September 21, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: February 15, 2016

The Pulpit Sketch

This is part five in a series of iMonk posts that Michael wrote back in 2006. We have edited them and now present them each Monday. His subject was “the sermon,” and the series was called “What’s Wrong with the Sermon?” Here is Michael’s explanation of the approach he took:

In this series of posts I will be examining the sermon as it is currently done in evangelicalism. My method will be a bit backwards. I am going to examine the most frequent criticisms of sermons — something I hear all the time from my peers and student listeners — and see if there is truth in the criticisms.

Past posts:
• Part 1: The sermon’s too long
• Part 2: The sermon’s boring
• Part 3: The sermon — I don’t understand it
• Part 4: The sermon — it isn’t practical

• • •

What’s wrong with the sermon?
(5) The sermon — More stories please!

“We are constantly assured that churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine–‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man–the dogma is the drama.”

• Dorothy Sayer

Good preaching uses good stories. This is unarguable from several perspectives.

First of all, Jesus was a story-teller, and stories were a powerful part of every aspect of his proclamation. N.T. Wright well demonstrates that underlying all of Jesus’ ministry, words and actions is a reinterpretation of the central story of Israel, and this re-imagining of Israel’s story comes forth in the dozens and dozens of stories that are part of Jesus’ own proclamation.

Secondly, scripture itself is highly narrative, with stories making up not only key components, but also many of the thematic subplots, character studies and moral lessons. There are stories behind the law, and stories behind the Psalms. Even the prophets fit into the larger story of Israel and the continuing story of God’s covenant relationship to immediate events and eschatological promises.

Thirdly, Even doctrinal sections of scripture such as Paul’s letters are based much more upon a “narrative thought world” than many of us ever realize. Look, for example, at Colossians 1:13: He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. This is a story – the story of Jesus as it extends to each one of us. Books such as Ephesians and even Romans have underlying narratives that provide context for the doctrinal admonitions.

Of course, each epistle is part of the story of the church itself, a story that extends from the Bible to the current time, and encompasses, in some way, the stories of saints, missionaries, martyrs, grandparents and mentors in our own experience. We cannot preach, teach, narrate, do history, catechise, evangelize, reform, worship, analyze or understand ourselves as Christians without Biblical stories and the stories of God’s people.

Christian preaching is proclamation, but if it does not incorporate Biblical stories, it will not be Biblically faithful. If it does not take seriously the story of the church, preaching will become a lecture and not the invitation of Christ to join the people of God. If preaching does not make a place for all of its stories, the very heart of the incarnation–God stepping into our story and incorporating us into His story through Christ–will be misrepresented and misunderstood.

With all of this said, I must also say that the typical use of stories in contemporary preaching is a matter of serious concern to anyone who cares about the church, Christian preaching and the Gospel.

What is the problem?

1. Many of the stories in contemporary preaching are centered around the pastors who are preaching. The successful pastors of today’s megachurches and Christian culture fill their sermons with narratives about themselves. Many of these preachers are major characters in their own sermons, and often hold themselves up as examples of the application of the sermon’s message.

While some of these stories are commendable and appropriate, others are exercises in celebrity self-promotion and egotistical narcissism. It is painful to listen to preachers telling stories that amount to little more than crass bragging and common lying.

Of course, Paul does speak of himself in some of his epistles, but there is no reason to believe that a regular feature of Paul’s preaching was a weekly soap opera of his own experiences. In fact, Paul’s self-depricating comments indicate that when pressed to talk about himself, he was careful to not promote himself as a saint or hero. When challenged about his apostleship or speaking of his own encounter with Christ, Paul would speak about himself as needed, but when we read a presentation of the Gospel like Romans, we do not find Paul seasoning the text with personal anecdotes. And it is particularly hard for me to imagine Paul dropping mentions of his recent trip to Vail or his new Humvee into the message.

2. Increasingly, stories are the narrative framework of the sermon, replacing the text of scripture. It is not at all unusual to have the entire teaching of a sermon be subpoints in a personal narrative about the pastor or a story that the preacher uses as a dominant metaphor or analogy in the sermon.

