By Joe McKeever
“He never preached without telling stories.” (Mark 4:34)
Pastor, your people love a good story. Listeners who have gone on vacation during the first ten minutes of your sermon will return home in a heartbeat the moment you begin, “A man went into a store….” or “I remember once when I was a child….”
Those who have died early in your message will suddenly spring to life when you say, “The other day, I saw something on the interstate…” or “Recently, when the governor and I were having lunch at the local cafe…” (smiley-face goes here)
We all love a good story. We’re so addicted to stories, our television brings us hundreds a day. (Even on talk shows, the host wants his guests to tell a story!) Drop in on your local cinema and no matter which screen you’re watching, it’s all stories. And the book publishing business–well, you get the idea.
There are a thousand reasons for droppng the occasional story into your sermon, pastor. Here are my top three….
1) It makes the hard truth tastier, a little more palatable.
A good story sugar-coats the bitter pill you’re asking your audience to swallow.
No one knew this better than President Abraham Lincoln. The great story-teller received many an irate and demanding politician in his office, upset because he had fired this general or backed that program or would not hire a constituent. Lincoln welcomed them, smoozed them a little, and told them a story. A half-hour later, they walked out without getting what they came for, but satisfied with what they were given: a story with a message to think about.
You’re preaching on racism to a collection of prejudiced, narrow-minded churchgoers who do not want people of “that” race, whatever it happens to be, since racism comes in all colors. How to do that and get out of town alive? You decide to tell them a story.
The points of your story can sneak up on them and do its good work before they realize what hit them.
When the Prophet Nathan was assigned to confront King David with the bitter facts of his adultery and his subsequent manslaughter to cover it up, he chose to tell a story. In doing so, he carried the day and left us a lesson never to be forgotten.
2) It makes the truth clearer, easier to understand.
You’re having trouble grasping the point the minister is making, even though he’s laboring as hard as he can to get it across. Suddenly, he pauses. “Suppose your teenage son comes in one day and says, ‘Dad, I’m sorry, but….’”
Or perhaps he says, “Let me tell you how I first saw this truth. I was on the playground with our 3-year-old son, when suddenly….”
If the story was well-chosen and told effectively, you get the point in ways that abstract formulas could never convey.
The keepers of orthodoxy in Judea–that is, the scribes and Pharisees–were upset that Jesus, a rabbi of note, seemed to be hanging out with the lowlifes of the community. “This man receives sinners and eats with them,” they said, implying that He was no better than scum Himself.
In answering His critics, the Lord told three stories, about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost boy. The last one, the tale we call ‘The Prodigal Son” carried the day, I expect. It totes a wallop neither of the others did.
This, incidentally, is not to say the story won the minds and hearts of the critics. Often, the Lord’s response to a Pharisee was not geared to convince his self-appointed judge but to appeal to everyone else standing around, taking it all in. (This is a big deal and pastors should not miss it. When confronted by a heckler or a persistent pest in a church business meeting, your aim is not so much to convert him as it is to show everyone watching the reasonableness of your position, the rightness of your cause, and while you’re at it, what a nice guy you are.)
3) It makes the truth unforgettable.
Stories are easier to remember than “truths” or “principles” or “formulas.” The teacher who can encapsulate her lesson in a story has done her students a great favor and guaranteed that the message will stick.
A Lincoln story. After Grant defeated the Southern forces at Vicksburg, he “paroled” the Rebels, meaning he allowed them to muster out of the military and go home without imprisoning them. That did not “set well” with some in Washington, and one day Lincoln received a delegation to complain about the practice. “They’ll just have to be whipped all over again at another place,” they said. According to General Horace Porter, who got the story from General Grant, Lincoln told his visitors the story of “Syke’s yellow dog.”
Old man Sykes, who ran a general store back home, had a yellow dog which he thought a lot of. However, in the village there were several small boys running loose who loved to pick on that dog. One day, the boys slipped “a cartridge with a long fuse” in the meat they fed to the dog. Then, they lit the fuse and ran. The dog was blown in every direction, of course.
As Lincoln told his visitors, old man Sykes picked up the biggest piece of the dog he could find, and after looking at it from every angle, he said, “Well, I guess he’ll never be much account again–as a dog.”
He said, “And, I guess Pemberton’s forces will never be much account again–as an army.”
Lincoln told General Grant that before he got to the end of the story, his visitors were looking for their hats. “And, I was never bothered any more after that” (by that group).
However, a few pointers to keep in mind for the pastor who would tell a story….
1) It must be appropriate and fit the situation.
Try telling it to your wife and child, pastor. Their reaction will tell you all you need to know.
2) Do not load your sermon with too many stories.
The more you tell, the more you diminish their value. Two good stories per sermon are ideal.
3) You need some kind of file in which to keep the stories you come across. No one can remember them all. I expect we’ve all had the experience of coming across an old sermon of ours and discovering a great story, one we had forgotten and wished we had used more over the years since.
4) Work at learning to tell a story well.
Do not–repeat, do not!–begin with something like “The story is told of a man who….” or “I once heard a story…” Just tell it. “A man once did this or that.”
We don’t need to know that you read this in a book somewhere or it was told to you by a friend (unless that is pertinent to the tale). If someone asks your source later, you can tell where you got it.
Practice telling the story in various ways. Then choose the one that feels best to you.
I’d like to end this with a story, then make a comment or two about it….
A wealthy rancher ran an advertisement in a newspaper: “A bonus of $50,000 will be given to anyone who can build a fence around my property that is guaranteed never to fall down.” Various ones applied for the job, but none could convince the rancher their fence would never fail. Finally one man pulled it off, got the job, built the fence, and walked away with the big money.
His plan was simple: his wall was four feet high and five feet wide. “If this fence ever falls,” he said, “it will be higher than it was before!”
I love that little story. I first ran across it in “The Sword of the Lord,” a fundamentalist weekly from maybe forty years ago. The story-teller was a pastor making a point in his sermon about the “living and abiding” word of God. Every time people have tried to banish or destroy the Holy Bible, it has come back stronger than ever.
As a result of the story making its point and capturing my imagination, I never forgot it. And here I am, nearly a half century later, sending it into cyberspace, almost certainly guaranteeing it will show up in more sermons in the future. And how good is that!
Tell me a story, pastor. You will extend your sermon’s shelf life far into the future.
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.