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).

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 story-telling. 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 go so far as to 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.

Talk about it...

David Buffaloe

commented on Feb 7, 2013

Most of my illustrations come from Scripture. Good stuff.

Chet Gladkowski

commented on Feb 7, 2013

Good one Ray. Another thing about Spielberg and the telling of "Lincoln" is that he did not attempt to cover his entire life. Stephen remained focused and built out the fabric of Lincoln's life, conflicts, doubts, fears, triumphs and defeats. In general, most messages need to be "weeded" of distractions and things that are not focused on the truth and the audience.

Todd L Moore

commented on Feb 7, 2013

You ain't no Hollenbach girl.

Todd L Moore

commented on Feb 7, 2013

You ain't no Hollenbach girl.

Zachary Bartels

commented on Feb 7, 2013

Love the bullet-point thing... Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

Joseph William Rhoads

commented on Feb 7, 2013

One of the things Paul required from congregations was to read his letter to the whole congregation. He didn't asked them to create a story from his letter. We have no proof that Paul preached in story form. But instead explained the meaning of the Scriptures (which would be the Old Testament, since he was in the process of writing 2/3rds of the New Testament). Lastly, please read Matthew 13:10-15. It tells us exactly why Jesus taught in parables, and why most of the people needed to hear His teachings in parables. Verse 13 specifically, "Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." Additionally, Jesus still had to explain His parables to His disciples.

Oun Kwon

commented on Feb 7, 2013

The shorter the better. Better learn to express your message the way twitter is written. Find something the listeners can hang on. Have them bring up their questions at the start, in the middle, and in the end. Nice talk even with good-story making has no use for the believers. Make them challenged.

Bill Williams

commented on Feb 8, 2013

@Joseph, I think you're missing the point. The author is not advocating, creating a story from Paul's letters. The author is explaining, correctly, that Paul's letters are part of the larger, grand narrative of Scripture. They are part of the story of Scripture, and they themselves retell the story of the OT from the perspective of Jesus Christ as the climax of that story. Explanation is important in its proper place, of course. I teach English literature in high school, and in fact this semester I'm teaching a class on the King James Bible as Literature. But as a teacher, I can't just take, for example, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," extract a few "bullet points" of explanation, and consider my job done. Unfortunately, speaking from the perspective of a man who sits in the pews each week, I've heard too many preachers who do just that with the Biblical text. What I do, and what the best preachers I've heard also do, is I go through the story with my students, we look at how it flows, we consider how the characters evolve, we trace themes and images as the plot progresses. Any explanation I give comes in the context of the overall story told by Conrad or Dickens or Steinbeck or any other author. That is what Paul does with the Scriptures in his letters, in fact. That is what any good preacher and teacher of Scripture does.

Gen. Walter Okidi

commented on May 13, 2021

Apostle Paul in all his letters told the story from the old testament and also also added what he personality experienced; I do think story telling is key and further explanation guided by the power of the Holy Spirit is vital. We have a Discipleship ministry project in Uganda, Africa and Story telling is doing wonders especially for people hearing for the first time. Now that we want to mobilize Ugandan for global mission we must tell them story how God set aside and prepared people like Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah and even Paul for Mission.

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