Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
January 13, 2008
Inspiring stories help sermons get off the runway
One of our bishops began his work as a bishop by meeting with lay people across his state. He asked one question: What can I do as your bishop to help you most? Everywhere he heard the same answer: Send us preachers who can preach.
That is what I have heard all my life. Churches want preachers who can deliver when they stand behind the pulpit. They don’t want a preacher who is timid about the gospel. People admire a preacher who knows his subject and preaches with conviction.
Preaching, of course, is hard work. Any preacher who has been in the saddle six months will vouch for that. So the effective preacher must find time to prepare well, pray hard, and come with high energy to the sacred hour of preaching the word.
Honest, compassionate criticism is extremely helpful. My wife has been my best critic. She can tell me the truth in love without sugar-coating it. No preacher is helped very much by those who offer nothing but affirmation. Every Sunday for all these years I have anticipated, 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. Occasionally waiting for my wife’s evaluation has been like waiting for the hammer to fall.
She has a gift for mixing kindness with truth. Sometimes her response can feel like a brick in a velvet glove. The truth of her words sting especially when I know I needed to hear what she said – and face it.
In the early years of our ministry, my wife’s most frequent comment was, “You looked at your notes too much.” I began preaching by taking a full manuscript to the pulpit, and for the most part read it in delivering my sermons.
Her constant, loving pressure to stop using notes finally caused me to stop using notes. So one Sunday I dared to trust my memory and leave my manuscript at home. That was the day after my wife said to me, “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.
To my astonishment preaching that day was a liberating experience! I felt like I might feel if I had the nerve to parachute out of an airplane. 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 greatest 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.
Preaching should give people hope. Inspiring stories do that. Perhaps our most inspiring stories are found in the New Testament. 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.
Good stories can come from one’s own life. I can talk about marital tension because for 55 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.
God can use whatever happens to us to help us explain the gospel and help people understand our own source of help. 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.
The preacher who is not finding and using inspiring stories in his preaching may not enjoy his Sunday lunch. But those who do will find most people will want to hear him or her again next Sunday. + + +