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Monday, July 09, 2012

Preach the Story

Stories are magical.

This was clear to Eugene Lowry and why he wrote The Homiletical Plot about preaching as a narrative art form. It was also clear to Bill Cosby, who could hold throngs spellbound with stories of his youth. Joseph Campbell looked at all the narrative elements that connect humanity in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It turns out, we don't have new stories, just the same old tales applied to new situations.

But for whatever reason, we forget the power of the story when it comes time to communicate important messages. We stop thinking in terms of plot, narrative and theme and start thinking in terms of data, argument and logic.

Stories provide emotionally, visually engaging anchor-points for an audience to connect with a message. Without these points, they drift aimlessly from word to word and sentence to sentence. They may eventually wash up on the shore of meaning, or they might be lost forever in the sea of logical arguments.

A story doesn't have to be complex. You don't need to find a long, drawn-out example for every point and sub-point in your sermon. Sometimes it can be a simple reference to a story that everyone's familiar with. Or you can choose to phrase you logical argument in a narrative metaphor that draws people in and evokes their imaginations (for example, look at the previous paragraph).

A story must  be applicable. You can't just throw in a story or a joke because you want to break up the sermon. There has to be a connection with the point you're making. And that connection needs to be explicitly clear to the audience. The danger is that you, as the preacher, know what's going on in the sermon. You know the end before the audience does, so it's tempting to take a shortcut. You're excited about the grand finale so you want to hurry up and get there. But it's only exciting because of the journey. Let your audience take the journey with you.

The story needs to be subordinate. In Aesop's fables, you always know the point. He tells you right at the end what the moral of the story is. Try to use stories that have clear points - they may not be as obvious as Aesop's, but they must not be vague. Moral ambiguity and subtle character development are great for novels or Oscar-winning movies, but you don't have time in a sermon to do that kind of work. Stick with the clear, simple stories that serve your point. If the story gets out of hand and starts to take over, then your sermon will begin to serve as the vehicle for your story rather than the other way around.

How do you use stories when you speak?

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