Telling Stories is not Preaching

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 9.10.12 AMBy John Frye in his series on the preacher’s temptations.

A troubling spin-off of the welcomed return to narrative theology is the reduction of preaching to “telling stories.” The Bible is a library of stories. Yes. N. T. Wright has helped us see that even the Book of Romans expresses the startling completion of Israel’s story. Jesus was a masterful storyteller. Yes. The parables tell us so. Our human minds are wired for stories. Yes. Our minds construct stories to help us find or make meaning in life. I am “all in” for the power of story.

I have met people who sat under my ministry decades ago. They never remind me (much to my chagrin) about my fine exegetical, homiletical expertise. Of how I mined so much “truth” out of one little verse. No, they will invariably remind me of a story I told or an illustration I used. Uncanny, isn’t it?

So, why would I say that it is troubling that preaching, in some quarters, has been reduced to storytelling?

I risk stepping on some toes. When theology was labeled the “queen of the sciences,” a horrible wound was inflicted on the church. When the Bible became a specimen to be dissected as one would a frog, the Bible suffered a terrible wound. When biblical concepts became species of truth collected and collated, the Jewish-Christian story died a wrongful death. When it became a given that one was not saved by Jesus Christ, but by believing in justification by faith alone, the engine of the Christian faith left the tracks. Imagine someone saying, “No! The whole point of the story of the Goldilocks is the three bears—the Trinity—and unless you believe that, you will not get the story.” The Grand Story of the Bible was dissected in orthodox pieces and the surgeons of the Scriptures directed us to the pieces to believe. How arrogant and what a crock.

Can a child know love without unpacking the depths of C. S. Lewis’s book about the Greek words for love? Can a person be captivated by mercy and grace without being able to clinically define the difference between the two? For too long Christian authorities have operated along the line of “When you know what I know, you will be a better Christian; a more faithful follower.” I have participated in and reacted to that subtle arrogance.

Too many preachers do not want to diligently deal with the reality of what the Bible as it is. The Bible is a glorious collection of Spirit-inspired books with multiple authors writing from an extremely different worldview than the modern Western worldview; from alien cultures and customs, in millennia past, with a different epistemology than the reigning rationalism of the West. One cannot easily or glibly say, “Now, this is what this text means.” We find ourselves in an awkward time. There is the rejection of a hermeneutics based on the scientific method, but there is yet to be a good replacement at the pulpit/local church level.

Enter storytelling. Many pastors tell stories, any stories as long as the stories capture attention, seem relevant and take up sermon time. Perhaps the reason is that these pastors/preachers do not want to do the nitty gritty pastoral work of getting into a specific the text embedded in a storied world of Israel and Church.

“I’m not into exegesis. I’m into Jesus.” That sounds so cool; so spiritual; so hip; so now. It may actually be a cover for laziness. The arrogance of it would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous.

What do I mean? Because Jesus told stories is not a license for preachers to tell only stories and not “preach the word.” Any first year student knows that Jesus’s parables are riddled with biblical allusions, if not outright biblical motifs. That is, Jesus’s stories were told within a culture aware of and living in Israel’s ongoing story. This is not true of USAmerican evangelical communities. (Unless you’re a right-wing fundamentalist, the United States of America is not the New Israel, the city set on the hill.)

Preachers have to preach the Story of the Kingdom as it finds fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. That story is anchored in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Telling stories outside of that big story may be pleasing in some communities, but will never be edifying to the church. Preachers must grapple with this gift called Scripture and preach it.

Did I say dissect it? No. But proclaim it as the only Story that is the hope of the world. A compelling story never saved a soul. The gospel is the only power of God unto salvation. Telling the Kingdom Story as it is expressed in compelling stories is the challenge of good preaching.

You can’t buy that in a church kit or in a “sermons-to-go” package. It takes diligent study, discerning reflection, and creative expression. Knowing God, knowing yourself, knowing the Bible, and knowing your people in their culture.

I think stories are crucial in good preaching only if they carry the vision and the challenge of the big kingdom of God story finding laser-like focus in Jesus the Christ. I think the Apostle Paul would agree (Acts 28:31).

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