Yes, you read that title correctly.
I know, I know. Popular preaching advice tells you that “People learn through stories,” and that “You need illustrations to make your point.”
I do not disagree that stories and illustrations are helpful in preaching. But they are not always helpful …
I do disagree, however, that the reason we should use stories in preaching is because Jesus used stories. While He did tell stories, He didn’t use stories in His preaching. At least, not the way we think.
Let me clarify by stating five points about the use of stories in preaching and teaching.
1. Maybe your sermons are too long
One reason it is true that people need stories sprinkled liberally throughout sermons is because the sermons are too long.
Like it or not, people have a short attention span these days, and the stories, jokes, and illustrations help keep people’s attention.
Stories help revive people’s interest in what you are saying, especially when it takes you 40 minutes to say it.
But what would happen if what you were saying was shorter? Maybe fifteen minutes? Or ten? Or *gasp* five?
Would you need tear-jerker stories and cute illustrations then? I think not.
Which makes you wonder … why is the average sermon about 35 minutes long? I have my theories, but that’s another blog post…
2. Yes, Jesus told stories, BUT …
Second, while much of the Bible is narrative, people often say that we should use stories because Jesus did, and He was the best teacher the world has ever seen.
I do not deny that Jesus was the best teacher, but I do question the logic of the statement, “Because Jesus used stories, so should we.”
Just because Jesus does something, this does not mean that we should do it too. But more than that, if you carefully examine why Jesus used stories, it was not to illustrate His point or to help His listeners understand what He was saying. No, Jesus clearly stated that the reason He spoke in parables was so that His listeners would not understand (check out Luke 8).
Jesus told stories so that people would be confused!
So if you really want to teach like Jesus, make sure you pick stories for your sermons that are confusing and mysterious and which hide your point rather than reveal it.
If you want to include stories and illustrations to help people understand what you are saying, this is fine to do; just don’t say you are following the example of Jesus.
3. The facts can teach too
Thirdly, while it is true that stories do teach, it is also true that just presenting the facts is also a great way of teaching.
While I often learn great truths from watching movies or reading novels, most of the things I have learned about theology came from reading books about theology, reading commentaries, and just studying the Bible.
I think there are large numbers of Christians today who learn similarly. They just want to know what the Bible says, and they don’t want a bunch of stories, illustrations, and jokes to get in the way.
4. The Bible is One Big Story
Fourth, the “Jesus told stories and so should we” argument often points to the fact that large chunks of the Bible are “stories.” This fact is used to bolster the argument that people learn by stories and we should sprinkle our teaching opportunities with stories.
But notice that when the Bible tells stories, it is not sprinkling a fact-based teaching with cute illustrations and funny jokes.
No, when the Bible tells stories, it tells a story and then shuts up about it.
Sure, there may be a point to the stories, but the point is often up for argument and open to interpretation.
So if you want to “tell stories” the way the Bible tells stories, then you need to make sure that your story is the teaching. If you want to tell stories like the Bible tells stories, then tell a good story and leave it alone.
I am all for using stories as a teaching method, but the best way to use stories as a teaching method is simply to tell a story. Stories as a teaching method are the stories themselves, not a regular teaching with a couple of stories sprinkled in.
5. Tell Good Stories
Finally, if you want to tell stories in your teaching, or as your teaching, make sure the story is a good one. The biblical stories are really good stories. They are full of mystery, intrigue, betrayal, sex, war, and everything else that makes a top-notch story.
Most “Christian” stories are too sanitized to be any good.
This is why movies are so powerful today. This is also why (I am convinced) movies do more to teach people about life and relationships and theology than sermons ever will. Movies are (usually) well-told stories that are nothing but stories which people watch and have their life and thinking changed as a result.
Stories and Illustrations in Sermons
I am not opposed to using stories and illustrations in sermons. I use them myself when I preach. I think they do aid in the teaching and learning process.
But I think we Christians need to do some rethinking about why we tell stories and what sorts of stories we tell. But I wonder if people would learn just as much if our sermons were 80% shorter… or maybe if they were just one well-told story.
But whatever we do, whether we include illustrations or not, whether we preach for 40 minutes or 5, we cannot say that “Jesus told stories, and so should we.” He did tell stories, but not the kind of stories we tell, and not for the reasons we tell them, and not in the way we tell them.
If you truly want to tell stories like Jesus, do these three things:
- Your teaching time should be nothing but stories.
- Your stories should target religious people only.
- Your stories should be confusing so nobody understands them.
If you know someone who teaches that way, send me a link to their podcast, because I want to hear them.
Matthew Richardson says
Some of His stories were to illustrate a point. I’m thinking, specificaly, of the Good Samaritan. This was used to make clear the concept of who our ‘neighbors’ are. But then, it may not be a parable exactly. Parables used a lot of metaphor.
Alabama Independent says
One day last week I forwarded one of your articles to a member of our church who holds a Ph.D. Pastoral Counseling. On Sunday at Church Service, I asked him what he thought about the Article. He implied to me you were a False minister and I should refrain from your articles. How can I assure this Man of God, that you are not such?
Jeremy Myers says
Forget about me! You need to be careful. If this pastor thinks I am a heretic, and that you are reading my stuff, it will not be long before suspicion falls on you. Those who like to burn heretics also burn those associated with heretics.
As for changing his mind, you cannot. The charge of heresy comes from a place of fear and control. He would need to give up both of these in order to see things differently.
Which article did you send him, by the way?
