hile I knew that I wanted to focus on the concept of storytelling
within the preaching ministry, initially I was unsure how I might develop the topic. Then
the title of this article revealed itself through the wonders of computer technology
simply keying in the search phrase "compare AND kingdom" into my computer Bible
Let me explain a bit further. Mark 4:30 is the actual verse containing that phrase, but
what a difference the translations (New American Bible, Revised Standard Version, New
American Standard Bible) provided! The New American Standard translates the word
"compare" as "picture." Bingo! This was the angle or slant I was
searching for in developing a direction for this article. Storytelling is a way the
preacher can assist the congregation in envisioning a connection between the biblical
word, the stories of their lives and the kingdom of God.
Janet Litherland says:
"Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire,
motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds.
Consequently, stories often pack more punch than sermons. Want to make a point or raise an
issue? Tell a story. Jesus did it. He called his stories parables.'"1
In fact Mark 4:34 says, "he [Jesus] did not speak to them without a
Other examples of Jesus' use of parables and stories are found in Matthew 13, Mark 4,
Luke 8, Luke 13:8. Such stories and parables teach a natural wisdom of morality, of
healing, of compassion, of values and ethics. Frank H. Seilhamer says:
"Parable is the translation...of two Greek terms that mean to throw along
side of.' What is involved is a story created to be thrown along side of a true-life
situation to drive home the central point the storyteller is trying to make. As Jesus
demonstrated, a good picture is worth a thousand words that slip by, unillustrated in
strokes which a person can visualize, then pin to their memory."2
Stories, parables, fables, anecdotes, illustrations, etc., help us to see the
"bigger picture" in life. They help us to understand there is more to life than
our own limited spheres of experience. They create pictures in our mind and open up our
imagination to comprehend a greater dimension of life than we are normally used to
experiencing. Stories are vehicles that take us to far off places, places we've never
That is what Jesus tried to accomplish with his disciples and with the crowds that
flocked to hear him speak: to take them to a place where there is new way of living,
loving and healing; a new world that these people could never have imagined on their own.
Such is the task to which we are called in preaching God's Word to his people about the
kingdom of God: to open people's imagination to picture a new way of living, loving and
As I use the term "imagination" I realize there are some people who think of
it as being equated with the term "fantasy," or being unreal and bizarre. That
is not how I view imagination.
"What is it, then? Imagination is the capacity we have to make the
material an image of the immaterial or spiritual.' It is creative power... a good
story is good precisely because somehow it rings true to human life...from it a moral or
spiritual truth is extracted."3
Stories and parables provide fresh insights into truths that are repeated from the
pulpit week in and week out. These truths become so familiar and well known that people no
longer hear them. The creative use of the imagination through storytelling dresses up
these truths in new garments so that we take notice of them.
The rabbi was once asked: "Why does the parable possess such great
The maggid replied: "I will explain this by a parable":
"Truth was accustomed to walk about as naked as he was born. No one allowed him to
enter a home, and everyone who encountered him ran away in fright.
"Truth felt greatly embittered and could find no resting place. One day he beheld
Parable attired in colorful, expensive garments. Parable inquired: Why are you so
dejected, my friend?' Truth replied: I am in a bad situation. I am old, very old,
and no one cares to have anything to do with me.' Nay,' retorted Parable, it
is not because of your age that you are disliked by people. Look, I am as old as you are,
and the older I grow, the more do I seem to be loved. Let me disclose to you the secret of
my apparent popularity. People enjoy seeing everything dressed up and somewhat disguised.
Let me lend to you my garments, and you will see that people will like you as well.'
Truth followed this counsel and dressed himself in the garments of Parable. Ever since
then, Truth and Parable walk hand in hand, and men love both of them." 4
In my own preaching experience, I discovered this same factor. People, by and large,
did not hear or pay attention to the naked truth. But when the same message was dressed up
in the garments of a story, or a parable, they not only listened but took the message home
For me, storytelling was not really a conscious decision. It emerged from within me as
natural as could be for a priest of Irish descent. This is not to say that I have not
spent considerable time researching storytelling as an art form, or that stories just pop
up easily. For over 20 years, I have collected numerous books on the storytelling, volumes
of story books and have written out in composition books enough stories to fill eleven
volumes, so far. The difficult part for me, however, is trying to describe my approach to
using storytelling within preaching when I am asked about the how's and why's of
As for the process I may not be so articulate; but as to the effect of storytelling, I
can speak with clarity and certainty. My mother says, "You give them something to
take home with them." And when I was being transferred to a new assignment, a
young man in his early 20s who faithfully came to Sunday Mass said, "Who will tell
the stories when you're gone?"
In researching for this article I came across some interesting historical background
material on the use of stories and parables in preaching. In the chapter "Religious
Storytelling," in The World of Storytelling it states:
"The exemplum is a classic fable or popular anecdote to which has been
added a moral...They were used in sermons, much as parables were used by Christ. The
oldest known Christian examples occur in the homilies of Saint Gregory the First (c.
