In what way does a Hollywood script writer take lessons from Jesus that far too many pastors do not?
They understand the power of a story.
Preparing for your next Sunday sermon will typically have many of the same ingredients as those from other pastors, no matter what the denomination, who the pastor, or where he lives: Clearly, you must begin with the Word. Prayer, personal devotion time, and listening to the Holy Spirit is also a must. To help you fill in the gaps or to help you finalize some thoughts, maybe you visit old sermons from some of the classics, such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Graham, or Spurgeon. Or maybe some new peers like MacArthur, Chan, or Warren. Add in a few more verses and a drive-it-home transition point and you’re done!
But where is the story, the parable? Where is the ingredient Jesus depended on most to tell his audience about God’s kingdom?
No offense intended for Luther, Spurgeon, or MacArthur, but I don’t want to preach like them; I want to preach like Jesus. And Jesus, it cannot be argued against, told stories to share most of his truths.
There is no short supply of articles online written by great speakers sharing their secrets to effective storytelling, most of which would be extremely beneficial for any public speaker. But I want to take a quick look at tips we can take from the Master Storyteller, the Story himself, and see how pastors can best incorporate stories into their sermons by simply studying Jesus’ style.
- Use a strong, clear voice, while looking people in the eyes. How do we know Jesus spoke like this? Easy—because if he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have the recordings of these stories two thousand years later to read. If Jesus had mumbled, would the Gospel writers have been able to find multiple eyewitnesses who remembered word-for-word much of what he said? If he had not looked his audience in the eyes, would he have upset the scribes and Pharisees as much as he did, making them feel that he was speaking directly to them? Speak clearly, with confidence, and look into people’s eyes as you talk to them.
- Keep it short. The average length of Jesus’ parables would take less than a minute to read aloud, some only a few seconds. By far his longest story was the parable of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15, which still only takes about three minutes to read through (including time for dramatic pauses!). Jesus’ stories were extremely efficient yet unarguably effective. Who can dare say that he didn’t know how to best keep his audience’s attention? Well, he did so oftentimes with a short story. (Pastors who like to ramble on for an hour may be clicking to another page right about now . . .)
- Stick to what you know. Yes, I know, I know—Jesus wasn’t a farmer or a merchant or a fisherman, and many of his parables had to do with trades like these. But Jesus was, you know, the all-knowing God incarnate, so do you want to make the point that he wasn’t familiar with how fishing worked? Neither do I. But I once heard a speaker sharing a story about a certain hall of famer, and it was clear to everyone he was not familiar with the athlete or, quite possibly, sports in general. Resist the temptation to Google stories that relate to your sermon and then share one that’s typically not part of your conversation arsenal. It will not come across as authentic to your audience.
- Let the story teach itself to your audience. Most of the time, Jesus was the king of the mic-drop. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Done! Drop mic! Occasionally the disciples had to ask him later what he meant by that parable. But never did Jesus tell the story and then immediately say, “Now here is what I wanted you to get from the story . . .” If you chose your story right and spoke effectively to your audience, trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the way he chooses inside your audience.
- Don’t be afraid to be a little controversial. I love Jesus’ parables. I’m sure you love them too. Guess who didn’t? His audience. This doesn’t mean we should use salty language or affirm questionable lifestyles, but not all stories have to involve a pastor, a deacon, and a Sunday school teacher. Just as Hollywood script writers are telling gospel-powered truths using not-your-typical church-approved stories, so can you with the right story as part of your sermon. If you’re not ruffling feathers, then you’re not doing it right!
Kevin Harvey is the author of two books, his most recent being All You Want to Know about the Bible in Pop Culture. He also writes at BibleInPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter under the handle @PopCultureKevin.