Storying is best form of preaching

June 22, 2011

Can you imagine the first humans sitting around the fire telling stories about the day they had exploring their world? They might see a bird they had never seen before. Or they played with a deer in the forest. They shared their experiences, their fears, and their joys.

As one person told their story, others around the campfire listened in, connecting with the storyteller. They felt the experience. They understood the fear and the joy. Meaning was created and community was formed around that campfire. People would be different because of the story that was told. That is the incredible power of a story.

Imagine these stories becoming a such a part of the culture and community that they were passed down for generations. This is how the Israelites passed down the events of the Old Testament. Average families did not read – they couldn’t. They simply told the stories that their parents and grandparents told them.

In the movie The Nativity Story, the movie opens with a woman telling the story of the exodus to a group of kids. The kids were fully engaged in listening. And it was likely not the first time they heard the story.

Remember Andy Griffith? In one episode, Andy hints to the boys that it’s ok not be so worried about reading their history book and learning the information. When the teacher confronts him about it, he realizes that he messed up. When he realizes what he did, he tells the boys the story of Paul Revere in such a way that the boys get so intrigued they pour into their history books. And they learned their history.

See Andy tell the story here:

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See the change in the boys here:

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Stories change behavior because they engage the whole person, not just the intellect. They are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form.

We are wired to learn lessons from observing others and their experiences. When we listen to a story, the chemicals in our body change and our mind becomes transfixed. We are riveted when a character encounters a situation that involves risks and elated when he averts the danger.

Information is static. Stories are dynamic because they help the congregation visualize what you are trying to preach. Tell a story and people will be more engaged and receptive to the ideas you are trying to communicate. Stories link one person’s heart to another. Values, beliefs, and norms become intertwined. When this happens, the truth of the scripture can become more of a reality in people’s minds.

I love to listen to Steve Brown preach. When he preaches, he will lay out a point and instead of all the exegesis we tend to use, he most often tells a story that conveys the meaning of the point he is trying to make. For Brown, it is story first, explanation second. He holds people’s attention. That is one reason he is such a powerful preacher. Of course, his voice doesn’t hurt.

Robert McKee notes,

The best way to unite an idea with an emotion is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy. Persuading with a story is hard. Any intelligent person can sit down and make lists. It takes rationality but little creativity to design an argument using conventional rhetoric. But it demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable. If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.

Of course, we preachers aren’t so much worried about the thunderous applause are we? But the point McKee makes is extremely important. Preaching can’t change lives if people don’t listen to the message. If our preaching is boring, we do a great disservice to the scriptures. And we fail our people.

Developing stories is really hard and takes a lot of work. But in an image-rich, story-driven culture that doesn’t read very much and lacks the language and mental skills to track with logic and rhetoric, we need to communicate in story.

Let the Spirit capture your story and create an experience with the Word of God to bring change into the lives of people.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

W. David Phillips © 2018
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