Friday, November 11, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: The Big Story

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Oh no, here we go: Immanuel Can has been getting email again.

Moody Publishers and Justin Buzzard have this to share:

“Everybody in your city has a story. Preaching is your opportunity to share the Bible in a way that engages each one. But how do you do this with both Christians and non-Christians at your service?

Effective preaching is preaching directed at both the people who are already part of your church and people in your city who are not yet part of any church. Story is the key to engaging both of these audiences well. If you can connect with each person’s story, challenge it, and recast it with your preaching, your Sunday gatherings will be increasingly filled with people who are following Jesus and people who aren’t.


It is natural for most pastors to connect their preaching with other Christians, but they must also connect their preaching to the very different storylines inhabited by the non-Christians in their community. If you’re not yet doing this, now is the time to start. Start preaching each week as though there are non-Christians in the room, even if there aren’t. You will learn to do this better by having non-Christian friends and by knowing the pulse of your city. Eventually, non-Christians will start coming — the Christians they know will invite them because they know your preaching will speak to them.


After you connect to the storyline non-Christians are living in your city, challenge it. Use your preaching to show how the story has a bad ending — how faith in atheism, success, power, etc. — leads to disappointment instead of freedom and joy. This isn’t just a technique. This is a way of preaching that grows from a heart that wants to know and love the diverse people in your city who are far from God.


After connecting with and challenging the non-Christian storyline, retell people’s story with the happy ending found only in the gospel and the particular text you’re preaching. For example, if you’re preaching John 10:10 in Los Angeles, a city obsessed with image and fame, you can show people that the abundant life, love, and excitement they’re searching for is found only in Jesus — the One who laid down his life and fame in order to give us true life. Such preaching is relevant to non-Christians, but it also equips the Christians in the room to better understand their faith and how to thoughtfully share it with others.

Everyone on the planet believes some sort of story to make sense out of their life. Only the story of the Bible is big enough to make sense out of both the beauty and the brokenness in people’s lives.”

Immanuel Can: This is sane in one way, and interestingly insane in another.

The Narrative School of Thought

This guy has obviously (but maybe unconsciously) bought into the Narrative School of thought, promoted by folks like philosopher Paul Ricoeur, which argues that we experience life by making “stories” about where we are now and where we are going in life. So now evangelism is about “connecting” with people’s “stories”.

You don’t make these sorts of mistakes if you’ve read a little philosophy. You’d recognize the source, and take a hike.

Tom: The concept is not completely awful if you distil it down to: 1) listen; 2) figure out what the other guy believes; and 3) point out where it deviates from scripture and therefore fails to deliver for him.

But I find the pitch to be both pretentious and even a bit patronizing, which are two fairly serious crimes against communication. I can’t say whether the book takes the same tone. Let’s hope not ... I mean, I don’t want to be “recasting” anything, thank you very much. The thought kinda creeps me out. And those poor non-Christians “inhabiting” a storyline. Is there any way we can break them out of there?

Self-Absorption and Subjectivity

IC: No, I agree. If it means “Listen to the other person and find out where he is in his journey to meet Christ, and help him make the next step if you can”, then I’m all for that. It’s just that the guy seems so in love with the metaphor of “story” that he’s forgotten that it is essentially a fictitious thing … or at least a potentially semi-fictitious interpreting of partially-known events. He seems to put a lot of weight on the idea that the “story” we are telling ourselves about where we are in the present moment is really the place we are in the present moment, and that helping along that “story” is the same as helping the person in question.

Tom: We have plenty of self-absorption and subjectivity in the world without encouraging more of it. I have told myself all kinds of stories about my own life over the years. Hopefully the narrative I now embrace is slightly closer to the one God observes than the nonsense I told myself in my twenties.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city” ... but when you get down to it, the only one that matters is the Lord’s version.

IC: Right. And we’re not really competent to tell that one, are we?

Spotty Insights Loosely Connected

Thus, instead of having some sort of complete narrative view of ourselves, what we really have is spotty insights loosely connected in ways that seem plausible at the moment. But as Paul said rightly, “I do not even judge myself …”. He was striving to be worthy of the prize, not convinced on the basis of his personal narrative that he inevitably would be. I think we’re all like that.

