For some preachers and congregations, storytelling is the essence of preaching. A good preacher is a good storyteller, first and foremost, and if in fact there is more to good preaching than storytelling, there certainly is not less. Fred Craddock, one of the great preaching teachers of the last hundred years, suggested storytelling just was the proper mode of preaching. (A sample of Craddock’s approach is available here). After all, Jesus is the archetype for our preaching, and he told plenty of stories.
I’ve long harbored doubts about this perspective. For a period of time, a church I was connected to regularly welcomed a famous preacher to its pulpit. His stories were legendary—I can still remember several of them, and he himself was personable and charming. His preaching, on the other hand, was flavorless. He could talk for twenty minutes and keep you interested the whole time, but he never said much of substance. I know that’s not what Craddock and others have in mind when they talk about preaching and storytelling, but even among better practitioners of the method I often come away with an impression that the stories were more memorable than the preaching.
In my own sermons, I do a fair amount of retelling the story, if it is a narrative, from the Scripture reading that is the sermon’s focus, but much more rarely do I tell an extrabiblical story. Partly this is because of my experiences of hearing storytelling-heavy sermons. Partly it is because I don’t feel like I can count on people knowing the biblical stories well enough to remember essential details after one public reading. The central reason I avoid storytelling as a rule, however, has less to do with these factors and much more to do with how the craft of storytelling tends to be practiced generally today.
In that broader arena, the core value of so much storytelling, especially nonfiction storytelling, is exposure. From celebrity tell-alls to literary memoirs, from Facebook posts to Twitter threads, revealing intimate details of one’s life sells—and is expected of almost anyone who happens to catch the limelight of pop culture news, whether intentionally or not. Headlines blare when someone “breaks his/her/their silence,” as if full (self-)disclosure was simply a matter of course in all circumstances. Whenever someone tells stories, however, more people than just the storyteller are unveiled. Family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, clients, and many others inevitably find that they have become supporting characters for someone else’s story, and parts of their own lives are also therefore disclosed to the world. This disclosure can feed into cycles of further exposure as the supporting cast issues its own hot takes or writes its own rebuttal stories to reveal details from a different perspective.
This cycle of exposure, reaction, and further exposure, in social media and publications alike, is what gives me great pause about telling stories as a preacher. It is not at all clear to me, as a human being, that because someone else’s life has intersected with my own I am therefore free to publicly reveal details of that intersection with others, certainly not without at least some implicit sense of permission from that other person. Other people are not just characters in the story of my life. And it is even less clear to me, as a preacher, that I am free to use these intersections to score homiletical points with my congregation. I guard these intersections as something sacred, part of the pastoral trust I work hard to maintain and would hate to lose for the sake of giving a slightly better sermon one week.
There are workarounds, to be sure, such as changing names and other identifying details, or allowing time to create a substantial distance between the original event of a story and the story’s audience, or drawing on stories that are already public in some way, but even these are not risk-free when the cultural appetite for exposure and disclosure is so voracious.
This is particularly true for stories involving my family, and it is at this point that I draw the hardest line. One of my two absolutely non-negotiable rules for preaching is that I never tell stories about my wife or my children (the other is that I never neglect to preach on the Song of Songs when given an opportunity). They already endure enough as a pastor’s family without needing to worry that they might end up in one of my sermons, even in a form recognizable only to themselves.
Beyond that, I practice careful discernment whenever I mentally connect a story that comes from my own life to a passage during my preaching preparation, and I do whatever I can to incorporate biblical narratives, since those are the stories I actually want people to remember.