So a preacher might talk about his experience learning to playing golf, and preach on the lessons of the golf course. Scripture would be brought in to support the points, but the story of the golf lesson drives the sermon itself.

It is almost guaranteed that this sermon will be popular, because it relates to something the audience is familiar with, and it allows the pastor to leave the role of “preacher” and be more like us. Such stories often allow a kind of familiarity, humor and direct speech that is very appealing to listeners.

As Biblical illiteracy increases, and as churches choose to use less and less scripture in public worship, these kinds of stories increase in influence.

3. Because we live in a media-saturated culture, the stories being told in movies and television provide interesting “texts” for sermons. Again, a series of sermons on “iFaith” or “Lost” or “Friends,” using illustrations from current media, is bound to be very popular. Such stories are much more accessible to the typical audience, and particularly to younger people.

The current celebration of movies and television as a place to find “stories about the Gospel” is a mixed blessing. While it is good to see Christians viewing culture Biblically, it is not good when other stories begin to crowd out our own.

4. Rather than being illustrations of the Biblical story, many of the stories in today’s sermon have an emotional and textual life of their own, where the Biblical text is the “illustration” or the citation that legitimizes the “talk” as a “message” from God. These stories are sentimental and manipulative. The point is to impact the emotions in a way the text does not. The power of sentiment and the potential to manipulate are important.

This is a particularly difficult problem. Do we retell the story of the prodigal son through a story that will create a reaction that the Biblical text does not create for Christians very familiar with the story? Or do we stay with the Biblical story and illustrate it in such a way that the Biblical text lives on its own? Such choices are essential for a competent preacher who wants to use stories but not lose the primacy of the Biblical story.

5. Those who most strongly advocate the use of storytelling in preaching are well aware of the methodology of Jesus. But does this translate into the use of storytelling (or narrative preaching) that is completely (or largely) outside of the Biblical text, and which connects to the Biblical faith only when the story is “explained?”

In seminary, I took an advanced preaching lab. One student, a woman, did a narrative “sermon” that was an original children’s story about a skunk. At the end she related it to a Biblical text. The professor was very impressed and praised her sermon.

The class discussion, however, was not as positive. Many of us felt that the message, while creatively excellent, was quite dependent on context for its effectiveness. I felt that, as confessionally based preaching in the church, the sermon failed because it came to the Bible from far outside the Bible, and did not need the Bible at all to communicate its point. There were places it would be perfect, but many others where it would do little to communicate the Gospel.

Of course, we look at a story like the Narnia tales, and we realize the amazing possibilities of stories to take Biblical truth and make it come alive. We can’t deny this power and we can’t deny the need to create stories and literature that illustrate and illuminate scripture.

But are these stories preaching? Should preaching become story-telling, even excellent Christian story-telling? Is there a difference between preaching and other kinds of “spiritual” communication? I believe that preaching is always tied to the text and message of the Bible, not only for content, but for authority and the form of the sermon. While we have freedom in our presentation of this message, the “balance” of story and text/gospel cannot shift to the place where the Gospel is displaced from scripture and scripture is displaced from its central place in preaching.

Cranberry Church SketchLet me close with some simple suggestions:

1. The narrative nature of the Bible and its many stories should be everywhere in our preaching and worship.

2. Those gifted in the creation of stories, dramas, literature, etc., should be set free to do so, and encouraged to share those narrative creations in appropriate places.

3. Sermons should be text-based, and text-driven. A Biblical sermon should always be about a text, based upon a text, or upon the clear use of a set of texts.

4. Illustrations should illustrate Biblical material, and never vice versa.

5. When stories begin to outweigh the Biblical story in interest, it is time for the preacher to retool until he can come to the pulpit with the power of the text on his own heart and mind, and illustrations to serve that end.

6. The sermon is not the place for excessive, indulgent pastoral story-telling. Limit personal anecdotes, even if they are popular. Use them sparingly, and do not foster the idea that a preacher enjoys talking about himself.

7. Remember that different kinds of audiences and opportunities will affect our use of stories. A children’s sermon can be an object lesson with more freedom than a sermon for the church. But remember that the children’s sermon can be an excellent illustration of a Biblical text, and can serve the purpose of Biblical preaching.

