A few weeks ago, I heard a sermon by a preacher who obviously had heard of the benefits of stories in effective sermons. However, a particular illustration had great difficulties for the sermon. It actually detracted from the message in that it was very involved. One had to have a scorecard to remember all the names that the preacher presented. However, that was only the first problem. The next problem was that the story just didn’t seem believable. It may have been true, but it wasn’t believable. Finally the story was illustrating points that needed no illumination. As I thought about this sermon, I quickly thought that these are three rules that can help anyone’s use of stories. Namely, if you are going to use stories effectively you should do these three things.
The first thing you need to ask yourself before you use a story is will this story aid understanding of the sermon? If you drop the story, would something be missing? Don’t just tell a story to fill the time. In addition, don’t even tell a story to illustrate a point, if the point is already clear, move on.
Sometimes a short referring to a cliche’ or even a great hymn or spiritual from the tradition will be all that is sufficient to illustrate the point you are considering.
The preacher I referred to above told a story that was long and involved. It had 5 characters who were interlocked together. It was confusing to get the names right. One should always keep in mind that you cannot do in a sermon what you can do in print. Yes you can tell a short story in print, however, a sermon requires either more work on the part of the story teller or less complexity.
Keep your story simple!
The last and very important thing to remember is that your story should be believable. Note I didn’t say it should be true. Yes, it should be true, but it must also ring true. There are some stories that are just so far fetched that you probably shouldn’t use them in the pulpit because the fact that the story is hard to believe will detract from your message.
Now, there are some exceptions to this rule, like obvious homiletical devices, but in general, if you are telling a story that is supposed to be an actual occurrence, make sure that it is believable.
If you break one of these rules then your sermon will suffer. As I listened to the preacher and looked at the preacher, I could tell that he was getting more frustrated as he was further alienating the people by his less than effective sermon.
So please make sure that your story aids the sermon, is simple, and is believable before you attempt to use it in your next sermon.
On this site and in other places, we spend a lot of time discussing the need to exegete the scripture for effective preaching. This is a very important dimension in sermon preparation. However, you must also understand two other important “narratives” or “stories” to be able to effectively understand the context of your preaching. In short there are three stories that we should understand.
Who is the congregation? This really affects your preaching. You need to understand the denominational tradition of your congregation You need to know and understand the issues of your denomination. You need to know and understand how the church fits into that tradition. You need to know if there are any issues going on in that particular church. You need to know who has the power in the church. Is there conflict in the church? Are there any struggles in the church?
It is important to answer these questions and others like them. Don’t act like you think you know the answer without working to really answer the questions. about what you think the answer is, you need to do the real work of answering. Don’t assume that legalism is a problem in your church because you see it as a problem for your denomination. Don’t assume that your church’s number one problem is misuse of congregational power when the problem might be your own misuse of power. The main point is that you don’t assume anything. Ask and answer real questions about the congregation so that you can preach to the real people sitting in front of you.
Know who you are. What are you dealing with? What are you struggling with? If you don’t analyze yourself, then you are very likely to simply use the pulpit as a bully pulpit. If you don’t analyze yourself, then you might be preaching to demons from your own past rather than preach the sermons that the people who are in front of you need.
What is your theological worldview? What do you really know and believe? It is important to answer such questions to make sure that you are still preaching that which you are certain of and not things that you used to believe. Look at your own story and again don’t make any assumptions, answer the real questions.
Then you go to the scripture itself to understand the scripture. Look at the scripture and exegete it according to all of the principles that you have seen on this site,most notably the four waves of exegesis.
It is pretty rampant. It steals the point from the people’s minds and reinforces the same tired point that you have preached every week. It gets the people to shout, but doesn’t help them live during the week. It kills the creativity of the preacher and pushes the people to ignore the rest of your sermon. What am I talking about? It is the “IRRELEVANT CELEBRATION!”
What is the irrelevant celebration. It is a celebration that has nothing to do with the point of your sermon. The irrelevant celebration removes from the minds of your people what you just preached. You worked hard on the sermon. You put forth effort into it. But the celebration is so powerful that folks will remember that above everything else. So if you celebrate your main point. All is well, but if you have a small number of tired recitations that is all the people will remember. Don’t preach a masterpiece about the sermon on the mount and someone leaves thinking you simply preached about what you always preach about, “Didn’t God put food on the table…Didn’t God pay your rent…etc…”
The irrelevant celebration stifles the creativity of the preacher because the preacher, instead of coming up with a fresh celebration that is in line with an exegesis of the congregation, scripture, and your sermon, the preacher simply pulls out a “stock” celebration that has nothing to do with any of that, but the preacher simply knows that it will cause a rise out of the congregation.
The irrelevant celebration pushes the people to ignore the rest of the sermon because celebration is like the desert. If the desert has nothing to do with the meal, then why should the people even listen. You have seen such sermons. You look at the congregation, and they have obviously checked out, until the celebration, when they check back in. And why not, the people are not rewarded with a deeper appreciation of the truths in your message by a relevant celebration. They are not rewarded for struggling with the concepts that you have just presented, with a celebration related to those concepts….So they are pushed to ignore your sermon.
And worst of all, the irrelevant celebration gives the people a false belief that they are ready to confront the coming week with help from God as given to them in your sermon. Instead, they only have a trite phrase that you say every week. The irrelevant celebration may be rampant, but it is by no means the only way to preach. I would encourage you, this next week, to celebrate. Go on head and celebrate. But leave the stock phrases aside unless they are relevant to your sermon. Go on head and preach….and then celebrate….But make sure that it is a celebration that is relevant to your sermon.
This is a common question. How do I preach doctrine. We have some beliefs as Christians that we need to preach. Doctrines such as the deity of Christ, Salvation by Faith, and perhaps the Trinity.
