In Defense of Storytelling

“Our preacher doesn’t preach the Bible, he just tells stories.”  “All he does is use a few verses, and the rest of the time he tells stories.”  “In recent years, Bible preaching has given way to storytelling.”

These are all complaints that I have sometimes heard brethren make.  In fact, just yesterday, I read an article decrying how storytelling has been substituted for preaching.  As I have considered these complaints, I realize that there was a time when I may have offered the same critique.  However, through the years, my view of preaching has changed some.  As I now see it, I believe some have created a false dichotomy of either “preaching the Bible” or “storytelling.”

Whatever made some of us think that storytelling somehow stands in contrast with preaching the Bible?  Instead, why wouldn’t one view storytelling as a way of proclaiming the truths contained in the Bible?

In fact, the Bible is a story; God’s story.  It’s a story of his creation, man’s fall, and God’s redemptive plan.  No one  better understood the power of a well told story than did Jesus.  In fact, the preaching that Jesus did was primarily in the form of storytelling  (i.e. parables – Matthew 13:3,10,34).  Would any among us be so presumptuous as to censor Jesus for his style of preaching?

It was through the story of a “good Samaritan” that Jesus taught the biblical truth about “who our neighbor is.  It was through the stories of a lost coin, a lost sheep, and a lost son that Jesus taught us how much God values us.  It was through the story of a rich man building bigger barns that he taught us the importance of priorities.  It was through the story of several foolish virgins that Jesus taught us to be prepared for his return.  And the list could go on and on.

You see, storytelling doesn’t stand in contrast with biblical preaching.  Rather it is the communication style most often chosen by the greatest preacher this world has ever known. Good preaching and storytelling go hand in hand.  Be honest with yourself.  Are not the sermons you remember best, sermons that employed storytelling or captivating illustrations?

How did Jesus use the Old Testament (his Bible) in his preaching?  Did he mostly go verse by verse, parsing significant words in a passage?  No.  Did frequently string verse after verse together to offer proof texts for a single point he was making?  No.  Did he feel compelled to meet some minimum requirement of Scripture references in order to be called a “Bible Preacher?” Apparently not, for the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest recorded sermon, had only six references to Old Testament passages.

Am I saying that parsing chapters, verses, and even words is the wrong way to preach?  No.  Am I saying that offering a string of proof texts to support your conclusion is wrong?  Of course not.  Am I saying that filling your sermon with countless Scripture references is wrong?  No.  What I’m saying is preaching like Jesus is right, and Jesus was a storyteller!

Friends, read carefully.  I’m not defending stories that don’t illustrate truth; stories that are told just for the sake of humor; or stories that actually detract from the biblical text.  I’m talking about stories that illustrate truth, that help us to grasp the meaning of a passage, that help make biblical truths burn in our memory, and that help persuade us to walk closer with the Lord.  Sometimes “a” story can help one grasp “the” story.

Storytelling or biblical preaching is not an “either or” proposition.  Faithful, Bible preaching can be accomplished through several styles.  If styles differ but the truth is upheld, rejoice and give thanks that God’s will was communicated.

Before we offer our next critique of someone’s sermons or preaching style, maybe we ought to reevaluate the standard by which we are judging them.  The measure of a sermon is not how many Scripture references are used, whether the sermon is topical, textual, or expository, whether it’s conversational or oratorical, or whether or not it employs stories and illustrations.  The measure of a sermon is…

  1. Does it accurately represent the mind of God?
  2. Does it meet the needs of the people?
  3. Does it call people to conform and surrender their lives to Jesus?
  4. Is it spoken in love?

These, in my judgment, are the real marks of a good sermon.  What do you think?

Tell me the story of Jesus,
Write on my heart every word.
Tell me the story most precious,
Sweetest that ever was heard. — Fanny J. Crosby


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Comments 10

  • Steve: You are exactly on target. This is not an “either/or” situation, but just a willingness to keep an open mind on all matters, including how the preacher makes his point. Thanks for your insights.

    Tom Butterfield

  • Well said, Steve.

  • May we all be great tellers of “the Story.” Thanks, Steve.

  • Steve, right on target as usual. I have a habit of counting scriptures and believing (in my own mind)”now that was a gospel sermon!” But, when I read the “story” of the women at the well…..well Jesus changed her life, not so much by scripture, but His life. He was willing to do what others would not. The “Rest Of The Story”…the whole town was witnessed to through her conviction. You are right my friend…appreicate your insight.

  • Thank you Steve. Those were some excellent thoughts!

  • Steve, this is an excellent article on story preaching, or story-telling in preaching. I will be sharing this. Thanks. WB

  • There is nothing wrong with telling stories. The problem comes when the authority is the experience rather than the scripture.Usually that is what is the complaint is.

  • Well said, Steve. I imagine the fellow asking the question was fed up with what might be called, “after dinner speeches” where little Biblical truth is conveyed. Just a guess. But you are absolutely correct: it is not one of those “either/or” propositions, but both. We need to be well-rounded, versatile, flexible, and timely, in our preaching. Thanks for the thoughts and the reminder.

  • I like this and agree with it. As long as the message tells who God is, what God has done, and what God expects of us, then it is a good gospel sermon. Keep up the good work.

  • There is a vast difference in a story used to illustrate timeless Biblical truth and “a Preacher’s Story”. Steve you are absolutely right in what you have said. It is laudable that some would want preachers to stay more Biblicaly grounded but in our discourse too much text is distracting at times especially when the text is yanked out of context. A while back I was taken to task by a visiting lady from another congregation. She was absolutely appalled that during our Sunday School Adult class that we did not even open the Bible. To my embarrassment she was quite vocal about this. So upset was she that she did not even bother to notice the book that we were studying, Dave Miller’s “Piloting the Straight!” Well it takes all kinds I guess.

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