Preaching and Storytelling

I have often tried to put my passion for preaching into words without much success.  I want to say something about preaching Gospel in contrast to preaching Law—something I feel very strongly about.  I want to say something about the work of the Preacher being different from the work of the Teacher—something else I feel very strongly about.  Richard Jensen (American Lutheran theologian, teacher, preacher) has put the missing something into words and I recommend his book, Thinking in Story: Preaching in a Post-literate Age (1995)

Two things were significant for me in this book.  The first was his understanding of preaching; there is a chapter on the theology of preaching which helped clarify my own thinking on the subject.  The second was his call for us to rediscover the art of storytelling—to fill the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

Theology of Preaching

I am wary of preaching law.  Most people (those who are listening to our preaching at least) know they have failed.  They just don’t know what to do about it or where to turn.  Law preaching tends to be either another round of condemnation leaving the listeners without hope, or some sort of motivational talk: Seven Steps to Spiritual Perfection.

Jensen says, “The law always kills.”  But most of our preaching on law “doesn’t kill; it just wounds people.” “Cheap law” he calls it; the counterpart of what Dietrich Bonheoffer called “cheap grace”.  And if we are only wounded, all we need is little of that cheap grace.  With just a little bit of help from God, in other words, I will be able to improve my life and all will be well.

“Costly law, in contrast, really kills.  It leaves me without hope in the world.  I respond to cheap law with the vow that I will be a better person.  I respond to costly law with a deep cry for help.”  Sinners slain by the law long for “a word that sets them free; that forgives their sins; that gives them resurrection life.  That’s what good preaching does!  It gives people life.  It announces, proclaims, life.”

Preaching is a saving event.  What we have to say—our ideas—are not nearly as important as what God wants to say and do.  The goal is not to transfer my words and ideas into the listener’s mind but to allow the Spirit of God to act in the life of the preacher and the hearer during the preaching event.

A Post-Literate World

Jensen’s main focus is on thinking and preaching in story.  He writes about the earlier shift from oral communication to the written word, and the shift today from print to electronic communication.

In an oral culture the communication is with the ear.  In a written culture the eye is used for reading; sounds are not important.  The transition from oral to written culture affected our preaching.  The words on a page can all be seen at once and can be revisited, dissected, and rearranged.  We can organise the words into a hierarchical structure of ideas.  So we turn the ideas into three points and try to help our congregation understand what we have so carefully formulated.

Jesus communicated the reality of the Kingdom of God in the form of stories:

  • The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a farmer scattering seed on the ground.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure hidden in a field.

But, in the world of print, we tend to organise Jesus’ comments about the Kingdom of God into a series of ideas: “The Kingdom of God has six characteristics.”

Thinking in Story

In today’s electronic world it is not the ear or the eye alone but a variety of senses that are massaged simultaneously, along with our emotions.

Educationalists and psychologists today would agree with Jensen when he urges preachers to engage more of the senses.  They would also agree that storytelling is more effective than the sharing of ideas neatly packaged.

It’s a bit scary, I must admit.  When I preach ideas, I’m trying to change your mind; I’m trying to get you to understand our relationship with God the way I have come to understand it.  And ideally, at the end of my sermon, you will say: “I understand what you are saying; I understand something new about God and what he wants to do in my life and in the world.”  It’s all very measurable.  But when we hear a story we may end up interpreting it very differently from each other; as we are drawn in, God’s Spirit begins his transforming work and the storyteller has little or no control.

Scary or not, it can have exciting consequences.  Jensen tells of having preached a story-sermon at a seminary.  It was just the story and when the story ended he said, “Amen” and sat down.

“Two days later a very bright student came to my office to tell me that this form of preaching didn’t work.  He and another student had discussed the text for two hours the day before and could not agree on what my open-ended story meant.

“‘Let me get this straight,’ I said.  ‘I preach a sermon on this text which led you and your friend to have a two-hour discussion of the text, and you reckon it doesn’t work?’”

If you are struggling with the organising of ideas into “three points and a poem” then this book is well worth reading.  I particularly like the idea of filling the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

What about you?  Have you had any experience of storytelling from the pulpit?

See also:


Filed under Books & Movies, Stories, Worship & Preaching

6 responses to “Preaching and Storytelling

  1. Your post reminds me of a very talented man who used to talk at St Thomas Church in the UK a man called Mike Breen, he was a gifted story teller who brought the bible alive. He is now somewhere in the USA.

    And grace as you said is so important.


  2. Had a chaplain in drug rehabilitation here recently demonstrate to the church the power of story telling. In vivid “oral tradition” style he recounted the story of Bartimaeus. The congregation was then invited to pair off and each repeat the story while the other listened. He then asked the church more expansive questions as we progressed through the story once more. The level of engagement and insight amongst the people was something to behold! Very potent!


    • Thanks Pilgrim!
      That’s a real gift. I have heard of people “telling” the Bible reading from memory, rather than reading it, and having great effect. Your guy took it further. I try to learn as much of my stories as possible, so as to act them out a bit rather than just read, but I haven’t been able (or had enough courage) to learn them off by heart.


  3. The old tried and true Evangelism Explosion may just have sounded like this if we shared the gospel the way Jesus might have done!

    Gathering them around him, he said:

    “A certain woman invited her neighbors to a meal. When she broke the tenth egg into the omelette mix, she discovered to her horror that it was rotten. She tried to cover up the smell by adding spices, but when she dished it up to her guests they were offended and left as soon as they could.

    Again, the kingdom of God is like a vast army with their camp-followers marching through a desert waste. It was made known to the general in command that someone had been stealing from their precious water ration. In his wrath he decreed that the thief would be put to death. When the thief was caught in the act, it turned out to be the commander’s mother. Justice had to follow its course, and the gallows were prepared. On the day of the execution, the general himself mounted the gallows and was hanged, because of his great love for her.

    Likewise, the kingdom of God is like a certain man who has three keys in his possession. The names of the keys were “Belief in God’s existence”, “Belief in God’s Providence”, and “Trust in Jesus”. Tell me, which of these keys will open the gates of life for him?

    He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

    I wonder if maybe I explain too much when I’m sharing the gospel?
    Maybe people aren’t so much swayed by logic as by revelation of truth by the Spirit?
    My Jesus. Please teach me to do Your will Your way.


    • Thanks Paul,
      Good stories. Yes, the temptation to do too much is very great. Stop when the congregation still wants more and let the Spirit do his work–great advice, but not always easy to follow.


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