Chapter 133

Good Tension

The role of timing in telling a gripping story.

Much of the energy of a sermon comes from tension producing statements.

I heard a message by author and speaker Ken Davis that shows how to use tension producing statements well. Here is an excerpt:

Kids don't like it when you say, "I love you," and try to hug them. But don't stop saying it.
We need to discern how much tension people can take.
With my daughter, I would try to coerce her. I would say, "I love you." She would reply, "Me too." I would say, "Say it." She would say, "I just did." When she was 14, 15, 16, I did not hear the words "I love you" from her.
It doesn't matter whether you sit at the top of a corporate tower or drive a tractor on a farm, it doesn't matter whether you're a teenager or an adult — all of us are born with this desperate need to be loved, and we will do things that destroy our lives trying to heal that wound in our hearts.
When my daughter was 16, I cornered her in the kitchen one day and said, "Honey, I love you. I love you." She said, "Whatever." She might as well have pulled a knife and run it through my heart.
When she was 18, I was about to leave her in her college dorm room. With tears streaming down my face I grabbed her by the shoulders and established eye contact and said, "Tracy, I love you." And at 18 years old she said, "Me too." I drove 800 miles weeping because I wanted to be loved. I just wanted to be loved.
Several months later I was invited to speak at her school. I enjoy speaking, but that day I was terrified because she was in the audience and I didn't want to embarrass her. I gave my speech, and afterward the college chaplain invited me out to lunch. My daughter went to class. We went to a nice Italian restaurant. He pulled from his briefcase a stack of several hundred response cards. He read to me some of the things the kids had written about my message.
I was gratified. I took a bite of spaghetti. He reached into his pocket and grabbed a single card. He said, "Here's a card that I think will interest you." I looked at the card and written on the front of it was my daughter's name, Tracy Lynn Davis. And I couldn't turn it over.
I've jumped out of an airplane at 8,000 feet. I love driving fast cars. I have an airplane of my own that I flew to Alaska and landed in places where people have never landed. There is a guide up there who said he'll never fly again after riding with me. I love danger, but I couldn't turn the card over.
There's only one thing worse than knowing that wound exists. That's taking the chance someone will rip it open even more widely. Finally I just turned the card over. Written on the other side in huge round letters were these words: "I love my daddy." I spit spaghetti all over the table.
I was so embarrassed that I ran from the room and found a little bathroom and closed the door. There was a latch. I can still see it. I slammed that latch shut, and I cried like a child. I said, "Oh Jesus, she loves me."
I didn't know there was a guy in there. [Loud laughter from congregation]

In Ken's story, the tension-producing statement was "I didn't hear the words 'I love you' from my daughter." Then he said, "I said to my daughter, 'I love you,' and she said, 'Whatever,'" and then it got real, real quiet. That's tension. People are wondering, How's that situation going to end?

When we make a tension producing statement, we sometimes make the mistake of releasing the tension too soon. Tension gives energy. When people experience tension, they are motivated to find resolution.

Davis artfully tells his story, maintaining tension throughout. He describes how he spoke at his daughter's college, and afterward he got the card from his daughter. We all know there's something on the other side of that card. We want to know what it says.

What does Davis do? He doesn't turn the card over! He starts talking about his willingness to take risks: "I've jumped out of an airplaneÂ…" What's he doing there? He's increasing the tension, elongating the time. It takes a lot of skill to do that because if you try to increase the tension and it's not effective, people just get irritated. What's on the other side of the card?! Davis delays the resolution with a skillful ability to discern how much tension people can take.

Think of a rubber band. If it's too slack, there's no tension at all. If you stretch it too much, it's going to break. But if you have it at the right distance, there's tension — energy.

When Davis turns the card over and it says, "I love you," the impact — because of the tension — is enormous. That partly explains the explosion of laughter from the congregation when he goes into the bathroom, says, "She loves me," and discovers the guy in the stall. If the tension wasn't there, there wouldn't have been nearly that degree of response to the humor.

Tension is important not only in stories but also when challenging a congregation to some area of obedience. You do not want to let them off the hook too soon. Preachers and teachers need to be willing to live with tension.

John Ortberg is an author, contributing editor to Preaching Today, and teaching pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. His most recent book is The Life You've Always Wanted (Zondervan, 1998).

Ken Davis is president of Dynamic Communications International, Arvada, Colorado, and author of Secrets of Dynamic Communication (Zondervan, 1991).