A variety of Illustrations
How to fully engage listeners
An article by Rob Bell
A lot of pastors, when they approach the text, have in their heads a list of rules. There are hermeneutical and exegetical rules. It's a good idea to get close to what the Bible actually might be saying. There are rules like "God is God, and we're not." But a lot of them have rules about the methodological and execution part of the preaching task.
What we need are people who will approach the text and say, "God, what do you want to unleash here?" The guiding principle is the text, and you've encountered the living, sacred Word, and you're going to explode if you don't share what's happened in you, as opposed to Well, I guess I have to start it this way. You don't. I have to have an intro. Prove it. Maybe some teaching people have no idea where you're going until the last minute, and maybe that's why it works.
The Good Samaritan
When Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, everybody thought it was going to be a Pharisee who stops, and a Samaritan stops. Get it? He has them. He's working them over.
Sometimes I intentionally have three teachings going at the same time. I want you to be wondering, That has nothing to do with what you're saying now. I have no idea And then at the end, oooh. If you don't get that oooh, you're in trouble.
The Historical Dimension
We swim in a deep stream. There are all these different dimensions. When I approach the text, I am part of a historical movement of people who said yes to God—to the revolution. I want to connect people. The Scriptures are accounts of redeeming. It's a story, and I get to be part of the continuing story.
Abraham left and set out from Haran. My mind immediately thinks, Okay, Haran, where was it? Can I get slides? Can I get pictures of it? What else happened there? What was Mesopotamian society like at that time? Are there other documents from Haran? What's the landscape like? What were the people like? What language did they speak? What was the currency? Are there other writers from that time? If you actually believe he's a real dude leaving a real place, then what was Haran like? If I knew something about Haran, would it help me understand the text?
It's not that you need this. It's not like you need the Bible—plus. But if we're serious about bringing it to life, maybe up comes a slide of Haran. "Let me tell you about this place." Especially for the person who's never been in church. Oh, okay, this is real people.
A friend of mine did a teaching on the sociopolitical climate of Gath. It sounds exciting, doesn't it? He walked through the god Dagon. He walked through the cult of Dagon.
Here was Dagon currency. Here were Dagon's cultic rites. Here was the way Dagon was organized. Here was Philistinian society. Here were the four Shephelahs that led from the Philistine region to the Israel region. David and Goliath battled in the Valley of Elah. What was the Valley of Elah known for because it was one of the four Shephelahs? Why do David and Goliath go battle here? What did Goliath believe about Dagon?
When he got to David and Goliath, he's reading the text, and people are, like, wow. If you understand Dagon and the things Goliath says, why does David say, "So the whole world will know"? Well, that's because of the Valley of Elah and what it was known for.
We swim in a deep stream, and there's a historical dimension. When I approach a text, I immediately want to know what's going on here. Why does he say this? And why does she say that? And why does this guy go here?
It's real people in real places at real times. When you come to the text, you've got all of these different things to draw from. That's my central idea. How do I connect these people in the third row who—their kid is sick, he lost his job, and her mother is in failing health? How do I connect them with real people in real places at real times who struggled with the same kinds of stuff?
Here's an example. King Herod was escaping from the Parthians. He's fleeing south of Jerusalem, and he finds out he's been rescued, and he's going to have his kingdom. He decides, I want to mark this place by building a mountaintop palace. The only problem is there's no mountain there. Herod builds a mountain in the middle of the Judean wilderness, and calls it the Herodian. It had a lower pool—in an area where it hasn't rained in eight hundred years—with a gazebo in the middle that you could only get to by boat. Unbelievable. There's a little town in the shadows of the Herodian called Bethlehem. When Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem, this giant mountaintop palace would have been right there.
What's interesting about this is we don't know where he got the dirt for this mountain. All we know is somewhere there isn't a mountain. It's like Archaeology 101. Even to this day it's dry, loose dirt at the top.
The reason why I say this is if you're on the Mount of Olives and you look south, you can see the Herodian, and then way off in the distance you can see the Dead Sea. Jesus, leaving Bethany, going into the Temple Mount, which means he crossed over the top of the Mount of Olives, turned to his disciples and said, "if you have faith like a mustard seed, you can say to a mountain, 'Be thrown into the sea,' and it will be done."
What else was Herod known for? Herod built a stadium. They've excavated 350,000 seats. They believe it sat 500,000 people. He built the second temple. Bill Gates has a paper route compared to Herod. And Jesus turned to a group of post-pubescent Talmudean disciples and said: Hey, by the way, you have faith? You can do greater things than Herod.
In teaching and preaching, when you can capture this element of real people in real places, it does amazing things.
