The Power of Story
Think back to the most powerful sermon or sermons you’ve ever listened to. What is it that you remember from them? Most likely, it was a story that illustrated a theological concept, or perhaps it was an analogy that captured your attention and brought the sermon to life in significant ways.
For me, there was a moment when I really grasped just how important stories were, and it was while reading a book about the way the brain works. The title is Brain Rules, which was written by a molecular biologist, and one of these rules, #4 to be specific, is this: “We don’t pay attention to boring things.”
In other words, something we’ve all experienced is that our brains have little trouble focusing on engaging material, but really struggle following dull material. Why is it that we slog through day-long orientations or staff meetings, but don’t have any trouble following hour after hour of our favorite television shows?
And yet this rule—our brains don’t pay attention to boring things—is often the last concern in seminaries and pulpits around the world. The focus has remained on cogent truth claims, with illustration seen often as window dressing at best, distracting drivel at worst. And while of course we would never want to diminish the importance of the truth claims connected to the gospel, is it possible that we have given almost no thought to how we bring those truth claims to life through powerful illustrating?
If we are honest with ourselves, when it comes to homiletics, very little time is given to a part of the sermon that often has the largest impact on the listener’s life. And this begs the question: Why?
Why has so little time been given to studying storytelling? I would offer two primary reasons:
The technical reason why illustrating seems to be given such short shrift is because storytelling ought to be one of the very last pieces of the puzzle to be completed by the sermon writer. It is not until the preacher has done their exegesis and begun to outline the text that they are prepared to support their theology with storytelling. Because it comes so late in the process, it is no wonder the subject rarely receives the attention it deserves.
The historical reason is that our Western tradition, since the Enlightenment, has emphasized objective truth over subjective storytelling. A great example of this comes from Henry Grady Davis, whose homiletics textbook, Design for Preaching, was the most widely used preaching textbook for over one hundred years (during the 20th century):
Again it is contended that illustrative stories are necessary to supply interest, to give the human touch, and to make the message relevant to concrete human situations…. If the preacher has something relevant to say, and if the fabric of his thought is a woof of particulars on a warp of clear generalizations, his sermon will need no artificial adornments to make it interesting.
Henry Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958), 257.
So how are we to respond to these criticisms? Well, the ironic answer is that it (at least in part) comes from the scientific community (whose techniques of course were first developed during the Enlightenment) itself, whose recent developments in the inner-workings of the brain, have demonstrated just how powerful stories can be. But we need a rationale other than simply “it works” to take storytelling seriously in the pulpit.
So here is at least one good reason to take storytelling seriously: If God created us in such a way that storytelling is the most effective means of transmitting information, then we ought to take note. If we believe the triune God is the one who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, down to the very cellular level, then we need to take seriously the power of using stories to support theological ideas in our preaching. (For a deeper dive into the neuroscience of storytelling, consider checking out my online course at Fuller Seminary Storytelling & The Preacher)
A second reason is that Jesus took storytelling seriously, and he never seemed to have a problem using a parable to communicate a deep theological truth. The question for us to ask is, why don’t we? Is it for Biblical reasons or cultural ones? Is it Jesus and the larger witness of Scripture that dismisses the power and place of storytelling, or is it a cultural bias of Western society and even Christian higher education?
I have spent the last three years dedicated to finding short, powerful stories, analogies and more to help come alongside pastors and other ministry leaders in their weekly teaching. You can learn more at https://thepastorsworkshop.com/about.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Stu Strachan is the founder and lead curator of thepastorsworkshop.com, an online worship resource focused on connecting God’s Word to the modern world through a unique library of content, including illustrations, quotes, and liturgy. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Colleen and children, Jack (7) and Emma (5).