Yesterday we discussed the power of story. Today we consider the pitfalls we must avoid in order to preach with power. Too many preachers miss these vital skills necessary to preach the narrative portions of the scripture:
1. They don’t tell the story!
They refer to it, they draw lessons from it, they theologize all over it, but they omit to actually tell the story. Big oops! The story is not there to be Exhibit A in your demonstration of your theological acumen. The story is there to change lives, so tell it!
2. They don’t tell it well.
I don’t like adding to the sin lists already in existence, but making God’s Word boring or telling a story poorly must surely qualify as a transgression or iniquity on some level. God has given us everything necessary for a compelling message—tension, characters, movement, progression, illustrative materials, interest, etc. To tell it poorly is to miss an open goal with the ball placed carefully at our feet and 30 minutes to take a shot!
3. They think their thoughts are better than God’s inspired text.
I’ve blogged before about the nightmare I suffered when a preacher read the story of Jesus turning water into wine, then said, “you know the story, so I won’t tell it again…” then proceeded to offer us his fanciful imposition of a theological superstructure all over the text. The text is inspired, it is great, God is a great communicator (so please don’t think God is desperate for you to add a good dose of your ideas to His—please preach the Word!)
4. They spiritualize details into new-fangled meanings.
Suddenly listeners start thinking to themselves, “I never would have seen that!” or “I never would have made that connection—the donkey represents midweek ministries, brilliant!” Actually, they never would have seen it without you, not because you are God’s gift to the church, but because your fanciful insertion simply isn’t there. Preach the text in such a way as to honor it, not abuse it. And can I be provocative? Sometimes people force Christ into passages in ways that seem to undermine the whole richness of the text in its context—just because it is Christ doesn’t make it right.
5. They don’t let every detail feed into the powerful point of the main idea.
Every detail counts, but it counts as part of the writer’s strategy to communicate the main point of the story. A story doesn’t make lots of points, it makes one point. Develop a sensitivity to the role of details in the communication of the single plot point.
6. They come up with a list of “principles.”
A story isn’t given in Scripture to make masses of points (some preachers see launch points for pet thoughts throughout a story). To nuance this error further, stories aren’t given in Scripture in order to offer seven principles for a successful business venture, successful pet ownership, or successful anything else. This is not some ancient text currently in vogue because of its timeless wisdom for living life. It is a story about people living under the question mark of God’s Word to a fallen world—will they trust Him, or not? Will we?
7. They make it into a human level story—be good, be better, be like.
Don’t be blind! The Bible is not just about humanity. There’s a constant theocentric, christotelic, eternal, and heavenly dimension. Whether God is overtly stated or not, the Bible story you are reading is written with at least an implicit assumption that these characters are living their lives, making their choices, facing their struggles in the context of response to God. Preach the story theocentrically, not anthropocentrically (i.e. it is God who is the main character, not just a human).
8. They treat it as a context-less moral lesson.
Okay, I’m repeating the moral lesson bit to make a point, but actually the error here is to miss the context of the story. Not only does it have a historical context, which the preacher must plumb to make sense of it and preach it well, but it also has a written context. Why did the author choose to put it here in this sequence? It is both historically accurate and artistically presented to convey a theological point. You typically need to observe context to spot this.
9. They don’t apply the main idea of the story.
Either they apply every sub-idea along the way, or they don’t apply at all. Stories mark and change lives. Help listeners to see what that might look like as the story preached is translated into their life lived. Never assume people will take general truths and apply them specifically. Never assume that application is automatic. Never believe that positive statements of gratitude from listeners equate to application. Instead, be overt and be specific.
10. They avoid preaching it altogether and stick in discourse sections.
This is a mistake. Maybe they think stories are for children, or they think stories aren’t theologically rich enough, or they think that churches only need to be fed the food of epistolary discourse, or they think that they aren’t any good at preaching story, or for whatever reason, they avoid preaching story. This means somewhere between 50–70% of the Bible will remain unpreached in their ministry. I think it was Tozer who said that nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.
There are lots of other things that could probably be listed, some of which are specific to certain sections of narrative. But let me make the unstated assumption stated—stories are good for preaching, good for listeners and good for the church. Go for it, preach stories and preach them well!