The Experiential Dimension
These are questions I ask myself. How can I make it as hard as possible for somebody to sit with a holy stare? How can I make it so you have to engage? How can I create an experience such that it becomes harder and harder for people to stay spectators? What's happening in this text? What could I have people do? What could I have them say to each other? What can I have them feel, hold, or look at? Is there something I could hand out?
forming, formation, great illustration
When I talked about how Ephesians says we're God's handiwork, the word is poiÄ“ma, which means artwork. I purchased a lump of modeling clay for everybody. When you walked in, you were handed a chunk of clay. I did the whole teaching around forming. "You're God's art." The title of the sermon was "You're a Piece of Work." Which is a biblical phrase. What can you hand out?
I've handed out honey. The rabbis used to place honey on a kid's finger and say, "May the words of God be as delicate." When you walk in and you're handed a honey bear, people are engaged.
I was thinking about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness: What if I could convince our whole congregation to fast on the Saturday before our Sunday services? What if everybody could come to the Sunday services having not eaten on Saturday, and when they walked in they were handed a rock? And what if the whole teaching was Satan saying to Jesus, "Turn this rock into bread"? How can I let them know we're going somewhere today? "I want to take you somewhere, so here's this rock."
Last Christmas, I had somebody buy everyone in the church a little chunk of myrrh. We talked about how myrrh was used to ease people's suffering when they were being crucified. At Jesus' birth the parents are given myrrh. Real hopeful gift there.
If people can smell it, the kids can chew it, if you can create as many different dimensions as possible—many of us are tactile—if we can feel it, it makes more sense.
How can I get people out of their seats? One Easter, we built a tomb. I gave people sheets of paper and talked about how Jesus rose from the dead.
If somebody died and came back to life, that is a dangerous person because they're not scared of much. You can chuck your flannelgraph, white-bathrobed Jesus, because this is one dangerous dude. He survived death. People who aren't afraid of death are frightening to be around because they'll do anything. If you have given your life to Jesus, you have trusted your life to somebody who knows what they're going to do. Whatever you're scared of you need to write it on a sheet of paper. We're going to spend some time worshiping. You need to take whatever it is you fear and throw it into the tomb and leave it there.
And to see on Easter Sunday people walking up and spouses sobbing and then throwing it into the tomb
I did this message on "The Gospel According to Salsa," and talked about how my wife makes the best salsa in the world. And I will arm-wrestle you about that. Everything in my wife's salsa was living at one point. The tomato was living. The parsley was living. The cilantro was living. The onion was living. But in order for it to be made into salsa, it had to be plucked from its life source. The tomato had to be cut from the vine. All of your food was living at one point, but it had to be severed. It had to die in order for it to make it to your plate. If you're at a restaurant and your food is not dead, leave immediately. But there's this principle in which we have to eat to live.
What's interesting about your food is that everything that you eat—and food gives you life—it had to die first. Death is the engine of life. The worm is eaten by the bird, which is eaten by the cat, which is eaten by the wolf, which is eaten by the grandchildren of the worm. Even in the physical realm, death is the engine of life. That's why a Twinkie isn't good for you, because it was never really alive.
Here's the idea. Death is what gives life to the physical universe. When God sends his Son to give us life, his Son has to die. So the cross isn't just true sacramentally. Death is life all over the place. God giving us life through Jesus' death isn't a new idea in the history of the world. It's God working in the flow of what he's already created. I started thinking, That's what Jesus keeps saying about really living. To be fully alive you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, become a servant. It's still true that in order to live I have to die. We had this cross set up, and we said, "What do you need to die to, so you can really live? We're going to spend some time worshiping. Come up and kneel at the cross and take whatever is on that sheet of paper and jam it into the rocks at the bottom of that cross.
I'm always trying to think, How can we engage people, and they can do something?
One of the problems for preachers is when they're thinking, What am I going to say about this text? The question should be What does the text want to say? And how many different dimensions can I get going? In my message "The Goat Has Left the Building," I had slides talking to you, I read the text, the goat came in, the high priest in his outfit, and I said at one point, "Turn to the person next to you" and say such and such. Hopefully you were engaged at multiple levels. You were engaged visually. You were engaged auditorially. There were multiple things going on that carried the thing along. We're like artists.
We have all of these different tools at our disposal. We have this massive world God has created, and the Scripture leaps to life with truth that can't be kept down. Think about the example of Jesus: Check out those birdscheck out those liliesa man had two sons.
What's Jesus doing? He's saying, "Look at the world. You can learn about God from that." So I want to pull from those many different things.
Another thing we do is assume a teaching is about me talking. There are times when the worst thing I should do is talk. I heard a teaching the other day; a guy told the most unbelievable personal story. It was an overwhelming story. The problem was, previous to that story was a lot of talk, and immediately following the story was a lot of talk. Mark Twain said, "if I would have had more time, I would have said less." That story was brilliant, but it got steamrolled by the stuff before and after. You don't have to talk the whole time to be preaching.
