It’s always a tricky thing in preaching to talk about life experience and stories in preaching. For some in the pews a story from someone’s life is what will first catch their attention. For others, they want you to teach them a new Greek word and explain the first century context. Most pastor’s are fully on board with telling stories. We know that stories connect with hearers in a similar way to how Jesus told parables as a way to appeal to the hearts of listeners.
As preachers who faithfully proclaim the story of scripture and the stories of the world we find ourselves in, we must ask: what is the purpose of life experience within the context of preaching? In other words, why do we have life experience?
Frederick Buechner writes, “If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that he speaks to us largely through what happen to us…” He writes this in the introduction to his memoir, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation in many ways to support the entire text. He writes how, in writing the memoir, he sought to let his life experiences wash over him and thus, his readers, so that all might listen for the most important voice of all: God.
It is because God speaks to us through what happens to us that we come to find ourselves swept up into the work that God has always been doing throughout the story of scripture and history: the inbreaking of good news. Paul Scott Wilson says that this inbreaking results in a transformation of our language within the sermon. “We do not hedge our words with hesitancy and tentativeness, by saying, “I believe” or “I think,” for the focus is not the preacher, and the force of the Word is proclamation. We are also unable to speak about a personal God in impersonal ways, about the love of God in unfeeling ways, about the actions of God as though they themselves are passive.” God comes to us in the midst of our very lives, breaks in, and sets up shop. There really is no purely objective way to speak about this kind of personal God.
We know no other God besides the one who uses the mundane ordinary moments of our life to speak. These “slices of life”, when used authentically within the sermon, should have verisimilitude, that is “the lifelike imitation of reality such that what is told resonates with the listeners’ experience as being true.” Wilson goes on to remind preachers that we are presenting two kinds of reality within the sermon: present life as people might know it, and life as it is true when seen from the perspective of faith.
The following are some ways that we can practice telling stories of life that connect with both realities and resonate with our listeners.
Wilson suggests that the challenge for preachers is not in finding the stories, but in knowing how to use them for theological purposes. He offers the following theological categories to help preachers recognize a particular story’s purpose: God’s judgement, the human condition, Christ’s suffering and crucifixion, God’s forgiveness, God’s overturning the world, God using people.
Let’s use the following brief story as an example for analysis. As you read it, ask yourself: What is the conflict? What is the plot? What metaphor is being employed? What is a possible central idea for the sermon? How could I deliver this story with passion?
“I stepped up to the Wal-Mart customer service line and sighed. There were at least a dozen people in front of me and only one associate making returns.
A girl stood in front me with a young man, presumably her boyfriend. She was visibly agitated and talking on her cell phone while her boyfriend placed a hand on her arm intermittently to comfort her. Not wanting to eavesdrop, I awkwardly tried to avert my attention, but the customer service area did not provide much alternative. Her voice rose and I learned she was speaking to her father. It was clear that their relationship was strained. At one poignant moment of the conversation she sharply said into the phone, “I don’t want anything from you…No, I don’t need stuff. What do I want? I just want you to be my dad. I want to spend time with you and I want you to want to spend time with me. I just want you to be my dad.”
Story-telling, whether from your life experience, the news, or history provides a rich opportunity to remind our listeners that God is found in the midst of our lives. Through our story-telling, faithful preaching will affirm the lived present experience, but also transform it by properly situating it within the life of a God who is breaking into our world.
 Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, (San Fransisco, CA: HarperSanFransisco, 1991), 3.
 Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 263-264.
 Ibid, 265.
 Ibid, 267.
 Ibid, 268-269
 Ibid, 271
Leanne Ketcham is an ordained pastor in The Wesleyan Church since 2014. She is a graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University in 2012 and Princeton Theological Seminary in 2017. She is a doctoral candidate at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto for homiletics. Leanne was deeply shaped by her time as an associate pastor at a church plant in the Mountain Plains District, as well as an assistant pastor at a Methodist church revitalization during seminary. She is passionate about local churches and Christians being the incarnate hope of Jesus
in their neighborhoods through proclamation of all kinds. Her doctoral research is focused on new worshipping communities and how church plants and other forms of new worshipping communities relate to the world around them particularly through the practice of preaching. Leanne has been married to Andrew since 2012. Together they share one fluffy, silly goldendoodle, many moves and adventures, and a whole lot of grace.
Wesleyans are doers. We always have been, starting with John Wesley himself. The whole of his life’s work staggers the mind. Wesleyans have followed his example through history. In the years since Wesley there have been revivals to preach, churches to plant, missions to open and always more work to be done. Yes, Wesleyans are doers, and that has been a good thing for the Kingdom as untold lives have been impacted for Christ’s sake. Wesleyan preaching has played a large role in this Kingdom work.
