Why I Tell Stories When I Preach


“Profound truth, like the vocabulary of virtue, eludes formulation. It quickly becomes rigid, gives way to abstraction or cliche. But put a spiritual insight to a story, an experience, a face; describe where it anchors in the ground of your being; and it will change you in the telling and others in the listening.” – Krista Trippett, Becoming Wise

If you’ve heard me preach, you’ve probably heard me tell a few stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are personal and vulnerable, and some of them are drawn from history or current events. If you’ve heard me preach at a larger retreat or conference, you’ve likely heard a collection of my very best stories – narratives that I have told hundreds of times and customized in millions of ways until the story is exactly as funny and useful as needed.

At my last retreat, I was getting mic’ed up in the back of the worship hall before the third session began and a group of students walked up to me asking me what fun stories I would be telling that night. I gave them a grin and simply said, “I don’t know, I might have a couple good ones.” Far from feeling like I was just entertaining a few hundred young people with funny stories, that experience affirmed for me that I was connecting with the audience and that as a result I would be able to drive home powerful truths with even more effectiveness.

I believe firmly that the art of story-telling is a crucial skill to learn and practice for the purpose of preaching more powerful sermons. I believe this so strongly that I listen to a new stand-up comedian (I prefer narrative comedians over those who specialize in one-liners) in the car or airplane as I head to my next speaking gig. I do this for many reasons. It’s an entertaining way to pass the time, it builds a fire in me about how powerful the spoken word can be, and it’s a great way to develop speaking skills of timing, tone, and story-telling. Good comedians are experts at these skills and I’ve found that great preachers often have similarly developed instincts for public speaking.

So why do I tell stories?

1) Stories capture attention. 

What I’ve found as a public speaker is that a story doesn’t even have to be all that funny or presented in an organized way to captivate an audience. Those things certainly help, but there is something deeply human about our love for stories. It’s not just children who crave to hear a good story, either. When I’m weaving a good story together I’ve seen hundreds of adults listen with mouths agape, just as entranced as any child has ever been reading a children’s book at night. Stories capture attention, and as a speaker, once I have a group’s attention it is that much easier to drive home transformative truths.

2) Stories build empathy.

Stories connect a speaker far away on big a stage under bright lights – often unknown to the listeners – to the audience in an intimate way in just a manner of minutes. Speaking truth into people’s lives requires that they trust you. Identifying with the audience with a funny or relatable story allows people to tune-in not only to your presentation but also to you as a person. A good story, told correctly, will connect something I have experienced or learned in my life and allow me to pass on that wisdom in the role of a trusted friend, not a irrelevant stranger, boring lecturer, or a heavy-handed moralist. In this way, audiences are able to more deeply receive words of encouragement and challenge.

3) Jesus told stories.

I think it’s a remarkably over-looked fact that the majority of Jesus’ teaching consisted of parables. These powerful narratives were easily relatable, often funny (Jesus is quite the comedian in the Gospels, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear), and consistently challenging and subversive. These stories changed lives. They convinced people to leave their homes and follow Jesus on his path throughout Galilee and towards Jerusalem. We often whitewash the counter-cultural messages in many of Jesus’ parables, but I find it likely that his story-telling was a key contributor to his eventually crucifixion. Jesus told stories because he knew they were powerful and transformative ways to communicate the good news of the arrival of the Father’s loving Kingdom. I’m more that happy to humbly follow in his footsteps.

Mike Skinner

If you’d like to inquire about booking me for an upcoming speaking event, please email me at booking@mikeskinner.org. I’m currently focusing my speaking events around the following three topics: Christianity, Mental Health, and Education. These topics can easily be combined as well to serve the needs of your group! I look forward to speaking with you about how I can help you and your organization make a greater impact in our world.

Comedians and Curbside Prophets

It was in N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, where he observes that both laughter and tears clue us into the fact that something has gone wrong in the world.  This statement came alive to me while reading a recent blog post.  The author came up with 15 episode ideas for Seinfeld if it were still running today.  The beauty of Seinfeld was that it took scenarios that we would describe as common, mundane, and typical and would point out their insanity.  The show subverted our values/neurosis with brilliance and seemingly lack of effort.

In this way, comedy actually plays a prophetic role in our society.

Now by prophecy I am not talking about a power to predict the future, but prophecy in terms of the ancient prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  Prophets were given a special kind of authority by God, usually empowered by the Spirit, in order to urge their people to see the error of their ways and repent.  Prophecy is truth telling through powerful, symbolic acts with the goal of righteousness and justice.  Prophets had a heightened sensitivity to the injustices around them, which usually led to their own despair (i.e. Jeremiah).

Comedy is a gift because it is one of the few forms of truth telling that our society is willing to hear. And the truth it is trying to tell us is that something has gone drastically wrong.  Comedy depends on this for every punch line (okay, maybe not knock, knock jokes).  Think of the following as prime examples of this: Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Stuff Christians Like, Stuff White People Like, The Onion, and the list goes on.

