How do you teach the Bible to people who don’t believe the Bible and may not be very interested in what the Bible has to say? You tell stories. Stories are powerful. It’s why we love to watch movies and TV, and read novels. When you teach propositional truth, you set me up to debate with you. I’m going to have objections. When you tell me a story, you set me up to find myself in the story. I can’t help it.
Jesus knew this. It’s why He always taught with a story. Matt. 13:34: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; He did not say anything to them without using a parable.”
Jesus knew how to tell a good story.
Becoming a Better Storyteller
So how do we get good at telling stories? Over the years, I’ve recognized the importance of telling good stories—and getting better at telling them. Below are some things I’ve learned about telling a compelling story.
1. Add lots of detail. When you tell stories, use lots of detail because details make the story come alive. Don’t tell me that Jimmy went to his grandmother’s house. Tell me that:
Jimmy’s mother drove him down the oak tree-lined street he had been down so many times before. But again he was excited, because he was going to see Grandma. Almost before it stopped in the driveway, Jimmy jumped out of the car, and turned to wave at his mother’s smiling face. Grandma’s wooden door always seemed to be open, letting Jimmy know that he was expected. Every week, Jimmy would stop before going in, because there was something special waiting for him even on this side of the screen door. The smell. The amazing smells of whatever delicious food Grandma was making him. After inhaling the smell, Jimmy would run into the house, a smile from ear to ear, shouting, “Grandma, I’m here!”
You give me detail like that, and I feel like I’m there. Telling me “Jimmy went to his Grandmother’s house” makes me feel like I’m in a church building listening to a pastor tell me that some kid named Jimmy went to his grandmother’s house.
2. Practice telling the story. I always practice stories before I tell them in a sermon. Each time you tell the story, you’ll get better at feeling the flow of it and finding the humor in it. I try to practice telling the story throughout the course of my daily life, just whenever I have the chance. Anytime I have an opportunity, I’m telling people the story, and each time I do, I can tell it better.
3. Be an observer of your life. The difficult part, as someone who speaks every week, is having enough stories to always have a story. Two things I’ve found that help me: First, I watch my life. As things happen, I’m always thinking, would this be an interesting story? Would this be funny to other people? What truth does this illustrate? If I didn’t actively think this way, I think I’d miss a lot of good material. If you want to have stories, you need to be an observer of your life.
4. Engage with culture. I watch movies and TV shows, listen to other sermons, and read books and magazines. I read Entertainment Weekly, Time, ESPN Magazine and Fast Company. And as I do, again, I’m looking for interesting or funny or beautiful or compelling stories that can illustrate truth.
5. Keep track of the stories you hear. Other people probably have better systems for filing stories (like Evernote), but one thing that has worked for me is to have files for each of my future messages. When I come across a story, I type it into the document for that future message. Then, later, when I open up the file up to write the sermon, it’s like I’ve left myself a present.
6. Connect your story to the bigger picture. What’s most powerful is when, like Jesus, you’re able to connect your story (and your entire message) to the bigger story. That’s what people are looking for. Why does an unchurched non-Christian show up at church? Well, they’re hoping there is a God. They’re hoping He might still love them and have a place for them. They’re hoping maybe life has purpose, and that maybe they’re not as alone as they feel.
They want something bigger and better than what they’ve experienced. So we need to show them the epic story of God, and how to connect to it and find their place in it. What’s most powerful is when you connect it all to the hero. Stories typically have heroes, because people love heroes. And we have the ultimate hero. And that leads me to my last point.
7. Give them the hero. All people (whether they’re churched, unchurched or dechurched) want a hero. That’s why they watch movies and TV shows. They’re looking for a hero. And we have the ultimate hero.
Yes, your sermon needs to include you—you need to let them know who you are. It’s great to make it clever and creatively engage culture. But don’t make yourself or your creativity or your intellect the hero; make Jesus the hero. Because He is what unchurched people are looking for and really need.
Think about your preaching. Maybe even go back and skim through your last 10 or 20 sermons. Do you present Jesus as the hero people are looking for? Yes, He was a servant. And a teacher of truth. And He offered love. And He was a suffering savior. And, yes, we need to make sure people know all of that. But Jesus was also a hero—the ultimate hero. So give them the hero.