“The only tool known to man that can stop people from daydreaming,” writes Donald Miller, the bestselling author of Blue Like Jazz, “is story. When we start to hear a story, we stop daydreaming and pay attention.”
As preachers, we understand this intuitively. The Bible contains a lot of stories. People enjoy listening to stories. We probably should tell stories. But why? What is it about stories that resonates and how can we tell them better?
Since storytelling is such a core tool in the preacher’s toolbox, I want to devote a series to the topic. In subsequent columns I will discuss some common types of stories, delve into one small insight that can make a significant difference in your sermonic storytelling, and give ideas for sources of stories. As we get started, I simply want to offer five reasons why stories are so essential to compelling proclamation. Two of them are theological and the other three will be more practical.
“All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables,” the apostle Matthew tells us. “Indeed, He said nothing to them without a parable” (Matthew 13:34). It might go without saying, but then it does not get said: The Lord Jesus is the consummate preacher and He preached in stories, so you should too.
Now, let us be clear, you are not Jesus. And we are not recommending that you tell obscure stories which you only later decode for church members in Bible study, nor that your sermons occasionally be two sentences long. He is Jesus, and He reserves the right as the Son of God to be a little idiosyncratic in the way He employs parables.
That being said, for those preachers who eschew stories, the onus is on them to justify why we should not in some modest way follow Jesus’ example. When the apostle John tells us the Lord “knew what was in man,” that surely extended to the best means of communicating with mankind.
- It Is His Story
If Jesus tells stories, He must be a chip-off-the-old-block. God the Father is constantly relating stories (lower-case) in the Scriptures, even as all of time bears the stamp of His Story (upper-case). This is the core insight of narrative theology: The Bible is story-shaped, God’s modus operandi is narrative, and ultimately the arc of history bends toward “happily ever after.” Small wonder, then, that when preachers use stories, they get the attention of God’s people.
This is the core insight of narrative theology: The Bible is story-shaped, God’s modus operandi is narrative, and ultimately the arc of history bends toward “happily ever after.”
Stories facilitate memory, not only for the hearers, which they undoubtedly do, but also for the preacher. They possess their own inner logic, which makes moving from Point A to Point B relatively effortless. You can typically see the structure simply by listening to the conjunctions: “At first... but then... and now...” The parts of a story unfold from one another as naturally as a slinky sliding down the steps. This helps both you and the people in the pew to keep the message in mind.
Good stories, well-told, are inspirational (even bad stories, poorly told occasionally have value... looking at you, Chicken Soup). There is a reason every year why, at about this time I pop in my “Rudy” DVD, and it is not for the delight of seeing Samwise Gamgee sport the golden dome. It is because it makes me want to strap it on.
But a story does not have to be in a movie to be moving. Pastors know from experience: If you want to inspire people, there is nothing more effective in the preacher’s toolbox than a good story.
In their book, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath detail a surprising additional feature of stories: “They are like flight simulators for the brain.” Neuroscience has demonstrated that, when people listen to stories, the same parts of the brain fire as if they themselves were doing the deed. Visualization aids with actualization.
For preachers, then, stories are an essential way not only to motivate our hearers to act on their faith, but to help them imagine how to act. Before you take off, it is helpful to think through how you will handle turbulence. Stories can help.
The Point of Stories
To close, let me also stress one reason not to use stories, namely, as window-dressing on an otherwise drab presentation. This is the “Insert Reader’s Digest Anecdote” school of sermon illustrations, and it is a lame excuse for storytelling.
As Eugene Lowry writes in his book, How to Preach a Parable, “Any time a preacher launches into an illustration or a worker relates an incident from the job, a central and simple assumption is being made, that there must be something in it which makes it worth telling.” Again, the Dr. Seuss question: “Why are you bothering telling me this?”
My friend, Pastor Bill Yonker who is one of the best storytelling preachers I know, conveys this with his catchphrase, “I tell you that [the story] to tell you this [the point],” and the point is always to point to Jesus. The real value of stories is their power to make the point that much sharper.
Write to Ryan at email@example.com.
 The Bible contains between 600-800+ true narratives, accounts, and stories, depending on how you count them. It is next to impossible to give a specific number as it is frequently difficult to resolve where one narrative or event starts and another ends.