7 Ways to Mishandle a Bible Story

The Bible is full of stories.  And we preachers are full of ways to mishandle them.  God has richly blessed us with the stories in the Bible.  Each one reveals God’s heart and character. Each story is designed to point our hearts to Him and to stir our faith in His word and character. So, how can we go wrong?

Here are seven ways to mishandle a Bible story:

1. Skip – This is the assume-and-ignore approach.  We can easily assume that everyone knows the story and so we skip the chance to tell the story.  Instead, we put our homiletical energy into preaching about the theological ponderings triggered by the story.  Why do we assume that everyone knows the story?  Actually, why do we assume that what we have to say about it is of more value than what it actually says?  Even if people do know the story, tell it anyway, and let God’s word work in your listeners.

2. Flip – This is the heretical approach.  We can easily misdirect our listeners and end up preaching heresy inadvertently.  Take the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10 for an example.  It is easy to put all the initiative in Zaccheus’ commitment in verse 8.  Then his salvation is affirmed by Jesus in verse 9.  Voila, we are saved by our own commitment to Christ!  Except, we are not.  Jesus had already taken the initiative in verse 5.  Jesus had already rescued Zaccheus.  The exuberant generosity of verse 8 is a response to God’s grace, not a prerequisite for it.

3. Moralise – This is the fleshly approach.  Since everyone naturally tends toward the notion of earning something with God, we can always and easily jump to what Bryan Chapell calls the “Deadly Be’s” – be like, be good, be disciplined.  So with Zaccheus’ story?  In verse 7 the crowd grumbled.  Let’s not be like them, let’s not grumble.  That verse is in the passage for a reason, but that little life lesson is not the reason.  It is there to emphasize the wonder of what Jesus did for Zaccheus.  It is not there to nudge us towards better behaviour.

4. Lecture – This is the historical-and-cultural-lecture approach.  Use cultural and historical insights to bring the story to life, not to cut the story to death.  How did the tax system work at that time?  How might middle eastern hospitality respond to Jesus’ passing through the town?  Where were sycamore-fig trees in relation to Jericho?  Shine a light on the story and keep telling it, don’t end up giving a series of historical lectures trigged by the details in the story.

5. Over-reveal – This is the punchline-first approach.  So with Zaccheus, you might state the first point as, “Jesus came to save the lost, verses 1-4.”  Oops.  In the passage, verse 10 comes as a surprise.  The whole text has worked to point the reader to Zaccheus’ efforts to see Jesus.  Then in the end it turns out Jesus was the one doing the seeking and the saving.  Why give it away at the start?  Do what the text does.  Don’t “tell the punchline before the joke.”

6. Flatten – This is the lifeless-outline approach.  Again, with the Zaccheus story, your points could be mind-numbingly flat: Jesus seeks the lost, Jesus rescues the lost, and Jesus reassures the lost.  Honestly, I’m bored just writing that outline, even if it is fairly accurate.  While it is true that the story develops in movements, it does not mean that the sermon has to sound like a logical progression through completely parallel points. That outline could work, but it needs a serious injection of energy.

7. Lose – This is the too-many-stories-along-the-way approach.  The story of Zaccheus is a gripping little narrative if it is told well.  But if you use every trigger point to tell another story, you will lose it.  I once knew a tax collector . . . I had a short friend once . . . I have a fun tree-climbing story . . . I remember a grumbling crowd in 1987, etc.  Let other illustrative materials be fairly succinct so that the focus remains on the main narrative of the sermon.

How else might we mishandle a Bible story? Biblical narratives are a dream for us preachers – let’s learn to handle them well so that they can do their mighty work in our hearts and those who will hear us!


Click on this image to see the YouTube playlist of videos on Bible handling:

Exposition, Narrative and a Pot of Soup

There is a common misunderstanding of expositional preaching in relation to Bible stories.  I’ve heard the analogy used of a pot of soup.  A narrative sermon is like a pot of soup prepared carefully to be enjoyed by the guests – an experience to be savoured.  An expositional sermon is like an explanation of the recipe of the pot of soup.  Recognizing the difference between narrative preaching and preaching narratives, let’s engage with this analogy briefly.

With some preachers this negative recipe description may be fitting, but that doesn’t make the analogy accurate.  An expository preacher is concerned about communicating the point of the passage, rather than seeking to explain the point of every detail.  A good expository preacher knows that a story has its own way of carrying and conveying its point.  Thus a good expositor preacher, preaching a story, will not dissect it into a lifeless and experience-free recipe, but will communicate the story as effectively and accurately as possible.

What needs to be added to the telling of the story?  Any necessary explanation to make sense of it.  An underlining of the point, exposed for clarity, but appropriately timed so as not to undermine the impact.  If not inherently implicit, some form of emphasis on the contemporary relevance of the story.

What isn’t needed is endless detailed explanation, or numerous unnecessary and disconnected illustrations, or ill-timed statements of the proposition, or commentary-style titles for each segment of the message, or a manner which robs the story of its emotion, tension or energy.

When you preach a story, be sure to be expository . . . but not the wrong kind that feels like the explanation of a recipe!

4 Reasons to Preach Bible Stories

Today I am leading a seminar: Preaching Biblical Narrative.  I have really enjoyed preparing for this event.  Hence I am writing about Bible stories on the site at the moment.  Here’s four good reasons to preach Bible stories, and there are more too!

1. Stories are plenteous. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Ray Lubeck states that 44% of the Bible’s chapters are predominantly narrative.  There’s lots of stories in the Bible!

2. Stories are pervasive. They stretch throughout the canon.  We read stories throughout the Pentateuch, the history books of the Old Testament, in the wisdom books and the prophets.  We read stories about Jesus and from Jesus in the Gospels and throughout Acts.  We read glimpses of stories, or implied stories in the Psalms, in the Epistles, in Revelation.  They are everywhere, because life is lived story.

3. Stories are powerful. Unlike bare proposition, stories lodge in the memory.  They reach down deep to the emotions of the listeners as they identify with characters and get absorbed into real life action and tension.  They have a powerful ability to slip past defenses and reach the heart.

4. Stories are preferred. Historically humans have been primarily story—tellers.  Life legacies have been passed from one generation to the next by means of story.  Globally, most cultures are story cultures.  In fact, if we live in a time when story has taken a back seat, we are living in a blip in time and space.  But that is an if.  Even in the “enlightened” west we still are shaped and gripped by story.  Just look at Hollywood, or what predominates on TV schedules, or how advertisers shape many ads, or even how sports journalists frame big games – stories continue to abound!  And now as culture is shifting from modernism to postmodernism, story is increasingly preferred – authentic personal story is perceived to be of greater value than abstract truth statements.  People are, and always have been, everywhere, primarily creatures of story.

Ingredients of Delivery: Biblical Narratives 3

I just wanted to add one more important ingredient to the list.  We need to describe well and preach dynamically.  To effectively preach the story, we also need . . .

High Definition Imagination – To put it simply, if you can see it, they will see it.  Instead of just describing “about” the story, we need to describe the story.  We need to study well so that the image forms in our mind, then we need to describe what we can see as we tell the story.  We need to be careful to preach the inspired text, rather than the event itself.  However, in preaching the text, we do describe the event/story.  If that is merely facts, it will not communicate well.  If it is a foggy view through the mists of time, then people will only hear the fog.  But if we can study ourselves through to a point of clarity, then we have a chance of preaching so that the reality of the narrative forms in the minds and hearts of the listeners.

This certainly overlaps with description skill, but all the skill in the world will fall flat if we do not have a high definition imagination that is thoroughly informed by Scripture.  We have to see it, if they are to see it.