Tell Me a Story
By David B. Smith
Photo: Mary R. Vogt I could stand in my pulpit at Upper Room Fellowship and drone wearily through half an hour of biblical exposition about humility, beginning with the prideful fall of Proverbs 16:18 and yawning my way on from there. Or . . . I could pick up a bit and bridle and tell you a colorful horse story. In 2003, avid readers and filmgoers were mesmerized by the legendary tale of Seabiscuit, the gritty little underdog who bested War Admiral in the 1938 “Race of the Century.” According to bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand, once Seabiscuit began winning big purses, he was more of a hotdog than a horse.
Whenever photographers were around, “He struck a handsome pose and held it.” This preening racehorse knew just what the shutterbugs wanted; he would hold his head up high, flash a pretty smile at the female reporters, prick up his ears, fan out his tail, and swell out his chest. As soon as the clicking of the cameras died down, though, he would revert to his usual slouch and begin scratching and picking his nose like before.
As a preacher, as soon as I get a story like that into my sermon, horse lovers sit up straight. Preteen females with rows of “horse” books on their bedroom shelves are now all ears. I borrow a bit more of what I underlined in Hillenbrand’s fascinating book – how Seabiscuit would pridefully pick on slower horses during races. It was his trademark, she relates; the powerful winner would deliberately slow down as he mockingly passed his rivals, snorting and almost snickering in their faces. He would pretend to falter, tantalizing his foe, daring him to catch up, and then putting the pedal to the metal with a blinding burst of killing speed.
What a picture of our human desire to show off, to beat our neighbors! And for 2,000 years now, illustrations have charmed audiences, driven points home, nailed a concept to our conscious memories, and just plain made sermons better. Jesus told a whole boatload of stories, and His ambassadors here twenty centuries later do well to copy the Master Preacher’s blueprint.
An old manual, Preparing to Preach, comes from my great-grandfather C. R. Kite’s pastoral library. Author David R. Breed reminds us of the oft-repeated plea. “‘Please tell me a story,’ says the child. And the child is the father of the man.” Breed goes on to observe that no one listens to the “children’s story” at church more than the parents!
The four Smith brothers have always used gobs of illustrations. My brother Dan packs sermons so full of ‘em his growing congregation at La Sierra University sometimes cheerfully complains that it’s like trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant. But lively, edgy, human-interest stories are the glue that holds a great sermon together. From years of TV-less mission life in Thailand, and many hours as kids curled up with books and old copies of the Reader’s Digest circa 1962, we have been collectors of great little anecdotes, quips, sports lore, jokes, trivia, and the occasional poignant tear-jerker.
How many sermons should a good sermon have? There’s no set answer to that question. Many pulpit giants today, with mega-church followings, use very few. A preacher should not simply toss in stories, hoping to fill up his or her half hour the lazy way. Nor should a good story or bit of comedy “drive” the entire sermon. Leadership magazine ran a cartoon many of us can appreciate. A minister’s head is bowed in prayer: “Lord,” he begs, “now please give me 29 minutes of sermon to go with this great opening joke.”
Though Breed’s counsel is nearly a century old, it still holds true. “The proper use of illustration for the sake of making the truth more ample, more forcible, or more clear, gives it a certain dignity which it ought to possess, but which it will not otherwise possess.” It is difficult to toss a clever illustration overboard – a Hollywood screenwriter once lamented, “We must sometimes kill our ‘darlings’” – but a sermon is occasionally strengthened with one less story in the lineup. Stories can be too long; I have sometimes lost the first eight minutes of my precious 30 on an opening illustration. Even if you have a killer story in your files, you can’t sacrifice that much time getting out of the starting gate. This is especially true on a story which is familiar or has an obvious, telegraphed moral to it.
