Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
January 20, 2002
My wife knows that I consider her my most honest, and helpful, critic of my sermons. So every Sunday I anticipate, though not always eagerly, her comments.
Like most preachers I know when I have missed the mark. Any pastor knows when his sermon was like a plane that that revved the engine, make a lot of noise, but never managed to get off the runway. On those days, waiting for my wife’s evaluation is like waiting for the hammer to fall.
Usually her response is a mixture of truth and kindness. Sometimes that can feel like a brick in a velvet glove, the kind that stings even though you know you needed it.
During the early years of my ministry, my wife’s most frequent comment was, “You looked at your notes too much.” I began by taking a manuscript to the pulpit, and for the most part read it in delivering my sermons.
I well remember the last Sunday I decided never again to take a manuscript of my sermon to the sacred desk. That was the Sunday when my wife said, “People don’t come to church to have someone read to them. If you are going to read your sermon, why not just pass out copies of it to everybody and let them read it at home?”
Under the intense heat of her motivation, I gradually shifted to four 5x7 cards, then to two or three 3x5 cards, and finally to one. Finally one Sunday, pleading with God for help and scared to death, I went into the pulpit without any notes at all.
It was a liberating experience! I have never parachuted out of an airplane, but I think I had the same feeling that Sunday. For my brain not to fail me was like looking up and seeing that the parachute had actually opened up for me.
For years now my wife’s typical response to a weak sermon includes one of these two comments: “We have got to help you find time to study more;” or “You had a good message but you needed a few more good stories.” In both cases she leaves me speechless and defenseless because I know in my heart that she has nailed me. That’s when I determine to study more and to find some good stories for next Sunday.
The first great source of good stories for a Christian preacher is the Old Testament. A good preacher will use Old Testament stories to illustrate New Testament truth.
If the subject is our need to be guided and filled with the Holy Spirit, then we can use the story of Samson or the story of King Saul. Both men became so full of themselves that they failed to realize the Spirit of God had departed from them. The Spirit can control our lives only when we become willing to give him the wheel.
Or take the subject of our need for a second chance when we have disgraced ourselves and feel that God is disgusted with us. We can give people hope by telling them the stories of King David and linking it with the story of the Apostle Peter. Few stories are more inspiring than the story of Jesus serving breakfast by the sea and giving Peter a second chance as they ate fish together.
Other good stories can come from one’s own life. I can talk about marital tension because for 50 years I have created it at times by foolishly forgetting that I am not the center of the universe. In preaching about the death of a loved one, I can empathize by remembering how it felt to bury our three-year-old son, David.
I am convinced that whatever happens to us, God wants to use in our ministry. Nothing happens to us that God cannot help us to use as we share our experience of his healing and redeeming grace. When it becomes personal, people are more prone to listen, and to hear.
In this day of television “sound bytes,” and the incredibly short attention span of adults, the preacher is hard pressed to gain and hold the attention of his audience. That is why good stories are so important.
Suppose I want to preach on the futility of trying to please everybody and failing ultimately to please God. I might begin not with scripture but with a good old Aesop story, like the one about a man who had two wives, one old and one young.
The man’s hair was turning gray. Two wives can do that to you! His young wife did not want to be confused for his daughter, so when he was sleeping, she plucked out his gray hairs. The older wife liked the gray hairs because she was tired of people thinking she was his mother. So she pulled out his dark hairs. Soon he was completely bald!
A funny story like that helps to show that if you try to please everybody, you wind up pleasing no one.
The important thing is not to dwell too long on the stories but to use them to illustrate eternal truths. Adam, for example, and later Jonah, learned the hard way that there are severe consequences for not obeying God. That might lead us to take a fresh look at the words of Jesus: “If you love me, you will obey me.”
The moral of all this: the preacher who is not finding and using good stories in his preaching may not enjoy his Sunday lunch. So, if you run across some good stories I can use, call me.