Tom: And to meet someone’s perceived needs falls far short of meeting their actual needs.

IC: Our self-judgments are, we might say, necessarily provisional — both necessary, that we may be humble, moral and obedient, but admittedly provisional, since we have no complete or certain text from which to “read” our own story.

Tom: This is where the work of the Holy Spirit is such a critical part of witnessing. If we cannot read our own “story” rightly, where do we find the sensitivity and experience to read and address the “story” of others, especially those who are culturally or experientially different? It is the Spirit, through the Word, who is always competent to effectively challenge the stories we tell ourselves. I have often said things to people that I later found affected them in a major way, but at the time, I had no clue that was happening.

I was just quoting scripture, that’s all. I didn’t know from “stories”.


  1. I've noticed that many authors, drawing on their background in the "Pastor system", use the term "preaching" generically, and fail to distinguish between different gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is assumed that Pastor = preacher = teacher+evangelist+exhorter.

    Now if a church makes a conscious decision to only hire a Pastor who has all 3 of these gifts, then it kinda makes sense (I've personally never met a man with all 3 of these gifts, but I've met many who pretend they do). But in real life, the average church Pastor is expected to do all things, when the chances are that the Spirit has only equipped him to do one of these things well. Maybe mega-churches can hire an evangelist to be the Pastor of Outreach, but most churches are not in this situation.

    On the other hand, what we see in the New Testament is that those with a specific gift simply use it. I'm a teacher, and so I teach. Not fancy draw in the masses sermons. Just plain, responsible teaching in each sermon, as the Spirit leads and empowers.

  2. Your observation about the differences between us points out another difficulty for me in the whole "connecting with a 'story' " concept, Shawn, and that's this: How, from the platform, could you ever connect with, challenge or recast the stories of even a very small room full of people? I've never spoken to even four or five people who all had the same "story" to work with.

    I think we have to realize that as much as we might like to participate in the preaching of the gospel or sharing of truth by using our brains (perhaps getting a little credit for a modicum of foresight or wisdom), the Lord far more often uses us in ways we cannot calculate and are both different from and go beyond anything we might have anticipated or planned.

    1. I think there are some big, common "stories", Tom...but I find they're mostly bunk. For example, there's the story, "All religions teach peace and love," and there's the story, "No one knows the answer," and there's the story "I'm okay, you're okay," and a whole bunch of other such myths born of general desire-to-believe.

      Maybe addressing some of these myths can be of use to a general audience, but as you rightly point out, they fail to target the personal "stories" people have. So I think the author of the article must be thinking exclusively of one-on-one witnessing: otherwise, he's going to have the problem you point out.


  3. Ok, this is probably a horrid analogy because the spiritual battles in a man are not going to be won or lost by clever salesmanship, nor should they be. But with that said I have spent (too) many years selling people ideas (which is really what products are before they're delivered). I've come to realize that if they like me and connect with me as a person, they engage and ultimately usually buy - price and other objections are quickly justified / dismissed out of hand because they *want* to deal with me.

    Conversely, if they don't like me, they shut down very quickly and any objection - no matter how small - becomes a fatal objection. In those cases, the product or idea I'm peddling better be really terrific to overcome their resistance. In an ideal world I make a personal connection AND I represent a terrific product or idea; when that happens I win deals a lot more than I lose. There is no better idea to "sell" than the ideas that truly come from God's word.

    This has affected the way I present anything including preaching on the odd occasion. Part of that message delivery is that I must find a way - virtually any way - to connect with the audience in front of me, to convince them that we are not all here playing church but instead are confronting the issues of eternity and connecting them with day to day living and the reality of a 2015 world. I most definitely do not want to preach AT them, I want to (oh boy this sounds squishy) share WITH them. I want to stop being seen as a preacher and start being heard as a person.

    The core of the thing is and must remain the God's word faithfully delivered. But my role as a public presenter is to - as much as it is given to me - adorn the gospel. I want to make it as easily understood, as graciously and winsomely delivered as it can possibly be. I do not want anyone to reject a right message because the messenger was unpalatable or unpleasant.

    So no, I don't think you can connect with a hundred different competing "stories" in a room full of a hundred people in a specific way. But you can definitely connect on a common human level with the vast majority of those folks. When you see it done, it's compelling. And I wish I saw more of it.

  4. First, let me preface my comments by saying that I have no idea who Mr Buzzard is or what he believes. When I originally read his quotes that you included I didn't read his "story" as what IC described as fictitious tales. I inserted the word "testimony" and his words made very good sense. I would like for you two, Tom & IC, to go back and insert that word and how he describes a speakers story/testimony as a way to reach the non-Christian in a mixed audience.

    I just don't see, again based just on the given quote, where you get that this is a heretical or misguided idea.

    Alcoholics/Addicts living in freedom can speak to those currently struggling with the very same darkness that the enemy has them living in simply by sharing their testimony or story, if you will, about how the love of Christ lead them out of the darkness.

    I just feel like there could be a misunderstanding as to how this guy used the word, story. Then again, I could be totally off base here because I can't ya'll using that many words to discredit or disagree with just these five paragraphs excerpted from a book.

    Am I missing something?

    1. Not at all, Micah, but it's quite possible you haven't run into the concept as often as we have. IC, with his philosophy background, is probably better equipped to explain how Mr. Buzzard's use of the word "story" relates to Paul Ricoeur and the Narrative School, but I've run into the idea here and there as well.

      For me it's more personal and less textbook-y. A couple of years ago it dawned on me that we do, in fact, tell ourselves a lot of stories. By that I mean I do it, and I started to notice others doing it too. It's almost like a security blanket to be able to take the apparent disorder of some of the tougher events in our lives and explain them with a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Except then you move five years down the road, learn a few more things about life, and reassess the "story" you used to tell yourself. And amazingly, the story is now a little bit longer and a little bit different. Ten years down the road it is different again. In the late '80s, for instance, I told myself a story about my interaction with a particular church in which my behaviour was modestly heroic and unselfish. By the mid-'90s I was able to look at that situation with more than a little shame at how naive and full of bluster I had been. The difference was scripture, good counsel, maturity and time.

      Anyway, all to say, I have little confidence in the stories we tell ourselves or those that others tell us. I think that's consistent with the scriptures that tell us the heart is "deceitful about all things, and desperately wicked". Knowing the Lord does not change that instantly. It takes time for the human heart to take on the character of Christ, so my thought is that only the Lord really knows the true "story" of my life -- or anyone else's.

      I'm getting lengthy here, but to deal with your point about substituting the word "testimony" for story, I see it works when dealing with a Christian telling his own story. But when Mr. Buzzard talks about "storylines inhabited by non-Christians in your community", it's clear that "testimony" will not serve as a synonym, and the same with all his references to the "non-Christian storyline".

      I may be all wet, but it seems to me he's talking about making the effort to figure out where other people are coming from (not a bad thing unless you rely too much on the information they are giving you and not enough on the Spirit of God in witnessing). I have more to say about stories in a post next week.

      In the meantime, I agree with you that sharing a testimony is a great thing. But I think it's the stories of the unsaved in his audience that Mr. Buzzard is primarily concerned with.

    2. P.S. Yes, I think I'd call the idea "misguided" rather than "heretical". There are definitely bigger problems among Christians than figuring out the most effective way to witness or preach.

  5. "But I think it's the stories of the unsaved in his audience that Mr. Buzzard is primarily concerned with."

    I didn't read it that way at all, but I'll go back and reread and pray for discernment as I do.

    Tom: "And to meet someone’s perceived needs falls far short of meeting their actual needs."

    Tom, I've admitted that I didn't take Mr Buzzard's quotes like you did although I could be wrong, but what does this little diddy of a quote mean. Please break down for us simple men what this balderdash is referencing?

    I'm not sure why, but in the context of sharing the gospel, this statement really bothers and angers me. Did Christ die so you could be the perception police?

