I realized I knew how to tell that a story was afoot, but now it is like my preacher Spidey-sense. I could be watching TV, reading an article, or having a conversation, but when I hear something and get the sudden twitch in my eye (not even full-on tears, mind you, but just that slightest inkling of emotion) then I make mental note. This is my story-spotting tripwire.
It is, of course, not necessarily the case that what moves you will have the same effect on someone else. More often than not, however, the stuff which stirs the emotions translates. In the famous words of the Roman poet Terence, “I am a man; I consider nothing human alien to me.” So, when you get that catch in the throat, take note. You might have a story on your hands.
For preachers with ears to hear and eyes to see, good stories are all around us. You do not have to fly across the globe to find the stuff of inspiring sermons. Curate your podcasts, be strategic in your reading, and listen to other preachers. Visit your people, go deep in the Bible, and watch movies like a pro. You will find there is more material available than you ever realized... and it will also save you on airfare.
Write to Ryan at email@example.com
For more inspiration on this, check out Robert Kolb’s book Luther and the Stories of God.