Stories (again)

Apologies up front – this is very much a ‘thinking out loud’ blog entry and may well descend into a bit of a rant. You have been warned! Even so, I’d appreciate your thoughts.

On Sunday I was leading the whole service and the choice of hymns, reading, sermon, etc was entirely mine. Over Advent we have spent a bit of time in Luke’s gospel and finished off towards the end of Luke chapter 2. I decided to pick up from that point and deal with a passage that isn’t (in my experience) covered very often – the incident of Jesus, as a boy, doing a bunk from the family group and being found in the Temple. I felt it fitted well with a Ne Year start as I believe the passage does a number of things, including giving a glimpse of Jesus’ future life, ministry and purpose but also leaving us with a challenge also very appropriate for the beginning of a new year and a new session – where would we expect to find Jesus if we went looking for Him?

OK, so that’s the background and now here’s the rant.

I received a comment that the sermon was a bit too ‘Bible-study’ and I think this harks back to the issue of story-telling. Basically, I didn’t weave much in the way of anecdotes into the sermon. Quite simply, I didn’t have any – at least none that made any contextual sense. Yes I have kids but I’ve never ‘lost’ them for several days and, quite frankly, that’s not the point of the passage. I could have spoken about the importance of being in church regularly but that would be to utterly miss the point. Precocious children? Possibly, but again, not the issue.

This passage is utterly focused on Jesus – His self-understanding, His mission and His purpose – and here is the root of my issue with stories and anecdotes. They’re not about Jesus! (Warning – rant time) I love theology. I love Biblical interpretation. My narrow-mindedness struggles to understand why others don’t love it too. I don’t need/want other stories to chew over – the ones from scripture are ‘chewy’ enough. And here’s another point – they’re not made up stories! People like hearing anecdotes because it makes things more ‘real’ for them. What!? The Bible isn’t ‘real’ enough? I think we often forget that the stories we read in scripture are real people, dealing with real situations. Even the metaphorical passages and the myths/sagas have real people behind them struggling with the real issue of making sense of God and of faith. How much more ‘real’ do you need?

I also think there’s a more subtle, insidious undercurrent to this as well. I think there is an element of “don’t explain the passage to me, just tell me what to think”. I hate doing this. I would much rather do a ‘Bible study’ approach, give people the pertinent details, point out the subtleties, the nuances, the allusions and let them start thinking for themselves (or, more importantly, begin thinking things through prayerfully and seeking the Spirit’s guidance).

OK, for this passage I simply couldn’t come up with a vaguely pertinent anecdote or personal story. Maybe that’s not an excuse and maybe my negative reaction is a defensive response to a criticism that makes me wonder if I tried hard enough during preparation. It also doesn’t mean I don’t see the value of stories – in their place.

I have also been wondering about another aspect of this. I claim to love theology and Bible study but when I deliver from the pulpit I suspect it comes across as dry and academic. I’ve spoken to people about theology and they’ve commented that they can tell I’m passionate about it. Maybe that’s part of what I need to be doing – passing on that passion.

I do think that the ‘stories’ we have in scripture are more than adequate and that they really don’t need to be augmented with lesser anecdotes. I do think that people need to be led into really thinking about them, seeing them as ‘real’ and relevant, not just as dusty history or dry theology. I was also told that my job is to ‘sell the message’. I don’t agree – the message is there for people to take to themselves in the power of the Spirit, not me. Charismatic preaching often lasts only as long as the charismatic teacher. When we learn to read and understand for ourselves we rely only on our relationship with God. We undoubtedly need others to bounce our understanding off and to provide the checks and balances for our own interpretation, but we should not be relying on others to tell us what to think.

I suppose, if nothing else, it all gives me a sense of what sort of ministry I would see myself in. But, of course, that’s not to suggest I’ll be given that luxury.

OK, rant over, for the moment. As you were.

11 responses to “Stories (again)”

  1. Well I totally appreciate your ‘bible study’ approach. Your sermon was filled with relevant content and was challenging at the same time. (I also overheard some positive comments about it being challenging) I have to say I get irritated by overuse of empty anecdotes. I think they can be a useful tool to personalise the sermons and perhaps make them seem more relevant  to the listener, and can also make the sermons more entertaining hence keeping the listeners attention. Within a weekly context though I think a more academic approach is the way to go. I want to leave with more knowledge about God and his message and how I can apply it to my life. If I am told how to live my life I want it backed up by scripture.  If it isn’t I find myself questioning the sermon. I too love Theology – I wish I’d taken it as a Degree. My R.S Degree was much more World Religions and New Agey. (Although very interesting)
    I actually think we need more bible study in Church. I always want to dig deeper, but even the bible study discussion groups tend to gloss over the scriptures and turn into chit chat. Ho hum!
    Anyway, Don’t be  too discouraged by negative comments. Often people are more ready to criticize than to compliment! I do it all the time…..good hymns by the way!

  2. Thanks Mary,

    I also got supportive comments so I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it was entirely negative. In truth, the ‘bible study’ comment wasn’t really intended in a negative way either, but I picked up on it in the context of my previous reflections on this issue. This post was really intended as a way of thinking through some of the issues, not as a swipe at how people heard my service.

  3. In my opinion, it is far better to err on the side of too much exposition. However, I also believe that application is important. Whether through anecdotes or not (because both are possible), a preacher should not only explain a bible passage, but point it at the heart of their congregation. I agree, though, that if anecdotes are not expositing or applying scripture, then they are of little use.