As great as it is to have the worker/doer gene built into our Wesleyan DNA, it has sometimes caused us Wesleyan preachers to place too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace. Instead of always making God the subject of our preaching, we sometimes have made it human responsibility. Instead of preaching about God’s amazing grace and the work of the Holy Spirit empowering heart transformation, we sometimes preached about effort and the will to overcome. In the past these ideas sometimes manifested as a focus in preaching that might be seen as legalistic. “If you want to be holy then don’t (insert your sin here)! If you want to be holy then make sure you start (insert religious action here)!” I’ve heard many sermons like this that equate being Godly with things I do or don’t do. With enough willpower I can be the holy person God wants me to be.
Sometimes placing too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace produces sermons that reduce the biblical narrative to moralistic tales with humanity as the subject. “If you want to be a good Christian, then be more like David.” “If you want to be a soul-winner then just love people like the Apostle Paul did.” In the story of David and Goliath, David is the hero because he stood up to a giant, instead of God being the hero who empowered him to act and who brought about the victory for Israel. In a sermon about soul winning like the Apostle Paul, we might reduce his ministry to action steps, that if simply duplicated will bring duplicate results.
Sermons that emphasize human responsibility over God’s grace might have titles like, “Five Ways to be a Soul Winner” or “How to Live a Successful Christian Life” or “Six Ways to be a Leader like Moses.” Don’t get me wrong, these might make excellent sermons and they might be greatly needed in a congregation. Yet if we are not careful, this kind of preaching can be unbalanced in its scope when it reduces holiness and discipleship to action steps and “how-to” guides. We must share the “how” as preachers, but even “how” cannot leave out “why” and “whom” if we want to avoid works-righteousness.
Preaching with imbalance between grace and responsibility instead of empowering people to live in the light of God’s love and leading them towards a Holy Spirit empowered holiness can foster a sense of failure. This failure can lead to a sense of hopelessness, a fear that holiness is not even possible. Consider this: If I preach that people can please God by conducting themselves a certain way, or shunning certain activities, and the people I preach to still struggle and fail after trying to keep those rules, they might be led to the conclusion that true holiness of heart and life is impossible on this side of heaven. I have reduced holiness to human willpower and I might as well tell people who are struggling in their faith to just try harder. Master preaching professor, Paul Scott Wilson, says that “many preachers persist in preaching messages that proclaim our condemnation as humans, for they sentence us to the limitations of our own accomplishments.”[i] If we preach messages that reduce holiness and Christian living to simply doing or not doing things, then we risk becoming what Wilson describes as preachers who “preach as though the resurrection of Christ makes no difference in the world.”[ii]
But the resurrection of Christ makes all the difference. Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith, not human will. I am encouraging us as Wesleyan preachers to focus our preaching more on grace and less on human responsibility — to always make the work of God the subject of our sermons.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute! We are Wesleyan and that means we believe that somehow in the great mystery of salvation God has given humanity freewill. God has given us a part to play in the process.” You are absolutely right! God does give us a role to play, and doesn’t force his will on our lives. The grace of God doesn’t mean that, whether we want it or not, God pours holiness on us. Even though we know that salvation isn’t earned with works, what Christ has done for us and in us will result in action and life change. What’s more, there will often be things that Christians should do, and certain things they probably shouldn’t do. We should keep preaching that.
Hold on, you might be asking, “If we should focus our preaching on the grace of God, making God the subject of our preaching, and God somehow has also given us a level of responsibility in our faith, didn’t you just contradict yourself? Do you want us to preach grace or responsibility?” In a word, YES. We should preach both, but the difference is that we should never preach the latter without grounding it in the former. Do not preach responsibility without first preaching the grace of God that makes it possible. Even then, make sure responsibility itself is laced with grace. God is the one who starts our faith and God is the one who perfects it. He empowers it and makes it possible. If I preach about specific ways people can act on the sermon I should first preach about how God’s grace makes that response possible. If I preach on God’s call to holiness I must first preach of how holiness begins with God — we’re only holy because he is first holy and we can only hope to ever be like God through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s consider a few ways that we might become preachers who preach grace, making God the subject of the sermon:
Whether you use one of these or other books like them, or simply take the time to reexamine your preaching and its focus, you’ll find that preaching that concentrates on grace and makes God the subject of the sermon will result in God’s empowerment and encouragement in those you preach to.
[i] Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 21.
[ii] Wilson, 21.
[iii] Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).
[iv] Lenny Luchetti, Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012).
Mark Schnell has been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church since 1994 and has served in various roles in churches in Michigan, Indiana and the eastern shore of Maryland. He is currently finishing his doctorate in homiletics and regularly serves as an adjunct professor of homiletics and proclamation at Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary. He’s been married to Sharie for over twenty-four years and is Dad to Kate (12) and CJ (6).
