Who's Your Supporting Cast This Week?
Who populates your sermons besides the Bible’s major players? A long line of interesting and memorable individuals outside the pages of Scripture can assist you.
by William E. Richardson
When it comes to preaching, facts, stats, and quotes are good. But they aren’t enough to hold the attention of most listeners.
Solomon mentioned “a word fitly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11, KJV). Jesus showed by example an illustration well told. The Son of God communicated eternal realities by telling stories. The stories He told served as bridges for truths to cross over and reach the minds and hearts of His listeners. We understand important principles of the kingdom of God because Jesus described the persistent widow, the unforgiving servant, the Prodigal Son and his loving father, and the charitable Samaritan. Jesus filled His teachings with tales of people to whom others in His day could relate — and with whom millions have since connected.
Who populates your sermons — I mean, besides the Bible’s major players? A long line of interesting and memorable individuals outside the pages of Scripture can assist you. There’s plenty of anecdotal material about some of the most interesting people who ever lived, and some who never lived. Stories from their lives will add muscle to the skeleton of your other supporting material. A few select stories each week will go a long way.
Hey Joe, Whom Do You Know?
How do you select your sermon’s supporting cast? Variety is important. Otherwise, we keep rehashing the same stories about a few favorite individuals. Consider mixing stories about people from these categories.
General history: It’s a goldmine! There’s so much history worth repeating. Millions who lived in the past did things that warrant retelling to help drive home the truths of God’s Word. Historical examples of people who can strengthen your preaching points range from Alexander the Great to Alexander Graham Bell, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr., from Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, and from nurse Florence Nightingale to Christian Barnard. Explore the possibilities.
Christian History: Stories from the lives of Christian leaders have advanced sermons for centuries. There’s still power in the testimony of God working through one of His servants. Missionaries, pastors, and ministry leaders from centuries past to the present will always provide usable stories of God at work.
Ways in which God has revealed His presence and power in the last decade or the last year join the stream of Christian history. God’s presence pops up in interesting places — even through nameless people. During the recent Broadway revival of the play The Trip to Bountiful, audiences spontaneously sang along with the hymn Blessed Assurance. It was a wonderful God-active-in-our-culture moment that caused news reporters to interview playgoers to learn why.
National and local news: The headlines are rich with source material. Stories of people whose stories are broadcast to the whole nation are fresh and relevant. Not everyone appreciates history. But many of your listeners will relate to a person living and doing something right now.
Current news stories don’t have to depend on celebrities. Alongside Bill Gates and Justin Bieber are a stable of good stories about people experiencing their 15 minutes of fame. Not all are national. Some of the most effective stories are statewide or local.
Sports: There’s a sports illustration for every season of the year. The strongest stories stay in season. A baseball story makes more of a home run in the summer. Football, hockey, basketball, tennis, racing, and golfing all score best in their seasons. Like the national and local news, the possibilities for applications from the sports world run the gamut.
Personal experience: Put yourself in the supporting cast. While your professional calling makes you unique, in most ways you share experiences with the rest of the human race. Well-selected anecdotes from your childhood, marriage, child rearing, and other life situations can be very instructive. It helps your listeners to hear you say, “Here’s how I got through it.”
Of course, an occasional story from your life also keeps interest because of your relationship to those who hear you. Your experiences shed light on who their leader is as a person.
Moses, Ruth, Esther, Peter, Paul, and Mary
A key question to ask while preparing any presentation is, “To whom will I be speaking?”
If the audience is 100 percent male, illustrations mostly about men are appropriate. However, women now comprise an estimated 61 percent of most church congregations. With that in mind, speakers should remember that a sermon peppered with illustrations about men and football won’t necessarily appeal to an audience with a female majority.
When you give biblical illustrations, Adam will most often need Eve, Jacob will need Rachel and Leah, and Solomon will need his 700 wives. (Perhaps you won’t want to talk about all of Solomon’s wives, but you should aim for a balanced representation of stories including females.)
Do you include a variety of illustrations to connect with all the listeners you address? Do you vary your stories to include different ages, ethnic groups, and occupations? Everyone wants to hear about someone to whom they can personally relate. As you select your sermon’s cast of supporting characters, try to keep a mental picture of the variety of interests among your listeners. Consider these additional sources for illustrations that appeal to diverse audiences.
The Arts: From the entertainment media to music playlists, you can find deep deposits worth mining for illustrations. Not all music, television, or plays deserve time in your sermon. Many, however, offer illustrations that can buttress a listener’s appreciation of the Bible’s greatest truths.
The written word: Through the ages, novels have provided a bevy of strong characters. Many novels have been examples of either keeping or not keeping biblical instruction. Revenge blinds Captain Ahab, and it drives him to chase the whale Moby Dick. Charles Dickens depicts false humility through Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, the stronghold of shattered dreams through Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and the possibility of conversion through Ebenezer Scrooge inA Christmas Carol.
Page for page, the plays of William Shakespeare resonate loudly with biblical allusions. Shylock fails to understand Christian mercy in The Merchant of Venice. The power of guilt plagues Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. The Bard’s characters and the lines he gives them to speak support large portions of biblical teaching.
Just when it seems a once-worthy literary character might be too antiquated for a modern-day illustration, Hollywood or Public Television reintroduces him or her in new versions of works by Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and others. For a Christian perspective of classic literature, I suggest the book Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness.
The silver screen: Hollywood gets certain things right. The film industry has mastered the art of holding up a mirror to our sinful, fallen nature. From time to time, it understands the role of redemption. A rare moment even exists when someone undergoes a transformation akin to spiritual salvation. Consider adding a well-known movie character once in a while — especially if it’s from a film whose message doesn’t conflict with principles of discernment that you teach.
Some characters offer multiple examples, such as James Stewart’s depiction of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. He’s a model of self-sacrifice and altruistic actions by a non-Christian. When his desperate circumstances eventually cause him to call on God for help, we see the value of sincere prayer.
For a clear conversion experience, a more recent film favorite is Eustace Scrubb inPrince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It helps, of course, that the original source material was a book by C. S. Lewis.
A handful of movie characters from years past are worthy candidates for a role in your sermon. A starting place to find a match for a specific topic is a list compiled a few years ago by the America Film Institute. It includes the 50 movie roles AFI deemed the most heroic characters and the 50 roles they considered the most villainous. Two individuals who actually lived and were people of faith made the list: Father Edward Flanagan, founder of Boys Town (from the movie Boys Town) and Alvin York, a World War I hero, whose conversion experience preceding his enlistment is portrayed in the movie Sergeant York. Find the list online at afi.com/100years/handv.aspx.
Other sources: Look for stories about characters familiar to multiple generations. They live on in places like fairy tales, folk tales, children’s books, comic strips, and retro television programs. For a wide range of fictional characters from these and previously mentioned sources, see the book The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter.
Jesus, the Master Preacher, quoted Scripture and delivered profound, life-changing statements, but He kept His listeners focused by telling stories. Our 21st century challenge is this: Present the gospel while holding the interest of an audience of more diverse backgrounds and interests than Jesus initially had. Meeting the challenge calls for us to keep reading, keep listening, and keep watching for usable stories for each time we speak.
Here’s a suggested method for applying variety to your sermon illustrations. First, write the Scripture reference at the top of a page. Next, prayerfully list the major points inherent in the body of Scripture you’ve chosen. If you then make eight columns under the list of points, you can keep track of stories you choose to use from general history, Christian history, news, sports, personal experience, literature, film, and “other.” You likely won’t use a story from each category every time, but you will want to keep a balance. Remember, too, to keep the characteristics of your audience in mind as you select each week’s supporting cast.