Through the guise of shallow entertainment we have invited these comedians into our hearts.  They’re clever lines aim right for our subconscious and consciences.  Now sometimes they miss and go straight over our heads, but for those with eyes to see and ears to listen we start to hear the cries of the victims of our broken world.

I wish the American church had half of the prophetic power of these comedians.  Truth telling is a vital role of the church, but we have warped it in the same way we have a warped our understanding of prophecy (Left Behind…need I say more).  We are so obsessed with assigning blame for the evil around us (i.e. “Thanks, Obama”) that we miss the evil that resides within us.  Truth telling has become a power play– a way to fill up the seats.

So what has made these comedians so successful and what, if anything, can the church learn from them?

1. Comedians consider their audience.  A good comedian knows what kind of demographic they’re going to attract and tailors their material accordingly (Jeff Foxworthy comes to mind).  This is rhetoric 101.  If you want to move or stir your audience, you have to consider what they value and how they think.  This does not mean that we change what the gospel is, but that, as Paul says, we become “all things to all people.”

I was at an assembly where an elder stood in front of a largely teenage audience and said that America was going to fall into ruin because of its tolerance of homosexuality.  Here is a classic example of the church thinking they are taking on the role of a prophet when in truth they’re just being a jerk.  Truth telling is not bullying, and if you’re not sure of the difference I recommend befriending a homosexual or any other person who has been marginalized/victimized by the church.  The American church for far too long has played the victim, when they are more often than not the bully.

2. A Comedians’ worldview is shaped by their task.  I loved the show Everybody Loves Raymond. One of the writers came to work and shared that he had accidentally recorded over his wedding video.  On the night of their anniversary he popped in the video and to his and his wife’s horror, their wedding day was now a football game.  The writers knew that his unfortunate mistake was a goldmine for the show and immediately started writing the episode for it.  They confessed at the end of the series that many of their episodes were drawn from their own lives.

A comedian is never off the job.  Every experience could be a potential punch line or sketch.  They can’t afford to turn off this part of their brain because they might miss something.  Most comedians are saturated in their craft, which means that they can’t help but think a bit differently than the rest of us.

Christians need to adopt this kind of transformative thinking.  Our minds need to be saturated with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, the cries of Lamentations, and the prayers of the saints.  Perhaps when we have become so saturated our truth telling will seem more authentic and feel less like a party line.

Unlike these comedians, the prophets of Israel were not very popular with their audience.  Speaking the truth confronts injustice and so it will always ruffle some feathers.  Nevertheless, the church has a vital role to play by simply speaking the truth.  This is why we must constantly examine our hearts to fight against any hidden agendas or desires for power.  Truth speaking is always cruciform (cross–shaped).  The church will never be the city on a hill by casting stones, but by taking sin’s weight (with all of its guilt, shame, and despair) off of the world and placing it on its shoulders.  For when we take on the wounds of the world we start to look a whole lot more like Jesus.

Addiction: A Micro-Memoir

I find it strange to hear others speak freely about an addiction. The world of an addict is a world without the freedom of speech. A memoir about addiction makes even less sense to me. Addictions create warped realities devoid of honest reflections. How would I classify my relationship with that pill? That little white pill. I’m not sure. But it wasn’t an addiction.

Okay. Technically I couldn’t stop taking it. Suffocating under an unyielding panic and its accompanying depression, I couldn’t function without it’s calming and euphoric touch. This powerful, little white pill. It started as a prescription – a medical effort aimed at meeting the challenges posed by my failing health. It wasn’t long until my Rx number transformed into my prisoner identification. This was a one-sided relationship, because I could no longer stand to be awake without it’s powerful presence. Without her powerful presence. She possessed me in a way that only an intoxicating lover could. Dilated eyes and slow, steady breathing became a staple of my consciousness. One pill became three, and three became six, and all the while the ticking of the clock served as a continual reminder to be prepared for my next dose. I wasn’t an addict. I was a survivor. Such a subtle difference can only be appreciated inside of such a painful reality. My father was right when he accused me of being unable to live without it. But it wasn’t an addiction.

Sure. Technically I had withdrawal symptoms when I was eventually forced off of it. But that was strictly a physiological phenomenon. My brain simply wasn’t used to the decreased levels and efficiency of gamma aminobutyric acid which I was now abandoned to. The cold sweats and insomnia were nothing more than a re-adjustment to a different sort of mental life. The inability to self-mediate would sometimes smother me. But it wasn’t an addiction.

may251Of course there are times when I am still tempted.These moments force me to work creatively, desperate for a way to distract myself. Distract myself from thinking about that beautiful, little white pill. The soft powder that would cascade off of it like snow from the mountainside. The swallow of relief. The surge of relaxation. The flood of peace. The steadying of my pulse. Yes, often I must stop myself from being consumed with the thoughts. There are days that my ghosts begin crying out to me again. Days when the only option to my suffering seems to be my never-forgotten friend. Days when I wonder if I will ever have an immediate reaction to pain that doesn’t involve her. Still, it wasn’t an addiction.