  6. No, I don't think that. I'm quite certain the Lord died for considerably greater things than the validation of my opinion.

    Furthermore, I have no desire whatsoever to "police" anyone's perceptions. I regret leaving you with that impression, however inadvertently. Rather, what I'm suggesting is that, based on my own experience, we are not always the best judges of what we need. That doesn't mean I have any insight into what you or anyone else needs, especially if I am preaching to an audience I don't know personally.

    I'd like to think the post and my comments make it fairly clear that what I'm saying is we don't know and can't know what people need from outside their heads, because they often don't know themselves what they need.

    An example, and forgive me if I've used it before, but it's the first thing that comes to mind: As a child, when I got into a fight with my brother, I would scream to my parents for justice. It seemed to me that relief from my brother's unreasonable behaviour was the thing I needed most. Imagine my annoyance when my mother almost invariably scooped me up and put me to bed for an hour. Amazingly, on waking, the problem had been forgotten, and my brother and I often went back to playing happily. Short version: My mother's assessment of my needs was better than my own perceived assessment.

    I believe this also applies to adults. We don't always fully understand the solution to our own problems, so we may believe we need something different from or inferior to what we actually need.

    Another example: A dear friend of mine who is not saved struggles with depression. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that knowing the Lord would help him more than anything else I could offer. That's not how he sees it -- at least not yet. I could cheer him up by letting him spend the evening bending my ear, and I often do, but I know that his perceived need (company) is not his real need, so my efforts to help are destined to fall short until he comes to know the Lord.

    1. I agree with both examples, Tom. In fact, based on the original post, I believe that a Christian who's experienced depression could help your friend in a mighty way by sharing their testimony (read: story) including their struggles as well as how they were healed from this illness through their trust in Christ.

      Look, I apologize for coming on so strong, but to put that statement out there alone with no context or description of how you decided to type it and let it stand alone is irresponsible IMO.

      I believe that our fight as Christians is not against right or wrong, good or bad, it's against the darkness that tries to block the Light. It matters whether what Mr Buzzard teaches is fruitful or unfruitful in the context of does it lead to the Light or is it a fabrication and false gospel of the leader of darkness. I don't think either of us can make that distinction at this point and based on the tenor of the original post you didn't try to determine dark vs light, you discussed an opinionated right vs wrong.

      He could be the biggest kook on the planet and he could also be trying to help others distinguish the dark from the Light, am I wrong?

    2. No apology required, Micah. It's in the nature of communication to fail at it sometimes and, writing every day, I definitely don't always make my point in the best possible language every time.

      When you write something it's sometimes hard to read it any other way than the way you thought of it when you wrote it, at least until somebody points out that it wasn't clear to them. So I always appreciate a chance to clarify, and I appreciate the time and effort involved in asking the question.

      As for Mr. Buzzard, I'm certain he's trying to help others, and he's definitely not the biggest kook on the planet. There's serious competition for that title.

    3. Micah:

      Tom's right...a little knowledge of the philosophical background here would quickly reveal more than a mere mention of the idea of "story," and that "story" today means something quite different than mere "testimony." It's a more comprehensive narrative...a whole "life's story" so to speak, into which the individual is said to interpret his whole existence.

      What secularists like most about the "story" idea is that in their view all "stories" are equally "true" and thus equally "false" at the same time, so that no "storyteller" can actually criticize or even evaluate someone else's "story." And there is no Grand Story (they use the term "metanarrative") into which we need to fit.

      Well, The Salvation Story is the grandest metanarrative of all. So if there is no "metanarrative" then there isn't any way to tell anyone they are in need of salvation. This makes the Narrative School description of the situation much different from anything a Christian can accept.

      So I submit to you that perhaps your charitable reading of Mr. Buzzard does your charitable attitude credit; but in this case, it's perhaps a little too charitable.

      Check out Jean-Francois Lyotard's essay "The Postmodern Condition" if you want to see what today's skeptical eggheads really think "story" is about. And it's these guys who, knowingly or not, Mr. Buzzard is channeling through his language.