The Preacher as Storyteller
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The Preacher as Storyteller

The Power of Narrative in the Pulpit

Austin B. Tucker

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eBook - ePub

The Preacher as Storyteller

The Power of Narrative in the Pulpit

Austin B. Tucker

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About This Book

The Preacher as Storyteller takes a skills-development approach to its timely homiletics topic. In short, author Austin B. Tucker reasons that "You can greatly improve your preaching by sharpening storytelling skills... A story can touch the latch spring of the heart to let the life-changing gospel come in." To that end, he focuses upon the art of narrative and how it is used in the Bible (particularly by Jesus) and profiles great preachers throughout history and into today who have displayed a great gift for effective storytelling in their ministry.

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B&H Academic

part one


Chapter 1


LISA LAX, NBC-TV'S SENIOR SPORTS producer needed to know how to keep viewers watching the Atlanta Olympics. The network paid $456 million for the broadcast rights and budgeted $3.5 billion for Olympics coverage through the year 2008. They simply could not afford for you and me to tune out as so many did the Seoul Olympics. In the six years leading up to Atlanta, the network interviewed ten thousand viewers. What do people like, and what do they dislike about sports on TV? The big finding of all that research came down to one fact: Tell them stories, and they will watch. The result was more than 135 two-to-three minute narratives the network produced and scattered throughout the successful Atlanta Olympics coverage.1
Many preachers today could have saved the network all that expense. We know that stories, even brief ones, lift the attention level of our listeners. This opening chapter lists six reasons for the great appeal of narrative in preaching. Then it candidly admits that storytelling in the pulpit still meets with a few vocal critics. We will let them have their say. But now, what is the great appeal of narrative? We have already suggested the first value of the story in preaching.
A Story Grabs Our Attention and Holds It
Every preacher has seen it. You are doing your best to explain the text and apply it to the lives of those who sit before you. Glazed eyes gaze back at you or stare right through you. You know you are not connecting. Then you say, “Let me tell you a story,” or some other equivalent of “once upon a time.” Suddenly eyes blink into focus. Children stop doodling and look up. The teenagers on the back row pause in their whispering and note passing. The lady making her grocery list and the businessman mentally planning his week all lend you their ears—at least for this. That is the first and most important thing about storytelling that gives it such appeal for preaching: there is high attention value in stories. Henry Ward Beecher said, “He who would hold the ear of the people must either tell stories or paint pictures.”
Stories Stick in the Memory
Jesus made the truth portable in parables. It is narrative that gives this portability value to preaching or teaching. Chip Heath teaches at Stanford University. For the past few years, he has been teaching a class for MBA students called “Making Ideas Stick.” He runs a demonstration exercise to show how much the average business presentation falls short of sticking in the mind of the listener. He gives his students detailed numbers on U.S. property crime rates and asks them to make impromptu, 60-second speeches for or against tougher crime laws. Not surprisingly, the students resort to the statistics. They typically use two or three statistics in a one-minute talk. Only one in ten tells a story.
Chip then distracts the class for ten minutes by showing a clip from a Monty Python movie. When this diversion is over, he asks them what they remember about the presentations. A nervous laughter goes around the room. Only one out of every 20 people in the class is able to recall any statistic from any of the presentations they heard. When a speaker told a story about a personal experience with property crime, on the other hand, two out of three students remembered it. Stories may not fit neatly into a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation, but narratives stick with us when the charts and graphs are gone.2
What do you remember from the last sermon you heard? Chances are, if you remember anything, you remember a narrative. Perhaps the text was a narrative; about three-fifths of the Bible is narrative. My childhood pastor was an excellent preacher, T. C. Pennell Sr. of Shreveport, Louisiana. Yet I do not recall a single sermon title or outline from those years. I do recall, after half a century, many of his narrative illustrations. I recall that he often preached on Bible characters in the Sunday evening service. Biographical sermons tend to have more narrative. The precept illumined by the narrative is probably clearer now than it was to me as a child. If so, it is because the story stayed with me long enough to bring the spiritual truth along with it. Stories have staying power.
Stories Have Persuasive Power
A third explanation for the great appeal of narrative is the persuasive value of story. A story finds an open-door welcome where facts and logic are barred by closed minds. When President Abraham Lincoln first met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he remarked: “So you're the little lady who started this war.” It was not just flattery. Her novel, first published in 1851 or 1852, attracted millions of readers. Her characters still live; Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, and Little Eva St. Clare have become stereotypes. Harriet was the daughter of a famous pastor, Lyman Beecher, and she had four preacher brothers. One of them, Henry Ward Beecher (1803–1895), was widely considered the greatest preacher of his day. Yet arguably this one story told by their sister had more impact on American history than all of their sermons together.
Part of the persuasive power of a story is the indirect approach it affords. Pluralism is the prevailing philosophy of our culture. Few preachers dare to say, “Thus saith the Lord!” The prophet is banished from the modern church. The resentful voices of Miriam and Aaron blend with their modern counterparts in the chorus of democratic sentiment. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?...Hasn't he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2 NIV). Their faces flushed with resentment against their younger brother Moses. Any minister who thinks he is anointed to be a spokesman for God must find a way to proclaim the Word in our culture of ecclesiastical egalitarianism. While this is not a new problem, it is more acute in this twenty-first century. Jesus faced the opposition of the religious establishment in His day; they considered Him a blasphemer. Christ coped with the opposition and continued His preaching and teaching, often tucking theological truth into earthy stories or parables. We must learn to do the same.