I reflect on our relationship like a husband dwells on his shattered marriage. A curious mixture of nostalgia and disgust. A peculiar combination of longing and resentment. Words remain outside my grasp. I fumble over sentences like a young boy explaining his first kiss. I don’t think a memoir about an addiction can be written with integrity. But then again, I’ve never had one.

*This is an essay I wrote a few years ago for a creative writing class. It’s a bit different from the normal content here at Cataclysmic -but no worries, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon. If you enjoyed it and/or would like more, let me know!

Post-Modern Biblical Interpretation and Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’

As I am working on my thesis, I’ve been reading through some articles and chapters on theological interpretation and today I’ve been mulling over an article by AKM Adam on Post-Modern Biblical Interpretation. It’s an excellent article if you are interested in getting a summary review of the differences between modern and post-modern approaches to interpretation. I thought it was particularly relevant in light of the move Noah which has caused a bit of an uproar in terms of its “accuracy” and the freedom taken by Aranofsky in his story-telling.

In discussing the freedom of post-modern interpreters, AKM Adam writes:

“…post-modern interpreters may productively disregard the modern norms that restrict interpretation to discursive genres. Although such interpretations might not readily be judged by strictly modern criteria, reviewers could draw on the critical wisdom relative to the genre in question to supply what is lacking in the modern repertoire. A film adaptation of the Davidic monarchy would not be answerable simply to the customary questions relative to historicity, anachronism, verisimilitude, and scholarly integrity but would also be answerable for the quality of lighting, staging, direction, acting, and soundtrack.A modern critic might wince at the thought that exquisite casting and a compelling soundtrack could redeem a filmed interpretation that fell shot of a perfectly accurate historical interpretation, but a post-modern critic could articulate a judgment that took account of more dimensions than only the historical foundations.

– AKM Adam on Post-Modern Biblical Interpretation*

Personally, I really enjoyed Aronofsky’s Noah. And the more I think about the story Aranofsky told, the more I love his re-telling of Noah. I can look past its so-called “inaccuracies” because it succeeds in telling a good, thought-provoking, and relevant story. I don’t need a film to stick to the biblical script… I have the scriptures for that and I don’t expect a movie–which is about entertainment, art, as well as a message–to serve the same role as the Bible.

I think the best description of the film I have heard (by multiple tweeters and bloggers) is that it is a modern day parable which uses the story of Noah as it’s framework, a sort of outline or jumping off point. Michelle has written a great post here at Cataclysmic that I highly recommend on Noah and the Violence that Haunts Us All.  Peter Enns also has a good, spoiler-free review at his blog.

*I got this article from my adviser and don’t know which dictionary it came out of but I will update this post with that info and page number once I find out.

Crippling the Imagination of Scripture

Back to studying narrative as part of my thesis…

All stories have a vantage point, the lens from which the viewer/reader/hearer experience the action. The vantage point dictates the reality presented in the story by determining what is seen and what is not seen. Drama, or if you will the viewers attachment perhaps even entrance into the story, is often found in what is just out of sight.

This is obvious when watching something on a screen, the frame defines what can be seen. Certainty only reaches as far as the eye can see and everything else is left to the imagination. A director has the power of manipulating the view, and thus the viewer, by simply (un)zooming the lens. Instantly the vantage point, and thus the reality, of the story is altered.

Storytelling (and writing) works the same way. The storyteller gets to decide from what vantage point the story will be told; will it be a close-up with all the minutiae, a wide angle providing only panoramic views, or something in between? A storyteller does not have as much power to instantly change a story’s vantage point, but good storytellers still alter the reality of a story by changing views.

Nevertheless, regardless of the vantage point, the goal of a good story is always the same – to have the reader enter the story. Good stories even after the last page is turned, leave the reader unable to escape their reality and really good stories leave the reader unwilling to escape! Thus, the best stories are often not those where everything is explained but where everything, even more than what is on the page, is experienced.

This is one area that those of us who tell the Story of scripture often bog down. I know from my own failings, that I tend to give only two points of view. My initial point of view is so close-up that no stone is left unturned. In my zeal to fight against misunderstanding, I leave nothing to the imagination. I then jump immediately to the widest angle. I want all the territory visible so that nothing is left unseen. Ultimately, my two vantage points have the same goal, explain everything thus leaving the imagination crippled because there is nothing left out of view. In the end it might make a nice picture, but does it make a good story?

The answer, however, is not as easy as compromising and finding a middle angle that gives just enough detail without losing the big picture (as if that happy medium could even be found!)…no the answer is messy. It means leaving room for the imagination to take the story into places I have never even considered, allowing the reader to enter the story and give it a whole new vantage point. Yet, I am afraid I do not trust the Story I am telling enough to give it room to live. Sadly, in my attempt to protect the Story it often ceases to be a story at all.