8. Do not manipulate or sentimentalize with stories. Be cautious, but prudently creative, about using stories from current media. Do not fall for the notion that these kinds of stories have an inherent power to communicate that other stories do not have. Do not use media in a way that undermines the sermon.

9. Learn the lessons of Jesus’ use of stories, but do not ever assume you have the same freedom and competence in story telling the Good News as Jesus did. Again, remember that some contexts allow more story-telling than others.

10. Don’t tell lies and exaggerations. Have someone out there who will check your stories against the truth, and who will tell you when you go off track. And if you aren’t a good story-teller, don’t force it. Use your strengths in the pulpit.

The current interest in story and narrative is a welcome addition to contemporary preaching. Learn to illustrate Biblical sermons. Have Gospel stories and Bible stories available to use whenever possible. Above all, be a faithful proclaimer of the greatest drama, tragedy, comedy and rescue story of all time. Draw your hearers in, and bring them a story whose central character will win their hearts and trust.

While an appreciation of stories is essential to understand and communicate the Bible, Biblical preaching should use stories to illustrate, not dominate, the sermon.


  1. Don’t tell lies and exaggerations. Have someone out there who will check your stories against the truth, and who will tell you when you go off track.

    This could be a post all to itself…

    • Brianthedad says

      Yes. This. I’ve heard too many Facebook shares, email forwards, talk-radio conspiracies, etc that were out and out false used as sermon illustrations. My favorite, not used in a sermon, but during a Sunday school discussion on the parable of the lost sheep: the shepherd breaking the sheets legs. Lovingly of course.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        That’s a favorite parable variant of Shepherding groups and control-freak MenaGAWD.

        Not that different from a loanshark’s “Pay Up or Break Legs”.

      • I heard that one too, many years ago. It made me sick. “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will break your kneecaps.”

      • I’ve never heard that! Was it from the “I’m doing this for your own good” standpoint, so the sheep doesn’t wander again…?! Ugh.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      +1. This is a pandemic.

  2. Michael speaks from the Evangelical world, which definitely affects this discussion. Many of these problems go away if what is called “the sermon” takes place under the lectionary umbrella, or at least should go away. There are even fewer problems if the sermon becomes the homily.

    I would agree with going back to the practice of Jesus for example. With Jesus, the proclamation of God’s Good News took five seconds: “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” This is not exactly how Michael or most people understand preaching the Gospel, to use the religious language. It was followed by a five second exhortation: “Turn your mind around and believe this good news, get ready.” Or to use religious language, repent and be baptized. Ten seconds.

    This ten second proclamation was followed by three and a half years of teaching attempting to explain just what the Kingdom of God was about. Teaching is not preaching. Michael recognizes the difference and at the same time muddles the two, as with so much of the church. Contrary to what Michael says,Jesus did teach using stories from everyday life as examples, stories not take from scripture. For the most part they were not stories or examples taken from Jesus own experience, but sometimes were when appropriate.

    The only instance I can think of where Jesus gave what could be called a sermon or homily in a liturgical setting would be where he read from Isaiah in his hometown synagogue and then commented on it. It nearly got him killed. The rest of what Jesus did might more properly be called teaching, and I don’t have a problem with someone having a teaching session as such, especially if there is opportunity for question and discussion as with Jesus. I do have a problem with someone teaching or lecturing and calling it preaching in the context of something being called worship.

    • –> “With Jesus, the proclamation of God’s Good News took five seconds…”

      Yes. And I’ve always liked Jonah’s example, too: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That was it. You could argue that it was maybe the shortest and worst sermon ever. I’ve always had the impression that Jonah did the bare minimum that God asked of him, then went up to the hillside to watch Nineveh get nuked.

      Maybe pastors/preachers should take Jesus’ and Jonah’s example. Give the bare minimum, then get off the stage and let God work. (Of course, this ignores the beatitudes and some other of Jesus’ sermons which tended to be longer…LOL.)

    • I like this.

  3. #5, Yes.
    #6, Yes.

    When half the sermon relates to aspects of the pastor’s life, time to retool!