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Vitality of Specifics

Choosing the best words to tell the story

Related material: To read the sermon for this clinic, click, " No Selective Obedience. "

Bible stories will bore or thrill a congregation — depending on the preacher's language. While a preacher's language will make or break a sermon from any literary genre in the Bible, more is at stake in sermons from Old Testament narrative texts. The reason is the preacher's primary tactic is telling the story well. Preachers must adopt a style that draws listeners into the story. This style must cause the characters of the story to leap from the pages of Scripture to the stage of life.

The more I listen to and preach Old Testament narrative sermons, the more I'm convinced the key to an engaging storytelling style is specificity. Stories that engage my interest use vivid words and draw concrete pictures. Good preachers don't settle for generic descriptions. They paint specific pictures. Based on the criteria of specificity, I give the sermon on 1 Samuel 15 mixed reviews for its storytelling.

On the positive side, the sermon uses a few concrete, specific words. The right word can make a surprising difference. When referring to King Saul keeping King Agag alive, the preacher mentions how ancient kings " got a rush " out of having a captured king serve them. The expression " got a rush " evokes a feeling that would not have surfaced if the preacher simply said that ancient kings " really liked " having a captured king serve them. The preacher also describes a captured king as a " trophy. " Using one right word like trophy paints a picture worth many words.

Later in the sermon, when referring to Saul's statement to Samuel in verse 1 Samuel 15:13, the preacher comments: " Interesting how quickly he blurts out those words. " The term blurts is a splendid choice. Without being too flowery or excessive, it possesses more punch than a term like says. Sometimes preachers try to cover for weak words by using adjectives or adverbs. But this strategy usually backfires. It's better to use " blurts " than " says without hesitation " or " adamantly says. "

Unfortunately this sermon normally settles for generic statements rather than vivid descriptions. Perhaps the main weakness of this sermon is its failure to employ vivid images and descriptions more often. The concepts appear too abstract and fail to grab the listeners.

This weakness emerges in the second paragraph when the preacher says: " There are things God has given us to do, and they are serious business. " A statement like this deletes from the consciousness of most listeners. It attempts to restate the previous statement — " Every Christian is on a mission from God " — but it ends up neutralizing it. The terms things and serious business amount to vague generalities that don't stick in listeners' minds.

Although the preacher attempts to breathe life into the concept (that every Christian is on a mission from God) by offering four examples, the examples are too generic to connect with listeners' minds. The expressions " feed the hungry " and " clothe the naked " refer to significant aspects of the Christian mission, but these expressions sound like cliches.

Here is a rewritten example of paragraph two using specific descriptions that arrest a listener's consciousness rather than lulling it to sleep:

But the fact is, God has sent you on a mission. If you're a Christian, you're here on special assignment from God. Every time you offer a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup to a homeless man, you are on a mission from God. Perhaps you have a single mom who works in your office. After she pays the power bill, the rent, the phone bill, and thirty dollars to fill up her car with gas, she doesn't have much to buy clothes for her little girls. Every time you take those little girls to Old Navy and buy them shirts or sweaters, you are on a mission from God. Every time you stand before a group of teens sprawled on the floor of the youth room, or every time you stand before a handful of ladies seated around a table, and you open up the Word of God and start teaching, you are on a mission from God. Every time you exercise your gift of encouragement and write a card to a college student, you are on a mission from God.

The place where specific descriptions really come into play is in the story itself. You've probably noticed that the authors of Old Testament stories tell these stories in a lean, spare style. They rarely tell you about a character's appearance, about the weather, or about the color of the flowers. Details crop up only when they contribute to the plot. But when you speak to modern audiences who watch movies and read stories by Jan Karon or John Grisham, you need to add sensory details to paint the kind of scenes that engage listeners.

A good approach is to take a scene in the narrative and describe it rather than read it verbatim from the text. In fact, larger narratives require you to summarize rather than read every verse. For example, this sermon could capture the emotion and gravity of the scene in verses 1 Samuel 15:26-28 like this:

When he finished his plea, Saul peered into the eyes of the prophet for any hint of sympathy, any sign of concession. But the old prophet continued to glare down at him, and he announced with resolve: " I will not go back with you. You have rejected the Word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel. " With that, Samuel did an about-face and started to leave. The king, still on his knees, lunged and grabbed the hem of Samuel's robe as it whirled around the prophet's legs. There was a ripping sound, and then silence. Samuel stopped and peered at the ragged tear in the hem of his garment. Then he shifted his eyes back and forth from Saul's ashen face to the torn piece of cloth in Saul's hand. With an edge to his voice, the prophet said: " The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors. " He paused before pronouncing the next line: " to one better than you. "

A preacher will not sustain this level of description throughout the story. But at one or two key places in the story, filling in the details like this will draw the listener into the drama of the text.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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