600)....In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, certain monks developed the narration
of the exempla into an art that was very successful. This was in large measure due
to the example set by the Dominicans and by prelates such as Jacques de Vitry; known to
have compiled a number of collections of sermons with stories." 5
Jacques de Vitry was a translator of a major collection of sermon stories written in
the thirteenth century by another Dominican, Jacob de Voragine. Jacob's collection became
known as The Golden Legend.
"His sermons had immense popular appeal, and they were rapidly copied by other
preachers into all the languages of Europe. The Golden Legend was, next to the
Bible, the most popular book of the Middle Ages." 6
Therefore, we who engage in using stories and anecdotes in preaching, are not being
faddish, but stand in good company with a rich heritage.
Fr. Robert Waznak, S.S. describes the early Christians "as a community of
storytellers....The stories were about Jesus of Nazareth who himself offered such
spellbinding stories that they were told and retold by people who found in them a key to
their own stories of faith and struggle. The stories of the Bible were always retold in a
way that noticed the particular needs and concerns of the listeners. Contact with the
original story was not lost, but the new listeners found relevance and renewal in the
story retold because it involved them in a personal way."7
As preachers, our task is just that: to help people find "a key to their own
stories of faith and struggle."
Now let us look at the role of the preacher as a storyteller. Marshall McLuhan said it
so well: "The medium is the message." Likewise, the preacher is the
medium through which the story or parable is filtered to the people. What I mean is, there
is a big difference between telling a story in a sermon and becoming a storytelling
preacher. A big difference! A story cannot be read off a page as if it were merely words.
Stories demand involvement, entering into the story itself.
Two of the biggest factors, I think, in moving from simply telling a story to becoming
a storyteller are risk and fear. Yes, it is a risk to get into a story so that it becomes
real, or takes on life, with the nuances of voice inflections, posture, facial expressions
that emerge from the story.
Are you afraid people will laugh at you? Or, are they laughing with you, within the
story's setting? This was a big hurdle for me when I first began preaching. I was so
overly concerned about what the congregation thought of my preaching that I was not
willing to take many risks and venture into untried waters.
What changed my preaching style actually changed my future ministry as well. What began
as personal journal-writing therapy of collecting positive quotations and stories quickly
assumed new direction when I took what was then a big risk and shared some stories and
quotations from my journals at daily Mass.
People would come up and ask for a copy of this quotation or that story. It amazed me
because these were my "personal" stories and quotes, and other people found them
helpful too! Gradually I took more risks and told more stories, and now people expect me
to come up with a good story. And a bonus to storytelling preaching, from my experience,
is that the congregation listens more attentively and enters into the story with the
An example of entering into a story is related by Martin Buber as he tells a story of
his grandfather — who was asked to talk about his great teacher, the famous and holy Baal
"The paralyzed grandfather replied by telling how the holy man used to jump up
and down and dance when he was praying. Being swept up in the fervor of the narrative, the
grandfather, himself, stood up and began to jump and dance to show how the master had done
it. At that moment the grandfather was completely healed of his paralysis." 8
Now I will try to answer questions that might arise: Where does one find contemporary
stories and parables to use in preaching? What kind of resources are available?
The first resource is so obvious that most people miss it — observation. One of my
favorite "Yogisms" from Yogi Berra is: "You can see a lot just by
observing." Life around us abounds with delightful stories if we could only pick
up on them. They are in the people we meet and in the newspapers we read and in the news
programs we watch. We could learn a lot by observing life.
Other resources can be found in collections of stories, of which there are
quite a few on the market. However, if I told you that any books besides my
own multivolume series — Sower's
Seeds collection from Paulist Press — are my personal favorites, I would be dishonest.
They are the first books I reach for whenever I am preparing a sermon or lecture.
But that is only natural because I've gathered and sorted through these stories over
the years and included the ones that are most meaningful to me. In addition, an important
feature of my Sower's Seeds books is the extensive cross-referenced theme index
provided in each volume — a distinct feature that is lacking in most anthologies of stories
Still, I have been inspired by and am indebted to a number of wonderful storytellers,
and I recommend enthusiastically the following resources, listed alphabetically by author:
William J. Bausch, Storytelling: Imagination and Faith;
Jack Canfield, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and multiple Chicken Soup volumes;
Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, and other volumes;
Edward Hays, A Pilgrim's Almanac, and The Christmas Eve Storyteller as well
as his several other works;
William R. White, Speaking In Stories; Stories for Telling, Stories for the Journey
and Stories for the Gathering;
As a final thought, let me encourage you to use stories, parables, fables, anecdotes,
etc., in your upcoming sermons, lectures and teachings. You will find that people will
begin to get the bigger picture as you help them envision what it would be like to picture
the kingdom of God; to imagine a new way of living, loving and healing. They will enter
into the story with you and take something home with them.
The master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened
to with pleasure — and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.
The master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, "You have yet to
understand that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story."