What I'm learning is there are times when the worst thing I can do is talk. For me, in my message "The Goat Has Left the Building," when the high priest was walking toward his seat, it was sacred moment. I can't explain it. The problem with some of our preaching is you can explain it. You got your four points, your three applications, and this is what the text means.
At the end of the parable of the prodigal son, is Jesus saying, "Okay, here's the deal—God is the father figure"?
What if at the end of Gladiator, Ridley Scott, the director, came out and said, "My intention was that you identified with Russell Crowe"? Great stories tell themselves. What we need are the storytellers.
The "Celebrate a Mystery Rather Than Conquering It" Dimension
One of the things that helps people is, when we've explained enough, we should let it sit. I have mystery on my side.
John 3:16 says: For God so loved the world that he gave his Son.
Why did God give his Son? Because God loved the world. You mean God loves everybody? No matter what they've done? God loves everybody the same. His love is unending. God's love is expansive. It's unlimited. It endures forever. Do we have God's love now? I'm just scratching the surface. Why does God love the world? God is love. Okay, sure. That fixes it.
The nature of mystery is that when you get an answer it raises a whole new set of questions. You know the foundations of our faith, the Trinity? Yeah, sure, the Trinity, I got that one nailed. We believe as orthodox Christians, and yet the nature of believing and placing our faith in the Trinity raises new questions. How could God be three in One? How can God be a community of self-giving love, of oneness? The nature of truth is that it brings up more questions. That's why sometimes you heard sermons and thought, I've heard that all before.The person was preaching the doctrines of the faith, and yet you knew something was missing. A friend of mine says, "if you study, and it doesn't lead you to wonder and awe, then you haven't studied." Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder."
There's a time when words fail and you simply have to worship. When you are preaching, there are moments, when we stop and say, "We're just going to sit in awe of God."
The "You Be You" Dimension
You be you. I always think about the dimension of new identity. You aren't who you were. Where in this teaching is God's message to the people that I'm leading or teaching at this moment about who they are in Christ? How is this teaching going to paint for them a more beautiful, compelling picture of who God says they are in Christ? I want to create these pictures. I want to create teachings that are so beautiful that people are pulled into the ways God created them to live. How do I do this? Where is the empowerment element?
The "There Are No Rules" Dimension
There are no rules. Other than basic things like doctrine: God and Jesus. But in terms of how you're going to do it, maybe there's no intro. Maybe the whole point of the teaching is it comes at you and people are just, like, wow!
I did a teaching one time on silence where I put the whole teaching on slides and stood there for forty-five minutes. At the end I said, "Let's stand for a benediction." Up came "May the Lord bless you and keep you," and I waved and walked off.
Maybe you read a whole Book of the Bible. Sometimes reading the story is better than anything you could say. What does it take to bring it to life?
Things Taste Better When They've Been Marinated
I work on teachings for as long as four to six months, a year. You'd think I was obnoxious because if we go out to lunch I'll be diagramming on a napkin.
If you're married and I said, "Tell me about your wedding day," you could tell it to me. You wouldn't say, "I forgot my notes." No, you just tell me.
Those of you who have kids, if I asked, "How old are your kids, and what are their names?" You won't say, "I have my notes some place. I don't have my PowerPoint with me." No. Boom, boom, boom, these are the ages. Why? Because it's a part of you.
What if your teaching was such a part of you it was like telling about your wedding day or like telling about your first job? What would it be like if you could tell it like it was a story you told 200 times?
That's my passion. I have found the harder I work and the farther out I've been working on it, the more freedom I have.
The people who are listening to you, they know when it's become a part of you. They can feel when the speaker is just giving some information and observation, and they know when it is coming right through your soul.
We don't need people who sing the notes off a chart. We need soul singers. We need prophets. We need poets. Our generation needs people who have had an experience. They've got their hair set on fire. They're wild-eyed, and they can't wait. I got to say this, or I'm going to explode.
I've been wrestling with this lately. God makes the world in six days; rests on the seventh. Six days, seven. Six, one. Six, one. There is a rhythm to six days on and one day off. I started thinking about drummers and how drumming is all about the spaces. It's all about hitting it and then backing off. Music and beat and meter and drum are a reflection of how God made the world. If you don't take that day and live according to the beat God has put in creation, your song isn't going to be good. When the drummer is off, the whole song falls apart. Rhythm is something that's built in; it's elemental to life.
Everybody I come in contact with, I say, "Check this out. Think about this. Sabbath and drums." I get something like this, and I can't shut up about it. By the time I get to share it with people, I will have told the person at the gas station. I will have told the person at 7/11—everybody I come in contact with. "Check this out. Sabbathdrums."
I invite you to become thoroughly unbalanced like me.
Rob Bell is pastor of Mars Hill (Grand Rapids, Michigan), and author of 2009's Drops Like Stars (Zondervan).