The Four Types of Stories in Worship and Preaching

D uring the period where I thought I was going to play saxophone for a living, I took lessons from a local pro. She taught me to consider individual phrases (a phrase being a single breath, used to play a series of connected notes) as miniature musical lines that when strung together created a single meta-line that formed the song. Here is a single phrase:

 

 

Each circled pencil area indicates a single phrase. Phrases form lines, and lines form the song (complete with old collegiate coffee stain):

 

 

Notice how the phrases are musical on their own, but work together, sequentially, to form a song.

In the same way, in a well composed story, a set of smaller narratives work on their own, yet come together to tell a single larger narrative.

In worship and preaching, you can connect a set of stories to communicate a single larger story, or theme: one thing using the screen, another with spoken word, another with music.

The key is that each smaller narrative must coordinate together, or “advance the plot” as they say.

Recently I spoke at a national gathering for worship leaders. One evening gathering featured a well-known worship leader leading a set of music while a “vee-jay” extemporaneously projected a set of videos with lyrics on the large screens behind the band. At one point, the worship leader had finished a slow song and was praying. As he reflected on God’s grace, mercy and peace, the screens cut to a rolling thundercloud. The worship leader spoke of God’s mercy, and a lightning bolt struck. God’s peace became furious winds. The unplanned juxtaposition of word and image clashed.

Guess which one communicated more?

If the video clip doesn’t coordinate well with the musical number or the prayer, they don’t work together to tell the single story that is the message, and they compete with one another.

The phrases have to make sense together.

At another event a pastor followed a moving, six minute documentary of a marathon running quadriplegic with a goofy montage of Looney Tunes characters. The two clips may have made sense theologically, but clashed horribly when used to set up the single narrative of the message.

Coordinating elements to create a single narrative may sound like a lot of work. In fact, most pastors don’t even begin to attempt to create something so seemingly sophisticated as to make every element of worship and the sermon tell a single, overarching story.

The thing is, people look for these narrative connections, whether you plan them or not. When you don’t plan for them, people will find them, and sometimes the result isn’t helpful.

So how can you coordinate the stories together into a single narrative? For starters, mix it up. Tell the story through different venues. Consider using the four types of story:

 

Biblical

There’s an odd tendency in contemporary worship and preaching to reduce biblical story to prooftext, or remove it entirely. We have to remind ourselves that story is the basis of faith and primary biblical vehicle for truth. Here’s a few ways to re-introduce biblical story in the message:

  • Tell a complete biblical story in the middle of the sermon. Not the preacher. Someone else. Yep, right in the middle. Stop the sermon, cue a lighting change if possible, and focus on a storyteller.
  • Have the storyteller memorize the story and offer it dramatically. Add sound effects, video and/or lighting if possible. I once told the story of Jesus calming the storm in the middle of a sermon. The preacher paused, the lighting dimmed, and storm footage came on the screens. The pianist played an underscore and I told the story. It worked.
  • Create a series of stills to illustrate the biblical text, with a combination of word and image. Show them on screen and have the congregation recite the biblical story together while cycling through the images.

 

Cultural

Cultural stories are perhaps the most familiar form of story in church. It’s any reference to contemporary life. It can be fact or fiction, humorous like a recent comedy film or somber like a campus shooting. Cultural stories are current.

  • Look for ways to not just reference them but to make them real, by showing them, or offering some way to respond. It’s amazing what might happen. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT on a Friday morning, Peachtree’s executive pastor and I brainstormed ways to respond in worship. She suggested we offer people a chance to respond by writing a prayer on a large banner to send to the school’s office. We mentioned the banner in worship, and were surprised to see our community fill 24 feet of banners with personal prayers and condolences. Amazingly, a couple approached us and told us they’d moved to the area from Newtown last year, and knew a third grade teacher at the school. More than a nice gesture from a church in the South, suddenly our banners became a personal exhortation from one community to another.
  • Run “b-roll,” my dated term for images on screen during a sermon that show what the communicator is talking about. This can be footage from a local event, a film scene without audio, a series of stills that match a topic – any number of things.
  • Lead the sermon with a story – not one that captures the entire essence of the message, but just one that sets up the problem well. Hollywood has poor answers, but they rock at stating the problem. After the crash of 2008, the remake of Fun with Dick and Jane, starring Jim Carrey captured the comical tragedy of the financial times. I once used a scene in worship where, after losing his job, the protagonist goes to an all you can eat bar and walks away with a pile of food three feet high. The single image of Jim Carrey juggling a tower of food defined the angst we all felt.

 

Community

Each faith community has its own stories. Tell them, at various levels:

  • Some stories are a core part of a church’s history. They capture the core values. like the trauma that accompanied a major church mission trip, which embodies the church’s commitment to mission, or a group of people that rallied behind a family in need. Make sure these core stories get told, and repeated over time. If it’s been five years, tell them again, so longtime people don’t forget and new people learn.
  • Look for small examples that capture the core values, too. We often don’t tell “the rest of the story.” Recently, Peachtree raised funds to buy a new piano for a church and school in Jamaica. When the piano was finally delivered a year later, we retold the first part of the story, and then revealed the arrival of the piano and the mission’s celebration.
  • Interviews with the local community can broaden the scope and reach of a message. If you’re doing a series with a metaphor of DNA, interview a local doctor on the specifics of genetic theory as a setup to the message.
  • Consider searching out the stories of people from within the congregation. Every person in the church has a story, and, properly researched and culled, it can become a powerful way to embody a message.

 

Personal

Last, don’t be afraid of personal stories. They can be the most powerful kind, as I have noted. Some preachers are told to avoid personal stories. There is a balance, because preaching isn’t autobiography. But you must communicate what you know, and personal stories create legitimacy.

How do you weave stories together in worship?

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

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