Improve Your Preaching: How to Structure Your Sermon Like a Story

You should structure your sermon like a story. Consider this: no matter how old we get, we will always love a good story. It’s the reason we go to the movies, why we have subscriptions to Netflix and Hulu. It’s the reason we love good novels and great narrative non-fiction. But why do we love stories so much?

improve-your-preaching-how-to-structure-your-sermon-like-a-story

Quick story. Disney screenwriter Christopher Vogler, in the late 1980’s, found a work by Joseph Campbell called, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this work, Campbell proposed that all stories share a fundamental structure, which he called the mono-myth. When Vogler discovered Campbell’s work, he sent out a company memo to all other Disney screenwriters where he explained that they should retell the story that Campbell explained was present in all major stories as many times as they could. The story they would tell and retell eventually became known as the hero myth. Little did they know that the hero myth is a type of a bigger story.

Improve Your Preaching: How You Can Structure Your Sermon Like a Story

This hero myth has 12 parts to it. Real quick, here they are…

12 Parts to the Hero Myth

1. Ordinary World – the hero’s normal world before the story begins;

2. Call to Adventure – the hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure;

3. Refusal of the Call – the hero refuses the challenge or journey, usually because he’s scared or wounded by previous experiences in some way;

4. Meeting with the Mentor – the hero meets a mentor to gain advice or training for the adventure;

5. Crossing the First Threshold -the hero leaves the Ordinary World and goes into the Special World;

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies – the hero faces tests, meets allies, confronts enemies, and learns the rules of the Special World;

7. Approach – the hero has hit setbacks during tests and may need to try a new idea;

8. Ordeal – the biggest life-or-death crisis;

9. Reward – the hero has survived death, overcomes his fear, and now earns the reward;

10. The Road Back – the hero must return to the Ordinary World;

11. Resurrection Hero – another test where the hero faces death – he has to use everything he’s learned;

12. Return with Elixir – the hero returns from the journey with the “elixir,” and uses it to help everyone in the Ordinary World.

Campbell believed that all myths contain at least most of the above stages. Only a few have them all, but all have many or most of them.

Want to see the story this hero myth structure is really telling? Here’s how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the real story that all the others come from.

Am I advocating that we write down these 12 pieces and fit our sermons into them? No. That’s not the point.

The Case for Structuring Your Sermon Like a Story

structure-your-sermon-like-a-story-quoteIn every sermon, we are taking the congregation on a journey of discovering how God’s word intersects and informs their lives here and now. We are helping them see how God has been at work and is still working in this world. We are showing them the grand narrative, the grand story of the Bible and how we fit into it.

So if we are inherently telling a story when we are preaching (if we are preaching the gospel every time) then shouldn’t we be intentional about it? Here’s what I mean…

If we all love stories and if we are telling the story that God’s word is telling, then shouldn’t we structure our sermons in a way that leverages the elements of storytelling so that every sermon, no matter the passage, is written and delivered in a way that reminds us of a story? I think so.

How to Structure Your Sermon Like a Story

Just like you, I’m a student of the craft of preaching. I believe it was during a free webinar by Jeff Henderson that started me down the track of structuring my sermons in this way. It has given me a framework that I now follow for every sermon. So let’s jump in.

Part 1

Here we want to engage the congregation with some kind of story that describes some kind of common experience we have in life. Within the first five minutes, we want to get the congregation to lean in because they are trying to decide whether or not your sermon will be relevant for them.

If you can establish some common ground, get some laughs, speak to a deep desire, or all of that at the same time, you are engaging the congregation to the point where they are hooked into the story that is starting to be told.

Next, let’s do something that tv shows are usually really good at.

Part 2

Here we want to build tension in the story line. If the first part has them leaning in, the second part will have them really wanting to get to the next part (because that’s where the story arc reaches its climax). Jesus did this in the Sermon on the Mount.

Think about the beatitudes and how His listeners would have heard them initially. Who doesn’t want to be blessed, right?! But then He began saying all these interesting statements that surely had them wanting more of an explanation. How in the world could the meek inherit the earth?! That’s not what we’re seeing! Right?

There’s a reason why tv shows end with tension. It’s to build anticipation for the tension to be resolved in the next episode. In a similar way, building tension in a sermon is a way to get us to lean into the most important part of the sermon – part 3.

Part 3

Here we want to dive into the truth of God’s word. We’ll park here for the majority of the sermon. This is where we’ll show the congregation what God has to say and what God is doing in the story of life. We’ll spend time doing good exegesis of the text and help the congregation to place themselves in the situation of the text.

It’s one thing to know what it was like for some people we’ve never met who lived thousands of years ago. It’s another thing to describe their situation in a way that it is easy for you to then say imagine if you were them! And then help them consider what it would have been like…

The climax of the story arc is happening here.

Once they are rooted in the truth of God’s word, we can move to the next part.

Part 4

Here we want to expose the application of God’s truth for us here and now. If we’ve practiced good hermeneutics in part 3, then part 4 will naturally follow. When we consider what the author of the text meant originally, what it was like for the original recipients to receive the text, and how we relate to them today, we can move to answering the question, what about now?

Keep this fairly broad in explanation. In other words, cast the net wide here. Address the stages of life that are represented in the congregation. How does it apply to each of them? Is it different depending on their stage?

Now, the next two parts are interchangeable in order depending on how you want to end the sermon.

Part 5

Here we want to help the congregation imagine a future where this application is lived out. This will inspire action that is rooted in God’s word. You could tell a quick story of what this looks like when it is lived out. You could give a scenario where the application is lived out, and then tell what the result could be.

Part 6

Here we want to help the congregation take action in light of the truth and application. This is where the rubber meets the road. You’ll want to get very specific in the one call to action you give. Sometimes you’ll want to give two calls to actions. One for those who are Christ followers and one for those who are not.

Here’s a list of 7 action steps you can end your sermon with.

The Result? A Sticky Sermon Structure

When we write sermons that follow this structure, we write sermons that stick with the congregation. They are organized like a story – a structure we are all familiar wth.

We dive deep into every part of writing your sermon like this and all the other elements of preaching in our brand new book, Preaching Sticky Sermons.

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Written by Brandon Kelley

Brandon Kelley is the co-founder of Rookie Preacher and the author of Preaching Sticky Sermons and Crucified to Life. He serves as the Spiritual Development Pastor at a fast growing church in Williamsburg, Ohio, called The Crossing. Among the many things he does at The Crossing, serving on the teaching team is one of them. He also writes at BrandonKelley.org. You can follow him @BrandonKelley_. Watch his sermons here.