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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:

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Jesus, HIV Positive?


“Jesus was HIV Positive”        

That’s what the newspaper headline screamed at us this morning.        

Of course (as it was meant to) it raised the ire and started me wondering who this arrogant person was and what dubious ‘research’ gave rise to such a scandalous idea.  Obviously some wretch looking for cheep publicity.  Oh, how quickly we jump to protect Jesus from scandal.   How foolishly we forget that Jesus was out there in the firing line long before we came along.  He doesn’t need our protection.  He wants us to follow him, to find him among the poor and the blind and the lame.         

The headline was actually the title of a sermon by the Rev Xola Skosana of the Way of Life Church in Cape Town.  He says, “In many parts of the Bible, God put himself in the position of the sick, the marginalised.”  The sad thing is that his remarks angered Christians in the township in which he preached.  But this pastor took his cue from Matthew 25 and said, “When we attend to those who are sick, we are attending to Him. When we ignore people who are sick, we are ignoring Him”.        

Christians in the township accuse Skosana of portraying Jesus as sexually promiscuous by drawing a link between the son of God and HIV/AIDS.  In spite of all we have heard, and all we know, we still presume ‘sexually promiscuous behaviour’ whenever we hear ‘HIV/AIDS’.  And our judgemental attitude precedes any caring we might offer.  But those who care for the sick and the marginalised put themselves at risk of infection every day.  Jesus reached out and touched the untouchables of his day (the lepers) with concern only for their wellbeing and self-worth.  We must assume that Jesus in South Africa today would be putting himself at risk of infection everywhere he went—not foolishly or wantonly but, when the need arose, he would care rather than conform, he would touch rather than retreat.   

Caring for the Sick, from 'L'Abbaye De Port-Ro...

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We hear of doctors and nurses and others on the frontline of caring for those infected by this fearsome disease receiving needle-stick injuries and coming into contact with bodily fluids.  Jesus would, I think, be no different.  He was not afraid to contract leprosy in first-century Palestine.  We should expect that he would be equally unafraid of contracting HIV/ AIDS in 21st century Africa.         

The township of Khayelitsha in which Skosana’s church is situated is as rife with HIV/AIDS as anywhere else in South Africa today (we hear of nearly 1,000 people dying daily here).  It is sad that the people should reject his message with anger, not because he was talking down to them or that he’s an outsider (he has lost two sisters to AIDS) but because they want to protect Jesus from such scandals.  The incarnation, however, is scandalous.  It means that God isn’t waiting for us in heaven far removed from the realities of life and death.  He has come to find us here and we will find him, grappling with poverty and dying of AIDS.        

But then the message of the incarnate Jesus reaching out to the poor and marginalised has never gone down too well.

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Is it Important?


A Reflection on Our Preaching

In his excellent book called Fundamentals of Preaching, John Killinger writes,

“The preacher’s first calling…is to love. Otherwise the preacher doesn’t understand community and has nothing to preach. We must love the community and love the people who belong to the community. It is not enough, if one wishes to preach, to be in love with preaching. It is not enough to be in love with the Christian philosophy. It is not even enough to be in love with God. We must love people and love God’s vision of the community. Then we can preach.” (see http://www.johnkillinger.com/Books.htm)

To love the people of the community is indeed our first calling. What is next most important?

No doubt each preacher would have his or her own idea, and perhaps our ideas will change over time. I would be happy to hear your ideas.

I would suggest conviction. To believe in what we have to say. Not to believe in the Gospel or the overall message of the Bible or of the Church, but to believe passionately in the message we have to preach this day to this congregation.

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