The original Chinese article here.
Children needs stories because of their imaginative disposition, but certainly stories are not limited to children. As I said previously, stories can also exist even in the metaphors within the “propositional” biblical text as long as the preacher can trace the story behind it. The preacher cannot get away from stories. With the richly imaginative film-making technology, storytelling is more popular than ever among popular preachers. So popular that Prof. Thomas Long said that maybe we need to get back more to the teaching style of preaching in the US. Perhaps, elsewhere in Asia, storytelling is still not so popular. Maybe for Asia, storytelling is needed. The fact is, stories should not just be told, but be told within the sound exegetical confine of the text. They also need to be told in an ethical manner. This installment will explore the importance of stories and their roles in our sermon making.
Storytelling has two dimensions, both of which need to be considered. First dimension is the way biblical narrator tells the story. The second dimension is the way the preacher tells the story. Both are artistic and both help with the communication process in some ways. We must make note of the two and see if we can (or cannot) the two when we think about the presentation style of a sermon.
There are different kinds of storytelling styles, according to Long. First, there is the half-turn storytelling. If we imagine a movie camera shooting a scene, the storytelling is not quite in the scene but is a passive participant. My example from the Bible is the “we-section” of Acts. The narrator was somehow a participant but the focus was not on him. Some scholars think that the section is fully first-person narrative which I agree, but the degree of participation is minimal. Other than showing strong historicity in using the “first person eyewitness” voice, the narrator does not do much more other than moving from place to place with Paul. The focus is on Paul, not on the narrator. Second, storytelling can take the form of fully personal story. This style is straightforwardly obvious that the storyteller is a participant in the story. In fact, more times than not, he may be the focus of the story. It may be filled with “I” such as “when I was coming to church, I notice … then I … afterwards I …” This style of storytelling has its opponents who think that personal stories put the focus at the center of the sermon. I can however argue the opposite. Personal stories take away the preacher’s unnecessarily hierarchical role and make him the practitioner of what he preaches. When it is done right, personal stories put the text “above” the preacher who gladly submits under its authority.
Besides the half-turn and fully personal story, there is yet one more style of storytelling according to Long. This is called the fiction story, a made-up story. There are many preachers out there, especially among the Chinese population, who oppose the fiction, but wait a minute. Can we really limit our Christian imagination to only real historical stories? It appears that we cannot. Jesus used made-up stories all the time just to illustrate the point. Why Christians stay away from fiction baffles my mind. Perhaps, it is due to the modern Chinese culture being highly practical. Is there any reasonable way of using a made-up story? Yes, there is. Long makes an excellent suggestion by bringing “Let us imagine” or “What if” into the introduction of the fictional story. This is a suggestion with integrity because it alerts the audience that this was not a true story. Honesty is the real key here. We do not want people to mistake the story to be true, but at the same time, we do not have any good theological reason to limit our stories to something historical. The Christian imagination ought to be harnessed with integrity and not by mere culture.
Regarding storytelling, Long talks about the need for variations. This is indeed a hard task to accomplish. Some of us men preachers often talk of sports while some women preachers talk much about family and so on (though I’m guessing the reverse could be true in many cases as well). The point is that there is a need to provide variety so that we do not get stuck in a homiletical rut. How will we break the limit? Long suggests that we live homiletically. In other words, in our daily living, think often of our sermons through our experiences and observations. This then makes a preachers’ lifestyle different from others. We do not just watch TV for entertainment purposes; we also watch it for concepts helpful to our preaching.
One last word on storytelling also is relevant to our modern situation. Long points out the importance of asking for permission to retell a story. Preachers need permission to tell stories about family members, congregational members and their friends. This ought to be common sense to every speaker, but in my experience, it is far from common. Preachers constantly expose their family members like their wives and children to unnecessary limelight just to accomplish their homiletical ambition. The integrity of the preacher ought to be guided by the need to protect those who are related to the story. In the long run, this approach is both healthy and necessary. No sermon is worth breaking up relationships.