How long can you hold your audience? Steven Spielberg can hold them for two and a half hours.
Steven Spielberg’s popular movie, Lincoln, runs exactly two and a half hours. After the brief opening squence, there are no explosions, no sword fights and no one is killed on screen (spoiler alert: Lincoln is assassinated at Ford’s Theater).
When I saw the film, the theater was packed. Two and a half hours of talk, talk, talking heads on the screen, yet no one in the theater moved, no one became restless and no one complained about the length. And we preachers have trouble holding people’s attention for a 28-minute sermon. What’s the difference?
The difference is storytelling. Spielberg knows how to tell a story, and we would do well to take a few pointers from him. In fact, forget Spielberg: Our sacred text, the Holy Bible, is filled with stories. You might go so far as to say the Bible is one story: the Father’s relentless pursuit of his lost children. Think about it: How far would you go to rescue your children? What would you be willing to do to bring them back safely? (There: Did you feel it? When the subject changed to fathers, children and rescue, you began to imagine yourself involved in the rescue of your own children. didn’t you?)
Good preaching contains meat for the hungry—and it’s best delivered on a plate of storytelling. Here’s the journey we must take:
- Once upon a time, there was a preacher who used bullet points in his sermon. The bullets killed his congregation’s attention and buried their passion. The End. (Chapter One in the lessons of preaching: Just because you outlined your sermon doesn’t mean you have to shoot your listeners with it.)
In Chapter Two we learn God’s message to humanity is mostly story—even the parts that are not story. From Genesis to Ezra-Nehemiah, the book is one continuous narrative. The grand narrative is followed by books of poetry, which are filled with metaphor and images. Think of the poetry books as God’s soundtrack to the story. Then come the prophetic books, which provide the director’s commentary on what has just transpired. Really—who can understand the prophets apart from the story of the Old Testament?