Preacher: Amber Livermore
Sermon Title: The Call
Amber Livermore is the lead pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Princeton, Indiana. This sermon, however, was given as a part of Brookhaven Wesleyan’s “On Mission” series, where she spoke about the call of God on our lives.
Below are some of her preaching patterns that caused us to highlight this sermon.
Great vocal inflection is fine-tuned passion.
One of the primary reasons that Pastor Amber has great vocal inflection is because she is passionate about what she is communicating. That does not mean she maintains a consistently loud volume. She varies her tone, conveying truth with tone in a way that fits what she is trying to say in that moment. Good vocal inflection often starts with passion, but must be fine-tuned as we gain experience as preachers. Her vocal inflection used during her introduction plays a major role in engaging her audience well. She hooks them early and this vocal inflection certainly helped grab our attention, which she maintained with continued inflection.
She helps us find our place.
During the sermon, Pastor Amber sets up a list of ways in which the congregation might fit into the puzzle she describes that sweeps each listener up into the sermon. All are asked to respond to the call of God at the end. In doing both of these things she helps us find our place in this message. Throughout this sermon, she compels people to find their place in the story of God and describes how we can do so. If our congregation is unsure where they fit into the story we tell, unsure of how they might respond or unsure if this sermon is relevant to their lives, they will likely forget it. The most unfortunate thing is not that they forget our words (which are just tools used to bring a message) but that they have missed an opportunity to hear from God and respond back to Him.
She preaches from conviction to conviction
Anointing is a word that we should not throw around lightly. It cannot be earned, and is not easily discerned. Young preachers in particular often label the passionate or the powerful personality “anointed” only to be disappointed deeply by the flaws and clay feet of the real preacher over time. Something much easier to sense, to experience, and to name is conviction. This is a sense of conviction that something is true and that the truth bears weight upon the preacher and the listener. The preacher stands under the conviction of the sermon, yet speaks with authority to all in such a way that there are only two choices: respond with conviction, or harden against conviction. Amber presses forward with conviction in a way that does not leave the preacher behind, and refuses to leave a listener behind either.
We can learn much from Amber’s preaching, but here are a few things we can practice this week to hone our preaching effectiveness.
Preacher: Craig Rees
Sermon Title: Divine Intelligence (link to video)
Craig Rees is the lead pastor at Central Wesleyan Church. In a series called Impoverished (their Lent series), he speaks about Divine Intelligence as the intelligence of God beyond human understanding, and yet given to us by God. Craig is a great communicator. Here are a few things we can learn form him.
When it’s beneficial, talk about the original language.
As preachers, we should look at the original languages with whatever capacity we have been able to acquire. Things can and do (literally) get lost in translation. This does not mean, however, that we need to explicitly talk about it every week. Greek and Hebrew are not the worlds in which our congregations live. However, doing so from time to time can be eye-opening, as it is in this passage. When the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “What do I still lack?,” the word lack implies a certain kind of impoverishment. It can be translated, “to suffer need,” and implies missing out on what is vital. In a word: impoverished. That’s a much stronger word and more loudly calls attention to the reality at hand; this man though rich and religious is empty. That strong disconnect is better realized through the tone of language that Craig discovered in the Greek. Often the tone of the Greek or Hebrew is what is lost in the word-for-word or thought-for-thought translations we have in our versions. For those without strong language capacity, use free sites like biblehub.com to access the alternate meanings, and perhaps most importantly, connotations or feelings connected to the original words.
Use creative audience participation.
In a metaphor about the changing lens that Scripture can give us, Pastor Craig Rees simulates a virtual reality scenario and asks an audience member to come up to participate in this with him. This served to give the audience a visible and engaging example about the worlds we hide ourselves away in, compared with the augmented reality glasses that kept us in the real world but changed how we looked at it. This demonstration would have taken time and careful preparation to make this happen. This metaphor was one that not only served the sermon, but was one the audience could (and likely would) take with them—it was memorable and engaging.
Call them higher.
People respond to the level to which they are called. Craig Rees does not shy away from calling his congregation to big things. Calling people to greater spiritual responsibility and engagement can result in powerful eternal dividends. Sometimes we hesitate to ask people for a big response, afraid that we’ll scare them away. Perhaps that will be the case with some, but for many others the opposite will occur. They will dig in and take the challenge you give them. Who knows? They might even exceed it, and God may use it beyond what you can imagine. That sounds like God, doesn’t it? One of the things Craig Rees challenged his congregation to a fast, one of the spiritual disciplines we like to often ignore. This, however, could prove to be powerful in the life of his congregation.
To grow in your sermon development, try these few tips: