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.
- When we tell stories in conversation, they are nuanced with gestures, volume, and vocal expression. When we preach, these small nuances that would be picked up in a conversation need to be amplified in order for them to carry out to the hearer. The basics of delivery will include breath support, pace, gesture, emphasis, among other elements. A good delivery will be said in the authentic voice of the preacher, with passion so as to inhabit the retelling of the story. Often preachers miss this in a couple of ways. First, some tell the story as if in the same voice as they gave they are more preachy content a moment before. To preach the same elevation of tone and passion while telling a story as you do when you make a point is to undo one of the greatest effects of the story: a change of tone and pace that feels personal. Second, Some preachers tell a story flatly as though they didn’t experience it, or are just now reading it out of a book. To tell a story with flat tone, demeanor and facial expression robs the story of its interest and contradicts what a story is supposed to make us feel, that you authentically understand life.
- Character and Plot. Inherent to every story is conflict which is the essence of character and plot development. In order for a story to resonate as true for a listener, characters should be presented as human. They should be made up with the same stuff as you and the listener: light, darkness, sin, redemption, etc. When we tell the story, start in the middle of the action to draw the listener in. Then, develop conflict between the character and their actions leading into a crisis moment. The story should end with a climax or answer. Start in the middle to create interest right away. Instead of saying let me tell you a story about A farmer I know. Instead say “John was out late in the evening driving by the lights of his tractor trying to bring the harvest in before the coming storm. It wasn’t just his harvest that was on the line, his farm was too.”
- Pay Attention. If you find yourself digging into previous sermons to use your tried and true story or illustration, it may be time to stretch yourself to find some new options. Your life experience, arts, and the news can all serve as sources for stories. Instead of googling to find a story, we can act as a reporter who is alert to their surroundings. If you have your exegesis done soon enough, then you can walk through life paying attention to stories as they emerge. You can also spend time sitting, thinking, contemplating, and trying to remember a time when you experienced this principle. Even better, it gives you time to recall stories from others lives’ that you have witnessed or heard. The testimonies of the people we know spoken through our mouths can be powerful vehicles for the Gospel.
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.