Bible Story: Read or Tell?

Let’s assume that the reading is taken care of, and as I suggested yesterday this might not mean the reading of the text itself.  Now, what to do with the telling of the story?  Should we just read it, or should we tell it?  I say we should tell it, and we should tell it well (and typically in the telling of it we may add detail not included in the text).  Typically we will tell it with certain sections, or even the whole text, read along the way.  Why tell and not just read?

1. The preacher’s task is to present the text by way of explanation.  A big part of the explanation of the story is the effective telling of the story, and the effective telling of the story requires the preacher to describe the action, the scene, the situation in vivid colour so that the image can form in the hearts of the listeners.

2. The preacher’s task includes applying the story with contemporary relevance emphasized.  A big part of the application of the story is helping listeners inhabit the tension of the story, identifying with the characters as they wrestle with life in response to the Word of God.  A well told story carries a significant proportion of the explanation and the application of the message.

3. The preacher’s task includes not only saying what the text says, but doing what the text does.  To put it another way, we need to honour the genre inspired by God’s Spirit.  By telling story, we honour story as the genre of God’s own choosing.

4. The Bible text tends to be both lean and distant.  It is lean in that every detail counts and every detail carries significance in the telling of the story.  It is distant in that the original writers could assume awareness of culture, politics, history, geography, flora/fauna, etc.  To simply read the text is, in some cases, to dishonour the inspired story by not allowing it to hit home in the imaginations and hearts of the listeners.

I could probably offer more reasons to tell the story and to tell it well, but I’ve gone long enough for today!

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5 thoughts on “Bible Story: Read or Tell?

  1. Peter,
    I am going to preach a well-known story of the Gospel soon, so I am very interested in this series. Having listened to powerful story-telling in preaching (you included!) I can confirm the effectiveness of what you suggest.
    I just wonder if it is appropriate to include into the “telling” some “reading”, too.
    I have never preached long stories (1 or 2 chapter) where I am sure it is not good to read ALL the text. But when I preached short texts, I didn’t read all the text at the beginning, but I read it WHILE telling the story. E.g.: I introduced the context, then read 1 or 2 verses, then stopped to explain and so on…
    What do you think about this?

    • Andrea – I absolutely agree. If the text is not too long, then I will usually read it all in the process of telling the story. With a longer OT narrative, as you describe, then I would read key portions. Two important thoughts on this – 1. it needs to be read well (energy, dynamism, etc.), and 2. it still needs telling (i.e. the reading shouldn’t replace the telling, which is the point of this post.) Thanks for a great comment.

  2. A helpful article.

    When I tell stories, I work hard to make the dialogue match that of the passage. That is, I take the fewest liberties with the words spoken, especially when they are the words of God, as spoken by a prophet, etc. I find that under normal circumstances the dialogue (with a little freshening up into everyday language) is complete even when the rest of the storyay seem sparse.

  3. I’m aware of a preacher in the region who makes memorization of the text he’s going to preach through a part of his sermon preparation. I heard him preach from John 1, for instance, and the “reading” of the chapter was done from memory, as he looked us all in the eye. (I had my Bible open and verified that he got it all perfectly right.) As I have been reading, with great profit, this series on preaching story, and the discussion about when to read the text, it strikes me that this sort of thing might not be a bad move at all. If you had your text committed to memory it seems that in the process of telling the story, you could slip in and out of the actual words of the Word.

    As a guy whose first ambition in life used to be to achieve wealth and fame as a novelist, I admit that the storyteller in me resonates immediately with your suggestion that reading the whole story before you tell it is a good way to sap your sermon of all dramatic tension.

    Preaching on Genesis 16 this week, and Hagar’s first flight from Sarah, meeting up with the God who sees her. Your posts on story have been a huge blessing. Sorry for the looong comment.

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