I have the distinct privilege of teaching preaching to the next generation of expositors at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas. To date, I have taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels as full-time faculty for 5 years. Over the past 5 years, I have exposed students to the text-driven model of preaching and encouraged students to ensure that the structure and content of their sermon accurately reflects the structure and content of their chosen text. Again and again, in each class, I am reminded that illustration is a vitally important but often underutilized component of creative exposition.
People love stories! However, the desire to hear a good story does not always translate to the ability to tell a good story. Storytelling is a craft that takes work. Anyone who employs illustration consistently in their sermons knows that stories engage people in a powerful way. Based on studies, the three things that most people remember from a sermon are: the concluding illustration, the opening illustration, and the other illustrations. After these are other components like applications, the message idea, interesting concepts, main points, and expositional concepts. People remember stories. This makes it even more important to tell stories that are interesting and solidly linked to the text.
A well-told story becomes a lived experience for the listener. It allows the listener to step into another world and grapple with truth in a different but meaningful way. Stories evoke emotion and engage both the heart and the will. Lived-experience stories, when creatively told, help listeners ground abstract truths in the concrete world. If the studies are right, people remember stories more readily than any other aspect of the sermon. How, then, can we all get better at the craft of storytelling? Let’s consider the who, what, how, and why of the matter.
- Who? Who do you like to listen to? Who do you read? Whose movies do you like to watch? Make a list of preachers, speakers, authors, directors, etc. that capture your attention. We have access to information like never before and we should take advantage of the content that is available. Just as important, make a list of those who are hard to listen to. Who do you not prefer? It is okay to have preferences. Who are the best storytellers?
- What? What are they doing that is appealing? What draws you to the way your favorites convey information? What about those you don’t prefer? What do they do that you consider off-putting? When it comes to your favorite speakers, novels, movies, or stories, are there any commonalities you can identify. Perhaps you prefer a certain genre or type of story. Maybe you like to root for the underdog or cheer for the hero. What stories we like reveals something about what we value.
- How? How can we learn from those we like and those we don’t? I would never encourage anyone to change their personality or be disingenuous in any way, but perhaps there are things we can learn from the stories of others. How much and what types of details to include. What subjects to avoid. How to turn a phrase. How to build tension. Are there characteristics of storytelling that we can adopt without violating our own personalities? Are there pitfalls we can avoid? We can learn as much from those we don’t prefer as from those we do.
- Why? Why do we tell stories? Of course, the answer is not to fill up space in the sermon or to entertain the listener. We tell stories to help people understand the Word of God. We believe that understanding leads to action and that, by the Word of God, people can experience transformation. We tell stories so that hopefully, with the intervention of the Holy Spirit, people will become more like Jesus.
I know I am preaching to the choir regarding the importance of illustrations in a sermon. I also know most who read this will want to improve their ability to use illustrations so as to improve their listeners’ opportunities to embrace the truth of Scripture. They will see the value in a well-told story as it informs the understanding of transformational truth. The above list is not meant to be either extensive or exhaustive, but my hope is it will spur some creative introspection and reflection.
At the end of the day, we all want to see people become more like Jesus. I want it for my church and I’m sure you want it for your church. The best stories are yet to be told and I am glad that Christ is calling faithful preachers who will tell those stories and tell them well!
Jeff Campbell is Assistant Professor of Preaching, W. A. Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching, and Dean of Students at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas.