I Love to Tell the Story

“A man had two sons, Jerry and Bob, and he went to the first . . .” Matthew 21:28

Thank you to all the Working Preacher folks who are pushing a renewed emphasis on story-telling as not only an element of preaching but as the heart of preaching.

Permit me, as one who has spent the greater part of adulthood working with stories, studying their secrets, and learning how to tell them, to chirp in with a few observations.

The wonderful hymn that shares the title with this article is one that can easily fall into churchy jargon. As if “telling the story” is simply a pious term for sharing our faith.

It’s not.

There are many ways to share faith. Telling the story is one way to do that. It also happens to be the most effective.

Watch the congregation next time you segue into a story during your sermon. It rarely fails — glassy eyes immediately clear, distracted minds immediately focus, folks struggling to stay awake immediately snap back to consciousness. That is what stories do.

Stories communicate so effectively because they travel directly to the heart. Facts, arguments, and reasoned discussion transfer information via a couple of intermediaries. First, the facts/argument/reasoning have to be processed by the brain of the speaker, who analyzes the pertinent data and then transfers that data to the listener, who must then process the data. Only if the communication survives this arduous trip will it reach the heart.

Stories don’t require that. Speakers don’t have to analyze stories and then transfer them. They know the stories. A story once heard becomes part of you. Listening to a story does not require processing. A story once begun unfolds itself. It comes in a complete unit; it does not have to be pieced together. It does not have to be memorized.

The sermons that I give without notes are always story-heavy.

On the other hand, there are such things as painfully boring stories. Overly detailed travelogues and health stories, and stories where the speaker is obsessed with self can be terminally tedious.

How do we explain that?

During children’s time at last week’s service, I was telling the parable of the father who asked two sons to work in the vineyard. It’s a good story and the kids at the first service were tracking reasonably well. But it occurred to me that it was odd to refer to the sons as “the first son” and “second son.”

I asked the kids to provide names for them. It was a task they took up with gusto. The story then became one about a man and his two sons, Jerry and Bob. These children listened to the story far more intently than did their counterparts at the first service.

This illustrates a key element of stories. People experience life through them to the degree that they pull the listener into the experience. The more points of contact the story has with the listener’s life, the more effective it will be. 

Stories bogged down in minutia and egotism lose the points of contact. They do not pull the listener into the experience.

Because they were invited into the story, the kids at the second service got to experience the story at far greater strength than the kids at the first service. The message came across more clearly.

We in the church have a truth to communicate. We invite listeners to experience that truth not by lecturing, but by telling a story and inviting people into the story.

We tell the story best by telling the story.