Storytelling

We preachers are constantly encouraged to use effective illustrations and make our sermons more like “storytelling.” It’s advice that I really do try to implement. After all, Jesus was the greatest communicator who ever lived and His favorite style of sermon was a parable. He understood that not everybody enjoys hearing a three-point outline featuring alliteration. Everybody does, however, love a good story.

Unfortunately, the New Testament epistles make for difficult storytelling. Preach from the four gospels? No problem. They are nothing but stories from Christ’s life. Preach from the book of Acts? No problem. Acts is simply a continuation of the storyline begun in the gospels. But preach from Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.? Ah, that’s tougher. If you are going to do any storytelling from them, you are going to have to get creative. Can you say, “Hand me my book of sermon illustrations”?

This explains why many preachers find it easier to preach from the Old Testament than the New Testament. You won’t find any epistles in the Old Testament. The closest you’ll get is Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, & the Song of Solomon. It also helps that the majority of the Old Testament is the storyline of ancient Israel and so many of the stories have happy endings. For example, God promises Abraham and the barren Sarah a son and eventually makes good on that promise. Joseph becomes the second in command of all Egypt. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. Joshua leads them into the promised land of Canaan. The shepherd boy David slays a giant and later becomes king. Solomon builds God’s temple. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego come out of Babylon’s fiery furnace unscathed. Daniel comes out of the lions’ den the same way. Esther saves the Jews from being exterminated in Persia. On and on the list goes.

This doesn’t mean that every Old Testament story ends well for God’s people. Far from it. Generally speaking, though, whenever a story doesn’t it’s because God is whipping His people because of their sin. Admittedly, I’m painting with very broad strokes here, but you get the gist of what I’m saying. The Old Testament features a ton of stories that leave us with a smile on our face. Israel at its best, at its pinnacle in service to God, typically enjoyed a favored status in regards to worldly matters.

But what about the stories of the New Testament? Well, while there are certainly several that fit this same bill, it’s undeniable that a significant change takes place in the New Testament. The stage for it gets set with stories such as John the Baptist getting beheaded, Jesus getting crucified, Stephen getting stoned to death, and James getting killed by a sword. And once that stage is set, then comes the full on persecution of God’s people (the church). At that point, serving God usually means trouble instead of favor, problems instead of prosperity, and rejection instead of acceptance. As evidence of this, consider Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 4:11-13 concerning the life of the apostles:

To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.

Sometimes I think about how some of those famous stories from the Old Testament would probably have different endings if they took place in the New Testament timeline. Sodom and Gomorrah would be allowed to stand because God would want their citizens to be afforded every possible opportunity to repent and turn to Him. Can’t we make that argument based upon 2 Peter 3:9? The Red Sea wouldn’t part for Moses and the Israelites because God would want them to remain as slaves in Egypt and eventually, through Christian teaching and influence, abolish the practice of slavery in Egypt. Isn’t that how the Christians of the Roman empire eventually brought down slavery in the empire? Goliath would kill David, but David’s courage and zeal for God would cause Goliath to seek David’s God and become a Christian. Isn’t that what happened with Saul of Tarus after he had not only been present for Stephen’s stoning but ordered the deaths of many Christians himself?

Do you see now why I say that a significant change takes place over the pages of the New Testament? And do you also see why I say that preaching from the Old Testament is easier than preaching from the New Testament? You tell me, which is more appealing to our ears, the story of how Joshua and the Israelites defeated Jericho when Jericho’s walls came crashing down (Joshua 6:1-27) or Christ’s teaching about turning the other cheek in regards to your enemies (Luke 6:29)? You know the answer. Would you rather preach a sermon on the Angel of the Lord passing through the camp of the wicked Assyrians one night and slaying 185,00 of them (2 Kings 19:35-37) or one on loving your enemies and praying for those who spitefully persecute you (Matthew 5:43-44)? Again, you know the answer.

At the bottom line, the real question is this: Living in this era in which we live, does God want our lives to look more like an Old Testament story or a New Testament one? I think we know the answer to that too. In light of this, perhaps we need to change our usual way of operating. Rather than always running to the pages of the Old Testament to seek pleasing answers for the troublesome situations in our lives, maybe we’d be better advised to major on what the New Testament has to say concerning those situations. From a preaching standpoint, this won’t make for popular sermons featuring desirable storytelling. It will, however, make for deeper preaching, preaching that is more Christ-centered, preaching that definitely needs to be heard.

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Aside | This entry was posted in Adversity, Bible Study, Extending Forgiveness, God's Word, Persecution, Preaching, Problems, The Bible, Trials and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Storytelling

  1. Mark says:

    One angel against 185,000 armed, trained asyrain soilders. They never stood a chance.

  2. Roddey says:

    Russell, I would like to hear your thoughts about how to use storytelling with the epistles without removing the great doctrinal truths and exhortations that they contain. I am excited about taking up that challenge and others’ comments would be very helpful.

    Thanks! — Roddey

    • russellmckinney says:

      As I said in the post, storytelling from the epistles is a whole lot harder than doing it from the gospels. Nevertheless, with that understood, I’d suggest two ways of doing it effectively.

      First, the context for when and where an epistle was written is always a story within itself. Is Paul sitting in a prison? Okay, how did he get there? Is Peter writing to dispersed Jews? Fine, how did they get dispersed? The gospels indicate that James, an earthly half-brother to Jesus, initially doubted that Jesus was the Messiah. What changed then to cause him to become a leader in the early church and write an epistle? You see, the background for the writing of an epistle will always be fertile ground for storytelling.

      Second, the effective communicator will be skilled at weaving extra-biblical illustrations in an out of the doctrinal texts. For example, Paul talks about having been given a “thorn in the flesh.” Whatever that was (and it’s very much debated), it means that being God’s minister isn’t always easy. Well, that basic truth can be well illustrated with a story about Charles Spurgeon, who was probably the most famous preacher England ever produced. He suffered greatly over the course of his ministry due to various physical ailments. Furthermore, a doctrinal truth such as “salvation by grace through faith in Christ” can be illustrated by telling a story about how that doctrinal point changed Martin Luther’s entire life and ministry and inspired him to go out and change the world. Granted, stories about Charles Spurgeon and Martin Luther might seem outdated to today’s modern congregations, and so you’ll want to seek out more current illustrations, but you get the point that I’m trying to make. Good luck.

  3. Roddey says:

    Thanks, Russell. Finding the historical context of the epistles and weaving a story/stories into a message, I believe, is the fun part. We work with the Deaf and our challenge is to find “extra-Biblical” stories that fit their culture. And to top it off, we are heading to Africa, which means learning new culturally appropriate stories. I look forward to it.

    I’ve joined your blog. Also, we are around the corner from you in Rock Hill, SC.

    God’s blessings on your continued ministry in Spruce Pine! –Roddey

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