  4. John, we both know that not every sermon should have the same approach: some texts are much more suited to delivering within a narrative context, others more to almost sitting there with your bibles going verse by verse working through the text, and others lend themselves to being split over the course of worship into smaller mini-sermons, and of course not forgetting the old 3-point alliterative sermon as well! 🙂
    I believe at Princeton students of homiletics are pretty much drilled in ‘start the sermon off with a personal humorous anecdote/ a wee joke’ approach.  All very well but you do end up with a congregation pretty much trained to laugh politely at the wee intro. almost automatically.  A friend of mine was doing a pulpit swap with a minster who does use the ‘wee funny starter’… She began preaching and at the finish of the intro, the congregation laughed… however, she hadn’t done the ‘warm up funny’, she was being perfectly serious!  They were laughing because they were used to laughing at that point in the sermon.  Are empty anecdotes really the way to go… I don’t think so either – and while Jesus did a great line in humour and story-telling it was with the purpose of pointing to the message, not distracting from the message.  The difficulty is, as you point out, when the anecdote becomes the master and not the servant….

  5. I agree with what’s already been said. When I listen to sermons I like the anecdotes if they are appropriate. If not, why bother? Yes, it may lighten the mood, but does that get the congregation thinking – really understanding the bible and how it relates to their life? If the anecdote does that, use it. If not, don’t.
    Perhaps the person saying this to you is trying to get a reaction to make you really think why you don’t use anecdotes all the time. It may be they approve, but are challenging your thinking – making you really appreciate (and think) about your style. By the sounds of things, if that is their mission, it’s worked. But you have obviously thought through the comment and concluded how you’d approached the sermon was appropriate for the passage. Just remember that when challenged again. And remember the positive comments too.
    At least the commments you’re getting aren’t just the “nice sermon” type, as they aren’t constructive at all.

  6. It would have been appreciated at you-know-where, where anything other than a “bible study” is not welcomed by the vociferous few. At least that comment is better than the “nice sermon, minister” which is no help to anyone. Also, it wasn’t an essay, which is what my “bible study” sermons turn towards.
    I do think you were probably right in this instance – the story telling can be overdone for passages like this, and we need to get behind it. The Women at the well is another one which has dangers of becoming a story as is the temple cleansing. The Bible tells us more than what is apparent in these! Chin up – one man’s meat etc, or you can’t please all the people..etc and other cliches. Good thoughts wending your way.

  7. All good comments…. For some people the anecdote is the only doorway they have to get at the theology. I appreciate hearing the occasionally straight interpretation sermon and have done so every so often. However, when it becomes a theological treatise I look for ways to make it practical for me, and that will involve an anecdote of some kind. 
    I know you love theology and I got a real sense of the passion you have for it. I also know that you have a real desire for people to have a close relationship with their Saviour and ours. As Mrs G points out above, if anecdotes get the people really thinking and understanding, then use the stories. Bear in mind that some folks are not quite ready for the theology and need to be prepped for it to take hold.
    It begs the question as to what level sermons should be pitched at. I think I’m erring towards the lowest common denominator but not going quite that far. I want as mant people to move along the spiritual road with me and not lose too many on the way. Does that make sense ?  

  8. Thanks for all the comments folks.

    I think I may have given a slightly false impression of my reaction to this particular comment. It came in the context of welcome, useful and constructive criticism (in the proper sense of the word). I didn’t see it as an isolated negative comment but it was made simply as an observation about this particular sermon. The last one I delivered was considerably more ‘anecdotal’ – because it lent itself to that style (and because I wanted to experiment). The observation triggered off a number of reflections about why I approach things the way I do and why I prefer the style I do. Anyone who knows me knows that I am quite self-critical (again in the ’rounded’ sense, not in the sense of doing myself down) and like to think through why I am the way I am and how I might change or broaden my experience and knowledge. (It’s why I am a bit of a fanboy of the current manifestation of the candidates’ training/formation process.)

    David, I know we’ve discussed the ‘level’ before and I still struggle a little with pitching it ‘down there’. I have no issue with explaining theological or faith issues in simpler terms, but for a sermon on a deeply theological passage then I’d probably want to pitch it a little higher. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all sermons need to be dealing with deep theology and where the context/content is more about encouragement or ‘lifestyle’ then the more anecdotal approach is unquestionably correct. It also means that the deep theology shouldn’t be avoided simply to avoid losing people.

  9. I completely agree about deep theology not being avoided. My concern would be that I am trying to lead as many as possible forward and don’t want any left behind. On the other hand, (and I can hear you saying this to me) spiritual growth can only happen when people are stretched a little and this always risks some missing out. It’s a pastoral balancing act and ultimately it’s down to how the Spirit leads at a given moment.
    On a wider thought… maybe we can pick up on what some of the biffer US churches do by way of congregational education and run ‘academies’ where people can explore matters at a deeper level. Churches can work together (in the Church of Scotland ???) to provide such academies by pooling resources and colleagues might be encouraged to take part not just leading but learning too.

  10. David,

    That would be my ideal and, if not ‘academies’, at least a sort of ‘house group plus’. I am all for better education, even if it’s only to veer us away from the fundamentalism that is found in the ‘just tell me what to think’ camp (that’s a tongue-in-cheek remark aimed firmly at someone who suggested my strong Biblical focus simply meant I was a closet evangelical – you know who you are!).


    My apologies – in the flurry of replies I forgot to welcome you to my blog. Thank you for your contribution as well. And I very much like your expression that the sermon should be aimed at the heart of the congregation. It’s only then that it becomes truly relevant and no number of anecdotes will overcome a sermon that has no relevance or applicability to those who would hear it.

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