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Persuading Like Luke

How we can use story and testimony in our preaching.
Persuading Like Luke
Image: Catherine MacBride / Getty Images

One of the preachers’ roles is persuader. Under our sovereign God we want to produce change in the listeners—strengthening existing belief, overturning wrong belief, rebuking sinful action, or coaching new habits. “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11).

One of the best ways to persuade is with story. Even a fictional story such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin can rouse a nation, and Jesus’ fictional stories—the Parables—continue to surprise, convict, and motivate us thousands of years after he spoke them.

But when this article recommends “persuading like Luke,” I have in mind his use of nonfiction story: history and eyewitness testimony. Many biblical authors wrote historical narrative, but Luke ranks first among the historians of Scripture.

The Importance of Story

Narrative rouses imagination and empathy, whereas propositional argument prompts listeners to take the stance of a critic or debater. Listeners raise shields and arm photon torpedoes when a persuader implies, “Your position is wrong and mine is right.” But listeners lean in when a persuader begins, “When I was a teenager, I had a life-changing experience”; or “Last week I was in the grocery story, and there was a disturbance behind me”; or “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest name Zechariah” (Luke 1:5).

Story prompts identification, not opposition, and even if the listeners have not undergone the experience recounted in the story, they still empathize. My headache is not your headache, but you have had enough pain to understand and feel mine.

Perhaps this is why narrative is a universal form of communication—all cultures throughout history tell stories. In Walter Fischer’s phrase, we are homo narrans, the story telling animal (Human Communication as Narration, 1987).

Story is concrete, employing plot, character, and setting. Plot creates tension and resolution (who “wins”—Elijah or the prophets of Baal?); character sketches intriguing personalities (why did Zacchaeus climb that tree?); and setting transports listeners to another time and place (listen to the wind moan and feel the enervating heat in the wilderness of Sinai).

Being abstract, propositions spark little interest, frequently entering one ear and exiting the other. But narrative is cognitive Velcro. They are “sticky” (Heath and Heath, Made to Stick). Compare the interest-generating power of these statements:

  • We should praise God because he is the all-powerful Creator.
  • Last summer I took a once-in-a-lifetime trip with a gang of friends. We went on a safari in Kenya. One night after the campfire had died to embers, the wind had dropped to a whisper, and my friends had gone to bed, I found myself simply gazing at the heavens. Oh my! Someone had scattered diamonds across the black velvet of the sky. I saw three shooting stars in less than a minute. I was awestruck. The poet tells us who threw those stars: God. The heavens are his handiwork (Ps. 19:1).

For these reasons—identification, empathy, emotion, imagination—communication scholar Ralph Nichols asserts that “narrative will carry more persuasive freight than any other form of evidence” (Quoted in Larson, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, 6th edition, 181).

How Did Luke Use Story?

So, how did Luke use historical narrative to persuade readers that Jesus is Messiah and that the Holy Spirit authorized the fledgling church?

Accurate Research

First, he used accurate research. In the well-known preamble to Luke-Acts, he states plainly that he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). He interviewed eyewitnesses and probably used governmental records to stitch together his two-volume history. Historical narrative will persuade only when the audience believes the sources to be credible.

We can learn from Luke. Today’s listeners bring fact-checkers to church—their cell phones. They can and do authenticate our statements, so it is helpful to briefly demonstrate the credibility of our sources. We don’t need to load our sermon with citations, as if we were writing a research paper, but statements like this aid persuasion:

  • In an interview with People magazine, Brad Pitt spoke about his experience as a teenager in youth group.
  • In 1915, the Lusitania, the world’s largest, safest, fastest luxury liner sank in eighteen minutes. More than a thousand people died. That’s what Erik Larson says in his well-researched book, Dead Wake.


One way Luke displays his accurate research is by letting eyewitnesses speak for themselves. He quotes Simeon, John the Baptist, Peter, the Philippian jailer, and a host of others, and most importantly, Jesus.

Sometimes the characters speak extended discourses as when Paul recounts his Damascus Road story. In the Book of Acts Paul gave his testimony three times: to the crowd in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, and Agrippa, and as Agrippa plainly understood, Paul shared the narrative to persuade (Acts 26:28).

I heartily recommend buttressing sermons with testimony. Rick Warren did that for years at Saddleback, arranging for a church member to share a personal experience on the theme of the sermon. In my own ministry, when I was preaching a series on the Parables, on the Sunday when I preached on the Good Samaritan, I had a church member share a personal experience of serving in a ministry such as Grief Share or Night to Shine.

Arranging testimonies takes advanced planning and you may need to shorten your sermon, but the combination of exposition and testimony can’t be beat.


When the testimony is your own, we call it self-disclosure, another potent form of narrative (as with Paul’s conversion story). Even in the Epistles, we see New Testament persuaders use their own experience for persuasion: Peter and the disciples did not follow “cleverly devised stories . . . but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” on the Mount of Transfiguration (2 Pet. 2:16-18). Likewise, John grounded the veracity of his message in first-hand experience: what he had heard, seen, beheld, and touched (1 John 1:1).

When I preach the Good Samaritan, I plan to tell my own story of visiting a state prison to hold a Bible study and encourage the brothers. In this story, I am an anti-hero, because I didn’t want to do that good deed. My friend JD, a pastor in Hawaii, had to coerce me into going.

On Saturday night JD told me that tomorrow we must get up early—while it was still dark—drive more than an hour to the prison, spend two hours there, and then return in time to hold the Sunday church service. I whined: “When do we have to get up? How far is it? Why are we doing this?” My friend replied: “We’re going to visit Jesus.” He was referring, of course, to Matthew 25—ministry to the “least of these.”

I hope that that story, where I’m the goat not the hero, will motivate listeners to be Good Samaritans.

Personal narrative does not use the tools of traditional persuasion with thesis, proof, and conclusion. It takes a circuitous route, and thereby gains persuasive power as it enters the back door.

Alexsandr Solzhenitzyn’s semi-autobiographical Gulag Archipelago helped topple Soviet Communism. Carter and Coleman state that with Gulag, Solzhenitzyn “did what the economists and philosophers had failed to do: he sucked away the moral appeal of Communism by showing the evil and depredation inherent in the system” (How to Argue Like Jesus, p. 86).

Luke puts his witnesses in the spotlight and lets them speak. We overhear Mary pray the Magnificat and are stirred to humility and submission. We watch Martha complain to Jesus and determine to be more like Mary. We see the Apostles stand before the authorities and resolve to share the gospel without fear.

The Puritan pastor, William Bates observed, “Precepts instruct us what things are our duty, but examples assure us that they are possible. … When we see men [and women] like ourselves, who are united to frail flesh and in the same condition with us, to command their passions, to overcome the most glorious and glittering temptations, we are encouraged in our spiritual warfare” (A Puritan Golden Treasury, 95).

So, to persuade like Luke, brush up your narrative skills. The stories can come from fiction such as film and literature, but even better is non-fiction: history accurately researched, testimony that embodies the truth, and self-disclosure that causes listeners to drop their shields.

Historical narrative makes truth concrete, memorable, and charged, so take a page from Luke’s playbook.

Editor’s Note: If you missed the first part of this series be sure you check out Persuading Like Jesus.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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