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The Preaching Lab: Well-told stories can make sermons memorable


The Rev. Dr. Alice Ridgill offers tips

August 26, 2021

The Rev. Dr. Alice Ridgill, associate executive of the Presbytery of Charlotte, spoke to about 40 participants in The Preaching Lab on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Presbytery of Charlotte)

Preacher, tell us a story.

People who listen to sermons week after week will usually sit up and take notice when the preacher launches into a good story, according to the Rev. Dr. Alice Ridgill, associate executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Charlotte. Ridgill spoke during the third installment of The Preaching Lab, a five-part online workshop offered monthly by New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, through a grant by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Stories, Ridgill said, “transcend race, culture and class. All of us identify with a good story.” Someone said once the “shortest distance between two people is a good story,” Ridgill said.

Jesus’ stories, his three dozen or so parables, remain with us today for a number of reasons, including:

  • They’re relatable and easy to understand
  • They’re examples used to illustrate a doctrine or precept
  • They’re earthly stories with a heavenly meaning
  • They have a way of drawing us in
  • They force us into considering their underlying meaning
  • Often they contain an element of shock.

Most people listening to their preacher weekly would prefer a story to mere information-sharing, she said. Ridgill said one study shows stories are 22 times more memorable than the facts alone. “You say, ‘Once upon a time,’ and they know what’s coming next,” Ridgill told the group, made up largely of preachers. “You see people sit up and lean forward when they know a good story is coming.”

Ridgill recalled a sermon she once delivered “that was not going well. I was presenting a lot of information, and I had done my homework. My exegesis was tight, but the longer I preached, the more I could see people were fading. My one saving grace was the story at the conclusion. When I started it, people sat up and were more engaged, giving me their undivided attention. There’s something about a story that helps people relate to what you’re saying.”

Ridgill offered up three don’ts and three dos to the gathered preachers.

  • Don’t assume you aren’t a good storyteller
  • Don’t overload your stories with unnecessary details
  • Don’t make yourself the star of the story
  • Do consider the point you’re trying to make
  • Do use stories that are relatable to your audience
  • Do use sensory language. Better to say, “She sat in a tub of ice-cold water” rather than just, “She sat in a tub,” Ridgill said.

Oh — and make your stories sticky, she urged.

Sticky stories engage the senses, evoke emotion and paint a picture, Ridgill said. “In the preaching moment, we have to help listeners not only hear the truth of God’s word, but to see it,” Ridgill said.

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: The Preaching Lab-online workshop

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Teresa Sontarp, Director, Financial Reporting, Board of Pensions
Jake Souder, Program Assistant, Educational Resources, Office of the General Assembly

Let us pray

Loving God, we are mindful that you have called your people to sit together in the kingdom of God. We are thankful for new ministries within our midst that give witness to that calling. Please bless these ministries. Amen.