My brother Dan, who mans the above-mentioned fire hydrant of illustrations, describes the stories as “hooks.” Every so often, that little electric jolt of a tidbit, a line from Sports Illustrated, or a headline from the news last night . . . will bring the wandering will back to dead center. Many good illustrations are quick, abbreviated punches: a few lines, a paragraph, a truncated narrative. “As George Constanza is prone to say to his friends Jerry and Kramer . . .” Just a sentence or one Shakespeare line can move a mountain. Sometimes the Smith brothers call each other at 10:00 p.m. Friday night. “I’m looking for this line from a Beatles song. E-mail me if you’ve got it.”
I personally try to reach an informally enforced “five and five” goal. Five good (and brief) illustrations, and at least five solid Bible references. I once advised an imagination-challenged colleague to take his sermon notes well in hand and then put a red pen to them. “Put a big scarlet ‘star’ next to each of your five illustrations,” I advised. Well, he couldn’t. They weren’t there. In that case, keep digging.
But where? Where are these timely tales found? The answer is twofold. First of all, READ! Have a book nearby at all times. In your down time, read. If you’re relaxing with a game on TV – and every preacher needs to rest his brain with some baseball now and then – have a book to read during the commercials. Great stories are found in great books.
A couple of years ago, I slogged my way through Winston Churchill’s masterpiece saga, Their Finest Hour. Its 600 pages cover just the 1940 segment of World War II. Some of it was difficult going, but I had my yellow highlighter in hand, and the book was overflowing with juicy tales! They were everywhere! Hitler’s German High Command had perfected a new “split beam” kind of radar which was guaranteed to guide the Luftwaffe bombers unerringly to their London targets. Unbeknownst to them, Number Ten Downing Street’s scientists had intercepted the technology, and soon managed to throw off just one of the Nazi’s beams the tiniest amount. Wave after wave of German bombs landed harmlessly in the wilderness, and the pilots themselves were often knocked off course. The cigar-chomping Prime Minister took evident pleasure and satisfaction in the wartime story of the German bomber who confidently landed in Devonshire, thinking he was in France.
Isn’t that a winner? And what a picture of how Lucifer tries to take our earnest spiritual habits and turn them against us!
So this is Point One: read voraciously. Read as much and as widely as possible. I find that the Internet is really best used as a tool to refresh or recover the stories that I already have someplace in my mind or library. Rarely has the worldwide web failed to complete the anecdote that simply needs a detail confirmed or some dialogue refurbished.
And then simply have a mind for sermons and a passion for communicating the gospel of Christ. Don’t just read Newsweek for the news; always be looking for that hook, that connecting opportunity, that divine aha! It’s said that H. M. S. Richards, founder of the Voice of Prophecy radio ministry, carried a box of books around with him everywhere he traveled. As he read these great books, or meditated in the Bible itself, he would so often see that link: This story goes with that sermon. He would take out a pencil and write next to the verse or story: “S-E-R.”
And to find stories that are good for people, go to where the people are. In The Contemporary Christian, John Stott tells how, for twenty years, he and some minister friends would meet every six weeks. Before each discussion, they would each read an agreed-upon secular bestseller, and go to the same popular film. In their gatherings, they would they explore what issues the books and movies raised for believers, and also how the gospel might possibly connect to people seeing such a message.
One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was from Dr. Gordon Bietz, who got up and quoted a television line: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.” Instantly 500 of us who had often worshiped at the tabernacle of NBC had a mental picture of an insecure, boasting postman named Cliffie and an overweight, often unemployed, beer-swilling man in a bad marriage. And Bietz posed the question: “Shouldn’t the Church be the place where a hurting man can go and have everyone happily call out the welcome: ‘Norm!’”? Many of us had tears in his eyes as Bietz wove a poignant word tapestry of this loving, caring community, this healing haven of Christian faith. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.”
I heard that sermon ten years ago. I remember the illustration. And do I have the spiritual lesson, the hoped-for teaching, still in my heart too? You bet I do.
David B. Smith pastored the Upper Rom Fellowship in Temple City, California when this article was written.