Have you ever sat down for coffee or a meal with someone with the intent not simply to eat or drink, but to discuss matters pertaining to work or responsibilities or some such matter? It’s hard to judge what both parties feel is peripheral and what should be in focus. The food? The person before me? The task at hand? Remember the times when that other person launched into the discussion (though it felt more lecture-like in the moment) fully dismissive of the location or peripherals, like the food or drink? Sometimes they might even seem dismissive of you, almost as if your presence at the meeting was inconsequential. It feels terrible and changes how we learn and work, doesn’t it?
I’ve been guilty of this approach and then wondered why I didn’t see results from those kinds of meetings. I had neglected, to the meeting’s detriment, to see the other before me and invite them into a hospitable environment. I didn’t use every advantage. No “How are you today?”, no “I’ve been meaning to tell you about this moment that reminded me of you.”, no “have I got a good story for you!”, no “Let me buy you this muffin.” Ever wondered if your sermons can feel like that?
“To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other. A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as a myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who did not think much about it… We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.” (Lewis, Myth Became Fact)
Over the years I’ve increased the number of stories I tell in sermons. Early in ministry I tended to spent much more time on historical and cultural context, explication of doctrine and a great deal of other boring matters to the average listener. Do not misunderstand me. I am not asserting these matters are trivial, just that they might seem trivial or uninteresting to some listeners. But I persisted in those first few years, misunderstanding, even inwardly belittling, the point of stories and illustrative tools within sermons. In my defence, I had good reason to.
I had witnessed many a sermon go the way of a comedy routine, or heard illustrations that simply didn’t fly, and worried I’d end up trivializing the Gospel. Over preparation is also a problem for young preachers as we’re so worried we’ll miss something important we end up cramming a sermon full of study and detail, many things the listener need not be concerned with and does little to achieve the purposes of preaching. I was also taught, though I’m not sure how or by whom, that a story or illustrative tool was an add on, an explanatory device attached to unpack the lesson for the simple folk amongst us. Obviously the truly thoughtful Christian had already understood and applied the sermon before I finished up with a dumbed down version of the main lesson via “my little story”. Even worse, I was taught that a story or illustration at the beginning of the sermon was a “hook” – something to grab the audience and keep them somewhat interested in the tedious Gospel – as if the Gospel itself needed “livening up”.
A story or illustrative tool should never be a hook or tag on. The best use of such devices (and I’m apprehensive to even use that word) is with complete awareness that the story or tool must totally embody and explain the passage or point with heart and clarity. As Lewis encourages, we should look to such moments in effort to appeal to the “savage, the child, and the poet in each of us” as much as we appeal to the other manners of thought. We can’t get carried away, of course. No one has ever questioned if Lewis worshiped Jesus or Aslan, but he certainly felt it appropriate to expound on both in appropriate literary settings for the benefit of his various readers.
As pastors, when we embrace imagination we recognize and release our God-given longing to create, connect and welcome fellow humans to sit at tables and enter gardens full of truth and life. Tell good stories that lead to The Greatest One.