The Preacher's Toolbox: Spotting the Story

Reading Time: 3 mins

For preachers, the inspirational element of good stories is particularly vital. But how do they do it?

This is Part 2 of a series on the role of stories in sermons. Read Part 1 here.

Stories inspire people. In our first article in this series, we gave reasons why stories are valuable. For preachers, the inspirational element of good stories is particularly vital. But how do they do it? What underlying patterns make a story not only meaningful, but moving?

Researcher Chip Heath set out to answer this question in a rather ingenious way.[1] He needed to determine a sample, a set, of recognizably inspirational anecdotes to study. Where would you turn? He and his team of researchers ultimately settled on the “Chicken Soup” series, poring over hundreds of stories.

Now, I know what you are thinking. “Chicken Soup” books are like the Hydrox cookies of stories: Sugary sweet, but a fraud which, if consumed in large volumes, might make you puke. But stay with me, because whether or not you care for the content of those stories, their underlying structures are timeless and applicable to gospel proclamation.

Heath and company discovered that more than 80% of the “Chicken Soup” stories fall into one of three basic plot formulations: The Challenge Plot; The Connection Plot; and The Creativity Plot. Let me briefly describe each one, give a biblical example, and suggest how you might use it for your preaching.

  1. The Challenge Plot

In the Challenge Plot, according to Heath, “A protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds.” Close cousins include underdog and rags-to-riches stories. What is key to this structure is the presence of daunting and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

David and Goliath is, of course, the classic Challenge Plot, but any number of other biblical stories also suggest themselves: Samson taking down the Philistines; Joseph rising to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man; Paul bringing the Gospel to Rome.

The danger of Challenge Plots is when they are told in a merely humanist way. In other words, the triumph of the will. For people who believe in the “bondage” of the will, this is problematic. But when these stories are told as foreshadowing’s of and pointers to the Ultimate Challenge of redeeming the world, then they become fertile ground for Gospel proclamation. Because what is the story of Jesus but the preeminent Challenge Plot?

In addition to using this structure in the preaching of the good news, it can also inspire Christians to act on their faithful conviction. Luther famously said faith is a “living, daring confidence.” So, many stories of the saints and martyrs are Challenge Plots, with a twist. They are not tales of the triumph of the human will, but of the grace of God operating through humble human means and agents. Those are stories which resonate.

They are not tales of the triumph of the human will, but of the grace of God operating through humble human means and agents.

  1. The Connection Plot

What Heath calls the Connection Plot is, “A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap; racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise.” Connection Plots inspire people, in the broadest sense, to be pro-social: Help others, work with others, love others.

An obvious biblical example, which Heath himself invokes, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. There you have a religious outsider (the Samaritan) reaching across a profound cultural and national chasm in order to show mercy to a nearby person in need. Christologically, we read the story as the Son of God coming to us who are waylaid by sin and “dead in our trespasses,” in order that He might bind our wounds and make us whole, and in so doing, to reconnect us to the Father.

Homiletically, Connection Plots are all about relationships: Our relationship to the Lord and our relationships to one another. Such stories are especially valuable when you are preaching on the blessings of the Body of Christ and the summons to serve our neighbors.

  1. The Creativity Plot

The third and final category of inspirational story that Heath and his researchers uncovered is what they call the Creativity Plot: “Someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way.” The worldly prototype is the apple falling on Newton’s head.

From a faith-filled perspective, we might also call this the Conversion Plot, because the creativity is not first and foremost our own but that of God’s Spirit. The paradigmatic biblical example is when the lightbulb goes off for Saul as his lights go out. His transformation from determined enemy to fervent missionary becomes a kind of template for Christian conversion stories.

Flowing from conversion, I do think there is also a sense in which we can talk about faith-filled ingenuity. “Creativity Plots make us want to do something different,” Heath writes, “to be creative, to experiment with new approaches.” We just celebrated the birth of the Reformation. While that story is undoubtedly a Challenge Plot (and though Luther was more interested in being a faithful son of the Church than an ecclesial innovator) we cannot help but admire the creative problem-solving characteristic of the reformers. You think, for instance, of the development of the “Deutsche Messe,” bringing the timeless truths of God’s Word into the vernacular of His people. That is a Creativity Plot.

Spotting the Plot

The point in classifying these “plots” is not so you, as a preacher, might craft your own stories. If you are so moved to create parables for the sermon, I think there can certainly be a place for it, but that is a different topic.

No, the help of a taxonomy like this is not for creation, but identification. It is about being able to see the stories when they come and so inspire your hearers by sharing them. “You don’t need to make stuff up,” Heath writes. “You just need to recognize when life is giving you a gift.” Lord willing, the gift will taste to God’s people like chicken soup for the soul.

Or better yet, Oreos.


[1] This story and the accompanying research are recounted in Made to Stick, pages 224-231.