Preaching for youth: using stories in your sermon

This post is part of the Preaching for Youth series. Stories are a powerful tool when preaching for youth, for any audience really. People love stories, we sit up and pay attention the minute someone starts telling a story and it seems like we are wired such that we always want to know how a story ends.

Think about it, the parts everyone remembers best about the Bible are the stories. As a matter of fact, lager parts of the Bible are narratives…Daniel in the lion’s den, Samson destroying the Philistines, David and Goliath. These are powerful stories that keep us engaged till the end. And Jesus did the same thing, using stories over and over again to make his point.

Nowadays, it’s no different. Even the rowdiest teens can be silenced with a great, captivating story. Look at the popularity of TV series, they’re nothing else but a big story being told in parts. We all tune in next week because we want to know how it ends. People may have forgotten what you’re preaching about five minutes after they’ve left the church (though hopefully not!), but they’ll remember your stories.

The best stories are personal stories, things that you experienced yourself. Sharing your personal stories in your sermon has the added benefits of creating trust and likeability. Yet, the focus in your sermon should never be on you. Even when telling a personal story, it’s still about God and what He has done. Keep that in mind as you incorporate stories into your sermon.

When I spoke in the Easter service, I told the story of my visit to former concentration camp Dachau, a place where death seemed to reign. A powerful story in the context of a sermon about Jesus conquering death!

Here are three things to remember when using stories in your sermon:

Prepare your story well

If you decide to tell a story, the first thing you have to do is pick the right story. What experience from your live fits the emotion or central message you want to get across? If you want to use stories on a regular basis, starting some sort of ‘story database’ might be a good idea. You could go through your childhood photos for instance and write down any significant experience you remember. Also, write down any good story you come across. I’ve kept dozens of newspaper and magazine clippings and links to websites and I’ve written down a lot of good stories I heard or read.

There are hundreds, thousands of sermon illustrations out there and some of them may be absolutely perfect for your story. So sure, use them. Just be honest. Don’t tell the story like you’ve experienced it yourself when you haven’t and don’t change any facts just because they suit your purpose better. Let the story speak for itself and if it can’t, find another. Try not to use the same stories over and over again. People remember stories better than anything, so even if you’ve told one years ago, chances are that folks will remember it.

When you have picked the right story, take the time to think about how you are going to tell it. What details will you include and which will you leave out? As I read in a blog post by Steve Taylor on this same subject: “A jotted note “tell story of falling off bike”, is bound to include extraneous details that can obscure the point and waste the listeners time.” Good preparations will prevent this. How will you segue into the story, what will be your opening sentence and how will you end it? What is the key message or the central emotion you want communicate?

Telling a story should never be a goal in itself, it should always serve the purpose of getting your key message across. So even in telling a story, there should be a focus towards the central message. Feel free to leave out any details that bog the story down or that take away from its message.

Time your story well

If you use more than one story in a sermon, spread them out a bit, for instance one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end. It’s better not to use your best story as your sermon introduction, because you still have 20-40 minutes ahead of you and how are you going to keep your audience’s attention after that? Also, avoid starting with very emotional or ‘heavy’ stories. Never forget that stories can stir up powerful emotions in people! You don’t want the emotional peak of your audience to come too fast, too soon. Also, usually you’ll need some time to get the audience to get to know you, to like you and to decide to trust you. Then you can drop the heavy bombs on them…

Tell your story well

The way a story is told can make a big difference in its impact, but not everyone is a born storyteller. If you know you’re not, practice telling a story the right way. Listen to folks who are good at this and analyze what they do. How do they use their voice? How does their volume, pace, tone change within the different phases of the story? Just keep practicing until you get it right.

Also, don’t forget to end your story. I’ve sat through a sermon once wondering when the preacher was going to end her story. She had started to tell this amazing and interesting story about her experiences as a pastor in prison involving a specific inmate, but she didn’t finish it. All through the sermon, I was waiting for her to pick up the story again and finish it, but she never did. It left me with a very unsatisfying feeling. When you tell a story, it can be very effective to cut it in two and end the story at the end of your sermon. Just make sure you do end it, don’t leave your audience dangling, hungry for more.

How do you use stories in your sermons? Where do you get the inspiration for your stories? Do you ever use ‘prepackaged’ sermon illustrations?

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