Is the preacher today “one without authority,” as Fred Craddock insisted?3 You may hear a loud chorus of amens in the affirmative. Certainly increasing secularism leads to more and more rejection of sacred authority, and egalitarianism eliminates all claims to authority. Yet those who disregard the officer with badge and pistol do not cancel his or her authority. Preachers need not buy the whole communication theory to benefit from the insights of those who believe the minister, in fact, has no authority. Admonition is like sailing into the wind; it can be done, but it is slow and difficult. Narrative is like the more oblique progress of a to-and-fro tact of the sailboat. The story more quickly gains the harbor of human will.
This also is not new. How did Nathan the prophet confront King David? David was notoriously guilty of wife stealing and adultery. He compounded his offense by ordering the assassination of Uriah, her husband. The prophet might have gone into the king's presence with the thunders of Sinai. Instead he told the king a story of a rich and powerful man who forcibly took the only little lamb, a family pet, from his poor neighbor. The rich man slaughtered it to entertain a guest. Predictable indignation flared in the face of the shepherd king. “Who is this man? He will surely pay!”
Then the prophet got personal: “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7 NIV). The story captivated the attention of King David and stirred his righteous anger. By the time he realized that he was indeed that man, what else could he do but turn his heart to God in humble repentance? A simple story stirred his conscience and bent his will.
The pastor of an all-white congregation in a Louisiana plantation community found his people reluctant to face the race issue with anything but deep-rooted prejudice. They certainly did not want to hear about that issue at church on Sunday unless, of course, it was perhaps a racist joke that reinforced their intolerance. Over time, stories from literature and from life slowly brought the issue into focus. One such story was from Sir Thomas Mallory's King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Riding a black horse with all black livery and black silks, the Black Knight on the forest road one day met the White Knight riding a white horse with all white regalia. They lowered their visors and leveled their lances. Time and again they charged each other until finally they both lay bleeding and dying. Only then did they lift their visors to discover that they were brothers.
Max Lucado likened the use of stories in preaching to a Trojan Horse. “Truth can arrive a bit incognito within the story.”4 In another chapter we will delve deeper into the ethics of persuasion. Here we note that some object to any persuasive power in preaching beyond the cold logic of a syllogism. Frederick Buechner, a notable preacher as well as a great storyteller, says that he “leans over backwards not to preach or propagandize” in his fiction. He is “simply trying to conjure up stories in which people are touched with what may or may not be the presence of God in their lives.” He further argues about fiction: “If you're preaching or otherwise grinding an ax, you let happen, of course, only the things you want to happen; but insofar as fiction, like faith, is a journey not only forward in space and time, but a journey inward, it is full of surprises.”5
Yes, it is, but we should not be surprised that stories shape our worldview and our vision of what the world could be. One of my young seminary students said, “Movies are our modern-day philosophers.” Galileo was convinced that the sun was the center of our solar system. The sun did not orbit the earth, but in fact the earth orbited the sun. The rotation of the earth made it appear that the sun came up and went down. Galileo went to Rome to answer for his heresy. Cardinal Bellarmine, and behind him the Office of the Inquisition, ordered the astronomer not to hold or defend these ideas of the earth and the sun. In 1623, a friend and admirer of Galileo, Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. Soon Galileo wrote a story. He created three characters. One took Galileo's view in the discussion; another took the unscientific view common in that day, and the third moved the story along. The writer got permission from the church to publish his book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. By the time the Inquisition felt the barb of the hook in the author's tale, it was too late. A story can't be untold. Too many people had read the book to consider banning it.6
The preacher's task is not only to convey truth but also to move the will. In this we may learn from artists of all kinds, especially literary artists. We tend to lean on logic as we proclaim propositions. The artist can show us how to stir the imagination and prompt the listener to become involved in the preaching event. Norman N. Holland some years ago explored the mental process of the human response to literature. What is going on in the brain when people become absorbed in a well-told tale? He developed a complex model to explain literature as transformation. Two of his concepts are particularly helpful to the preacher. One is the listener's willingness to suspend disbelief while enjoying a story he or she knows to be fiction. The other is the human tendency to identify with a character in the story.
This is what brings tears to our eyes when we read in a book or see in a movie the death of a character we have come to know and love. We know it's only a story played by an actor. The imaginary character may never have lived and certainly did not really die. Neither did the actor portraying that character. Knowing this, we are still moved. Why? Because we have chosen to suspend disbelief for a while, and we have chosen at least subconsciously to identify with some character in the story. The characters are real to us because we decide to visit their world. Doing so meets some need in us. It is a choice, but it may not be deliberate or an altogether conscious choice. The story has persuaded us.
As preachers we try to prompt people to think certain thoughts and accept certain truths. What if we could incite them to do more? What if we could stir them to participate in a story emotionally? What if, instead of telling them what they are supposed to believe, we could bring them into a narrative where they personally discover truth? What if, instead of telling them about Jesus of Nazareth, we could introduce them to Him in person? What if, instead of exhorting them to love one anothe...

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