Preaching Like Pictures – Advice on Storytelling

Beijing 1989 - Jeff Widener

Some of us preachers find it frustrating when people remember our stories better than our sermon’s “substance.” I’m not all that sure why. We are the same way. We remember images better than theories…movies more than meetings. If we get frustrated those listening remember the stories rather than the substance, perhaps we shouldn’t try to force-feed the substance. Perhaps our stories should have more to do with our substance–or we should tell more substantive stories.

Let’s be like the people below, who are pictured here with their iconic pictures–in this great photography book by Tim Mantoani.  He asked famous photographers to pose with their iconic or favorite pictures. He also asked them to write briefly about it underneath the picture. Then, he compiled them in a book.

What if we saw our stories that way? The marvelous pictures they took told vivid stories though a still shot. We preachers can tell stories without the limitations of the lens. There is no need to settle for poorly though through, benign ways of telling stories–or telling stories that have little to do with our substance.

Story and imagery are really powerful. Packing the stories with the sermon’s substance is often what’s missing. Other times, it’s delivering our “substance” so dryly we can watch it dry up on it’s way from our mouth to their ears. We shouldn’t tell stories to be funny or break up the dry stuff. We should tell stories for substance’s sake. Tell them as though the sermon’s message depended on it.

I came up with 4 rules for choosing stories to illustrate in sermons. I try to abide by these as much as I’m able:

1) It has to be tellable in less than 3 minutes, including the application--or needs to be nearly the greatest story ever told. I used to tell fun stories that lasted 8-10 minutes and delivered darn near nothing in terms of substance. It’s a waste of time. People will remember the story, but not the substance–and you’re eating up quality time you could have given to story-free substance.

2) Am I willing to commit to telling it vividly…like photographs or film. For instance, I don’t just want to say, “I knew a girl…” Give her a name. What was she wearing? What did her voice sound like and what kind of perfume did she wear.? What exactly did she say?

3) There must be clear application to the point I’m trying to make. If it’s a phenomenal story but barely applies to what the text is saying. Save the story for when it does apply directly. That will keep it a great story, and you can load it up with quality substance that will make a bigger impact.

4) Like the photographers below–I have to willing to pose with it. Meaning: am I willing to be associated with this story going forward. Why? The church will remember I told it and the audio/video recordings will survive. So, like it or not–I am posing with it. Am I willing to be associated with this story going forward? This question also holds us accountable for exaggeration, etc.

Take a look at the photographers and pictures below. Then, let’s become better photographers with our preaching. Let’s capture all that’s amazing about the story we’re telling and the substance we’re sharing. Let’s make sure they go together snugly, then snap.

It’ll last longer.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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