It is likely that people have never found dull preaching enticing to listen to. But in today’s entertainment age, when even the national television networks feel the need to present the evening news in an entertaining way, the preacher must be able to capture and hold people’s attention. The challenge is to take serious and spiritual truths, which are themselves not meant to entertain, and to place them in a context that will cause people to sit up and listen. Jesus knew how to do this. He was constantly telling stories about prodigal children, difficult neighbors, and rich people who went to hell while their poor neighbors reclined in Abraham’s bosom. He used stories as a way of communicating spiritual truths, knowing he had to grab and hold the attention of his hearers in order to see true transformation.
I’ve known preachers who took this too far. They told story after story, but I could never discern the spiritual truths for all the stories. I’ve also known pastors who spent more time searching for stories than studying and preparing meaningful content. At the same time I have prepared sermons with excellent content that did not connect because I did not adequately illustrate the message.
Most of the best illustrations in my sermons don’t come from a book, though I have at times searched the illustration books for help. Generally the best stories came from my own life, or from spending time listening to people and, with permission, sharing their stories. Several rules I try to apply in my own search and use of stories are: (1) I aim to never use a story about my children without asking their permission first. If they say no, I don’t use the story. (2) I am cautious regarding how often I use stories about death. I knew one pastor whose congregation members, behind his back, referred to him facetiously as “Dr. Death” because every sermon ended with a story of someone dying. Yes, stories about death or the facing of death are powerful—but they are far more powerful when they are used sparingly. (3) I try to avoid using stories simply to emotionally manipulate people— some preachers seem to feel that if they can move people to tears they have succeeded in preaching an effective sermon. We all know stories that are wonderfully compelling and will move people to tears—there are times these stories are perfect illustrations of our message. But at times nearly every preacher has used these kinds of stories to make up for an otherwise ill-conceived sermon.
One of the best uses of stories can be to create an intriguing pretext for a sermon. On numerous occasions I have put myself in a position to experience something in order to be able to tell the story as a pretext, or a context, for a sermon. Allow me to give a few examples.
One evening I spent three hours in a bar, late at night, just to watch people. On Sunday I told our congregation, “This last week I spent several hours late at night in a bar. I’d like to tell you about the experience next week.” People couldn’t wait to hear about what their preacher had been doing in a bar late at night. I began the sermon by telling them the story of a man I watched at the bar, slowly drinking himself to a stupor, and a woman on the dance floor who danced erotically with any man who would approach her. I described a man sitting near me at the bar who told his friends, “Watch this.” He then proceeded to take off his wedding ring and went out on the dance floor and danced with this woman, ultimately leaving the bar with her as they made their way to the hotel lobby adjacent to the bar to rent a room.
The events I described were all true, and they made for an interesting context into which I could begin introducing biblical stories. I told the congregation how I imagined, as I sat in that bar, Jesus walking into the room. I tried to imagine what he would say to each of these people, based upon the things Jesus said to people in the Gospels. I ended by describing Jesus speaking tenderly to the woman on the dance floor, taking her hands in his, and expressing to her how loved she is by him. I wondered at the transformation that might take place in this woman, who looked so lonely as she approached the men in the bar, if only she could know the love of Christ, and how this, not another one-night stand, was what she was looking for that night. This story naturally led to our scripture passage for the morning: Luke 7:36-50—the “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus and wept over his feet.
One evening I requested permission from the area’s largest emergency room to spend two hours, from 11:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M., just watching those who came in, and the physicians and nurses who ministered to them. What a powerful opportunity to observe life as it happens, and what powerful stories I had to share, as a pretext for preaching a sermon about the healing ministry of Jesus, how Jesus works through nurses and doctors, and the hope Jesus alone can give in the face of dark circumstances.
It is amazing what you can see if you only watch, what you hear if you only listen, and what people are willing to share with you if you only ask. Several years ago the cover story of Newsweek was about one of the shooting rampages that had taken place in a high school one year earlier. The story focused on healing, anger, and forgiveness. It included an interview with the husband of one of the schoolteachers who had been killed. My assistant was able to find his phone number using the Internet. I called this man, identified myself, and asked if he would mind teaching me, and through me teaching my church family, about forgiveness and moving on after such a terrible tragedy. For thirty minutes he told me his story. That Sunday I was able to share his story as we studied Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. In the end we learned that if this man, whose wife was killed by a teen with a gun, could forgive and move on, then perhaps we also could apply the teachings of Jesus in our lives.
There are a host of other examples, but these should suffice to prompt your own creativity when it comes to finding interesting stories or settings for your sermons. Again, the key is that the story not overshadow your point. After you are finished with your sermon, will they remember the point you were trying to make as they retell the story to their friends? If not, your story missed the mark.
This article is adapted from Unleashing the Word by Adam Hamilton, Copyright © 2003 by Abingdon Press.