“Jesus never taught without telling stories.” –Mark 4:34
Recently, as my wife and I ministered in a church in another state for a few days, we noticed something interesting. A senior lady in the congregation approached us several times with a story or joke. In each case, her tale was something we had heard a dozen times over fifty years. Which makes a point people might want to keep in mind when they start telling a joke or story they’ve heard to a preacher: They have heard them all. Particularly if they have been in ministry for half a century or more, they have more than likely told that story so many times they grew tired of it.
They laugh and say the same thing Johnny Carson used to say on his television show when someone told him a stale joke: “That’s funny. That’s really funny.” He didn’t laugh, but said it was funny.
Tell the preacher a story, yes, but preferably one that happened to you or of which you have personal knowledge. We love those. I still recall first-person stories told me a generation ago, because I have used them more than once.
We preachers are always in the market for a good story or great sermon illustration. We know the value of these things.
A good sermon illustration can achieve many things. It can, for instance….
–Shine some light on a difficult subject.
–Allow your congregation to rest a moment and some to catch up with you or to have time to jot down some notes. .
–Drive a point home in a round-about way.
–Defuse a volatile or inflammatory situation. When Nathan wanted to show King David what he had done by adultery with Bathsheba, he told a story. Result: he won a convert.
But not just any story will work. The story has to fit, has to be appropriate, and has to make the desired point. Many a pastor has undone the work of a sermon by a poorly chosen illustration. (But we will save that discussion for another day.)
Where does a preacher or teacher find the best illustrations? Here are my suggestions…
–Read outside your chosen field. Yesterday, in Office Depot, while waiting on an order, I looked over a bin of sale books dealing with business principles. I bought two.
–Spend an hour browsing the periodicals of your library, checking out publications you’ve never heard of.
–Subscribe to the email writings of speakers, preachers, or writers outside your denomination.
–Read old books. I just finished the autobiography of Alben Barkley, the Vice President during Truman’s administration. The man was a story-teller. Now, most of his stories are dated or even silly, but one or two are keepers.
–Pick the brain of interesting people you meet. I sat for two hours in the hospital waiting room with a deacon whose wife was in surgery and who worked during the week in Washington, D. C. as one of three commissioners with the F.D.I.C. He told me how he went from being a “lowly banker” to president of the American Bankers Association and from there to his appointment by Ronald Reagan. I came away with stories and ideas I’ve used ever since.
–Ask the sharpest people you know, “What’s the best book you’ve read lately?” Then, go buy that book. Read at least a hundred pages before deciding whether to finish it or to give it away.
–And most of all….
Read Holy Scripture. Read lots of it. Read while asking the Holy Spirit to open your mind and heart and to teach you. There are those who say the best sermon illustrations are scripture stories. My opinion is sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. A good story–no matter its source–is worth its weight in gold.
Always remember, however, never to violate a confidence. If this story arose in a counseling session, you are bound to keep It to yourself. If it happened many years and several churches ago, perhaps you can camouflage the details just enough to prevent anyone from making a connection but leaving the gist of the story intact.
And the single greatest rule for any story: Before telling it in a sermon, run it by your spouse. If he/she has a problem with it, do not use it. Period.