Sam Riviera says
Alabama Independent, I’ve learned after many years of observing people that the religious ones who engage in calling others heretics, false teachers, people to be avoided and similar things are the ones who themselves are often insecure in their faith. They tend to need a very defined, rigid system of beliefs that they feel everyone else must adhere to. Anyone who does not exactly adhere to their beliefs and understanding of the Bible, theology and related topics must be avoided and is surely a false teacher or something of the sort.
Over the years however, many of these folks find that they themselves cannot adhere to their own system, the system they have been trying to push on others. I cannot remember how many of these folks I have seen burn out and not even attempt to finish the course set before them. Then there’s the damage they’ve wrought on the lives of others.
I’ve also observed that most of these folks want others to come to them for their version of “the truth”. Everything else is false, “to be avoided”, heretical. Go listen to them, pay their salary and submit to their control. Don’t think for yourself, don’t read anything that says anything that conflicts with their teaching. (Otherwise you might decide to stop listening to them and take your presence and money elsewhere, and they can’t have that!)
I remember one of these fellows from recent years. Eventually even his wife and adult children ignored him. Nevertheless he still tried to exert his “authority” over the church folk. At the end, almost everyone ignored him. He was an angry person. We wonder if he even believed the stuff he tried to force others to believe.
Lutek K. says
“The problem comes when we look to Scripture for dogmatic certitude instead of as an aid to quickening the living Spirit within ourselves. The problem is the preoccupation with doctrine instead of inspiration. The problem borders on the unpardonable sin.”
– Herbert Bruce Puryear
Alabama Independent says
“Pastor” Myers: The Article which I sent to the man in my church was the one entitled “…in Jesus Name, Amen.”
Alabama Independent says
I am under the impression that you teach “Grace and nothing else”
While I agree the it is only the Grace of God that we are saved, this does not mean we can then live like the devil and expect God to welcome us into Heaven when our time comes. A person who is saved by Grace also realizes that we are a changed person when the Holy Spirit comes to live in our live. I had a personal incident last week, when I leased a car that while shopping, my shopping car hit the door leave a slight dent.
When I went to turn the car in, the Holy Spirit led to show the man that a shopping cart had hit the door. Much to my relief, he said, “we expect things like that as part of the wear and tear on our vehicles.”
I was so relieved and I give praise to God for my willingness to tell the man that it had a dent caused by me. Had I not, it would have nagged at me for not telling them. This example is the fruits of the Spirit, and not a “Grace and nothing else” type of Christianity.
Was I wrong to tell the man about the dent? Or does “Grace and nothing else” would have forgiven me of the wrong. You have me confused and would like for you to explain you biblical position of salvation and what a saved person will do and will not do.
Tony C says
Alabama Independent, I love your honesty 🙂 The best way to get ahold of Jeremy’s positions on these subjects, apart from actually entering into correspondence with him (which you can do; he has a Facebook presence too) is to read his articles. Preferably without telling anyone who might hold it against you! 😉
Regarding the Grace/Car Door story above, the desire to please God comes from Relationship rather than Rules. You will know in your own mind which of these was your motivation in this instance. It sounds as if you let the Peace of Christ rule, as it bore fruit in that direction.
For more on the Grace/Law debate, for me Jeremy’s definitive article is this one:
Hope this helps!
Jeremy Myers says
Thanks for responding Tony.
I have been so busy recently, I have not been able to respond to comments or email or Facebook messages as I normally like to…
Jake Schotter says
Best stories are from the Bible then society.
I’m glad (relieved?) to find we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to this issue. Having made both sermons and (published) stories, after some reflection I concluded that the kind of storyteller that would most closely parallel Jesus’ method would be the novelist, not the preacher with illustrations. And writing genuine, useful parables ain’t easy — starting with the realization that he told parables to teach the wizards and baffle the Muggles.
(Admit it, folks … none of us likes to see glazed eyes in the congregation.)
Jeremy Myers says
Ha! Right. That glazed eye condition is the worst. Stories can (and do) help with this, and should be used if they fit the message and the pastoral personality.
I still believe there is great power in story. (I’m not a pastor, but a filmmaker.) It all depends on who the audience is. For believers, speak in truth like Jesus did with his disciples. No need to tell them parables because they believe. But, well told, God-breathed stories for unbelievers can get past their preconceived biases and reach right to the heart.
Case and point — King David. He knew he committed adultery and he knew he killed to cover it up, but it wasn’t until Nathan the prophet told him a story that pierced the hardness of his heart and he broke. The power of a good story can do that. Even for hard headed believers.
Jeremy Myers says
Yes! There is great power in story. I believe there is greater power in narrative than in prose. If someone wants to tell stories (as you do), I encourage them to do so, and to be as creative as possible in the telling of the story, for there is true power there.
I just am not a fan of people defending their use of illustrations in sermons by saying “Jesus told stories and so should we.”
So keep making movies and telling good stories!
Allan Lee says
Wow! Thanks, Jeremy, I thought I was the only one who taught this way! My first homiletic professor at MBI taught that the “perfect sermon” consisted of Three Major Points, each with a illustration ….
The same emphasis at DTS was made by Dr. H. Robinson , in fact, information on how to get the best illustrations and record them was a major part of the course! I ordered them but never used them!
Thanks for the “renegade” practicality of your teaching!
Jeremy Myers says
We probably had the same profs. I also graduated from MBI and DTS. Ha! Keep preaching and teaching the Word!