One of today’s most popular sermon outlines is “tell a story-read the passage-make 3 points-finish the story.” After all everyone loves a good story. Stores are memorable and everyone relates to them.
But stories in sermons also have a downside: people tend to remember the story rather than the meaning of the passage. In my 25+ years as a bible teacher, I’ve had students joyfully remind me of a personal story I told years in the past. Never once have they also been able to recall the passage of Scripture the story was intended to illustrate — which defeats the purpose of telling the story.
Should we throw out stories altogether? No. When used wisely, stories in sermons and lectures have a positive place.
Here are my rules of thumb for when and when not to include a story in a lecture.
- Students should leave knowing more about Scripture than the speaker.
The goal of bible study and sermons must always be to convey the essential meaning of a set number of verses to the listeners. To convey that meaning, we explain the concepts of Scripture in language modern ears will understand.
All stories, illustrations and explanations ought to serve that goal. Without explaining meaning, no real bible study has taken place — only pious observations, emotional exhortations and some interesting but pointless stories.
Make sure your stories serve the goal of furthering understanding of the meaning of the text. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself, realizing we all love to talk about ourselves. Strip the story to its essential elements to make sure it furthers understanding rather than distracts.
I listened to an MP3 of a 26-minute sermon and 16 minutes in the pastor was still telling a personal life story. While that type of personal reflection might be warranted on rare occasions between a pastor and his flock, it ought to be the exception to the rule. Using almost half your allotted time to talk about yourself practically guarantees listeners will remember you rather than Scripture.
- When the text is a story, it is the illustration.
When teaching one of the many narrative passages of Scripture, the story in the text is the point. We are to learn from the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, etc, Their lives are the example.
If you are teaching from 1 Samuel for example, David’s life story is the illustration of the meaning of the text. Explain his story, not your own.
However, when the text provides no story (Proverbs, for example), illustrations from your own life often serve the goal of conveying the essential meaning of the text.
In the end, students ought to leave knowing more about what the passage means and who God is than about the personal life of the speaker.