Preaching Articles

Steven Spielberg’s popular movie, Lincoln, runs exactly two and a half hours. After the brief opening sequence there are no explosions, no sword fights and no one is killed on screen (spoiler alert: Lincoln is assassinated at Ford’s Theater, but we don't see it).

When I saw the film, the theater was packed. Two and a half hours of talk, talk, talking heads on the screen yet no one in the theater moved, no one became restless and no one complained about the length. And we have trouble holding people’s attention for a 28-minute sermon. What’s the difference?

The difference is storytelling. Spielberg knows how to tell a story, and we would do well to take a few pointers from him.

In fact, forget Spielberg: our sacred text, the Holy Bible, is filled with stories. You might say the Bible is one story: the Father’s relentless pursuit of his lost children. What lengths would you go through to rescue your children? (There: did you see it? When the subject changed to fathers, children and rescue, you began to engage with the material, didn’t you?)

Those of us who feed God’s flock must become God’s storytellers. Here’s the journey we must take:

Once upon a time, there was a preacher who used bullet points in his sermon. The bullets killed his congregation’s attention and buried their passion. The End. (Chapter One: Just because you outlined your sermon doesn’t mean you have to reveal the outline.)

In Chapter Two we learn that God’s message to humanity is mostly story—even the parts that are not story. Take the Old Testament (please). From Genesis to Ezra-Nehemiah the book reveals one continuous narrative. The grand narrative is followed by books of poetry, filled with metaphor and images. Think of these books as God’s soundtrack to the story. Then come the prophets, who provide the director’s commentary on what has just transpired. Who could understand the prophets apart from the story of the Old Testament?

Chapter Three: When the Bible story moves to the New Testament we meet Jesus, the master storyteller. He didn’t write a book of systematic theology. He spoke in parables. His life was one long illustration of God's love. And when he taught, he used images from everyday life: flowers of the field and birds of the air. Jesus is better than even Spielberg!

Chapter Four: Professor Paul wrote letters filled with theology, but at least he had a relationship with the people who read the letters. Why not try using the book of Acts to reveal the story behind why Paul wrote his letters? Paul wrote to real people struggling with real problems, and if you tell their story, your people will receive the story of Christians trying to apply their faith in practical ways.

Chapter Six leads us to the book of Revelation, and if that isn’t made for video, I don’t know what is! God's not afraid of imagery or imagination. Are you? (Oh, Chapter Five?) Some things are best left out of the story, especially if it makes your listener supply the missing pieces.

The End—Know when to quit. Which is better: four dry concepts from the scripture, or one life-changing story, also drawn from the Bible? In the jargon of Hollywood, make it memorable and leave room for the sequel. After all, you have to preach 50 times a year!

Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His newest book is Deeper Grace, a guide to the connection between grace and spiritual maturity. Ray currently lives in central Kentucky, coaching and consulting church leaders. You can visit his blog at Students of Jesus.

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Robert Renteria

commented on Jul 16, 2014

This is a great charge. I believe the decay is a core problem in American culture at large; hence the popular thrust of comic book genre in the movies. I would add to your assessment the church at large has fallen prey to the overtly rationaistic mindset by trying to address this issue on a point by point basis. In our contemporary bubble of seeming progression we believe we have seen it all. Figuratively speaking we have to reinvent the wheel. A storyteller I am also fond of is Dr. Seuss. He had a philosophic bent but employed enough humor to keep the reader riveted. His audience was children but I believe he knew the parents would also be reading aloud these stories to the children. Like your Spielberg illustration we should work to this end.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Jul 17, 2014

A good article...neeedless to say, the stories have to complement the Spiritual message rather than compete with it.

John Trent

commented on Jul 18, 2014

John Trent from South Africa. After a reading I usually tell the Children a story relating to the main message. Comments continually come from what I call the "Peanut Gallery". I then expand on this story adding a few more during the message. I find that both parents and children can discuss this after the service from their perspective.

Chris Herman

commented on Jan 31, 2019

Thank you very much Ray and my brother pastors. This is such an excellent way to learn and I need that. Mighty blessings to you all. Pastor Chris, FCL (Family Church Lanzarote)

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