Related to this are the questions from various tradtions. For example, a Pentecostal asked about preaching on the Gifts including speaking in tongues. An Adventist asked about preaching the Sabbath. A Holiness person wanted to know about preaching on Biblical Holiness.
Now sometimes these types of sermons end up being preached in a problematic way like this:Don’t Do This
However if a doctrine is valuable then it should have present benefits and not just future rewards for right belief. In addition, if the doctrine is true, it should have something to say that will help those on the underside of society that needs help.
First, the brunt of African American preaching is in being practical. We are speaking to the real practical needs of humanity. So your first order of business is to find the practical difference that your particular doctrine makes in daily living.
Certainly this doesn’t preclude the need to define and describe the doctrine. However, if the doctrine is going to be made real in the lives of your hearers, then the doctrine must have practical contemporary ramifications. It is these practical contemporary ramifications that you need to make clear in your sermon.
Next, we are speaking a word of hope to those who find their selves with their backs against the wall. So we need to find a word of hope in the midst of pain. Doctrines or teachings should help our people. They should help us interpret life in light of God’s perspective.
Our Denominationaly unique teachings should help us interpret life in light of our own heritage sent to us by our ancestors. So it is our job, as preachers, to take these doctrines and help our people understand how they help us deal with the world we find ourselves in.
If you are going to preach doctrines, that is good and important, but don’t fall into the trap of teaching doctrine in such a way that it is irrelevant to our lives. Such preaching is not being true to our ancesters who worked through these doctrines that they have passed on to us.
Subscribers to the SoulPreacher have already received this article in the 31st edition of the Soul Preacher email magazine. In addition, those who have attended our second web seminars have seen the expansion of this concept. However, everyone else can now learn from this very powerful way of looking at exegesis of the text for preaching.
Exegesis can be seen as looking at the Biblical text from different angles and different depths recursively. You don’t just read the text once, you read it many times. In addition, you don’t just look for the same things every time, you look for different things in each reading. I have begun thinking about the exegetical process as one of waves.
Here we are introduced to the text. We first must pray for God’s enlightenment. Then we read the text out loud. We are not necessarily looking for anything but for God to speak to us. This might be seen as a “devotional” type reading. However after reading this text, you should note everything that comes to your mind that is related to the text. You may think about a hymn your grandmother used to sing. Note that if it is related. You may think of a gospel song. You may think of a television show or story. You may think of other Biblical characters and ideas. A particular word may jump out at you. All of these things should be noted and written down.
It is possible that there may be certain things you don’t understand, go ahead and note those, this will be places to come back and look at. Note all of these things and try to reduce it down to one-two pages. This process of making it compact will help you to really understand the text.
Here we are attempting to answer all the questions that we can answer from the Bible without referring to commentaries, dictionaries, or other folks sermons. You do want to look at cross references though. For that I would suggest the Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge. Look up important aspects of the text in that book and find all the cross references. These will help to round out knowledge of your particular text by looking at other texts.
Here you want to determine the story in the text. What is the narrative? What is going on? Who are the characters? What are the characters doing? What is God doing? These are some of the questions that you will ask during this phase. You also want to look at the use of power in the text. Who has the power? How do we get the power? Is the power beneficial?
In addition look at the theology presented in the text. What does the text have to say about God? What does it have to say about that which is transcendent? What does it have to say about living in this world?
Finally you want to make specific reference to HOW the author of the text tells the story. What words were used? Why would the author use those types of words? What arguments are used? How are they related to us? During this phase you will use cross references and a number of bible Translations. The key is that we are only looking at the Bible.
Then refine your one-two page exegesis to include that which you have discovered in this phase.
Now you want to see the questions that you still have left and look them up using Bible Dictionaries and Commentaries. What have others said about the text? Does it agree with your observations? Do you think you should refine yours or the commentary needs to refine its understanding?
Another important source is the sermons of others. Find others who have preached on the subject and skim it. Often you can find valuable material like illustrations and the like from this practice.
Then you want to also make use of denominational resources. Our Methodist friends would most certainly see what John Wesley has to say about the subject. Those in the reformed tradition would break open John Calvin to gain insight into the subject. The Seventh-day Adventists would bring Ellen G. White into conversation at this point. Here you want to look at what others from your ecclesial heritage has had to say on the subject.
Go ahead and refine the exegesis again with what you have discovered here.
Now you are ready for what I consider to be a very important phase that is often overlooked. Here you should take a stroll through the text. You should walk and live in the text. If you are preaching about the sermon on the mount, then you are not ready to preach it until you have experienced the first, second, and third wave, and then walk in the text. You should look over at the mount. How does it look? If you don’t know then pull out a geography book and the bible dictionary again and see. How is the weather? you may not know, but you might get some insight form a good bible dictionary. What kinds of foliage are around you? What is the temperature?
How many were there listening? Where are you sitting? How does Jesus’ voice sound? Are there other competing sounds? What do you smell? Are there animals near by?
and finally, ask yourself about the emotions in the characters. What emotion does Jesus have? How is he showing it? What about the listeners? Are there some smiling and other frowning? What emotions does it stir in you?
You cannot answer all of these questions, but you can answer many of them. And answering these types of questions will help you really experience the text, and also help others experience the text.
One might ask “what difference does this stuff make?” That is a good question. Let me say that I once preached a sermon that was enriched by my knowledge of the terrain of the wilderness that Jesus was “driven” into by the Holy Ghost. That terrain was slanted downward. Can you talk about how Jesus was driven into a terrain that was slanted downward into a dead sea? Can you help someone who feels like they have been sent into a wilderness by God, but not just a wilderness, but one that is slanted downward?
After doing this refine the exegesis again, and now you are ready to begin constructing your sermon.