The power of story: Why great sermons aren't just for the religious
A great sermon doesn’t mean setting props on fire—but it sure doesn’t hurt, says Rob Bell.
Rob Bell is a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and spiritual teacher. His books include Love Wins, How to Be Here, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Velvet Elvis, The Zimzum of Love, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and Drops Like Stars. He hosts the weekly podcast The Robcast, which was named by iTunes as one of the best of 2015. He was profiled in The New Yorker and in TIME Magazine as one of 2011’s hundred most influential people. He and his wife, Kristen, have three children and live in Los Angeles.
Rob Bell: Yeah, that’s how it all started for me, is I was in a band and the band broke up—like college bands do, because everybody had to get jobs—and I was teaching water skiing at this camp and they said there’s going to be a religious service and who wants to give the sermon? And I said, "I will." And all of a sudden, you know, you say something and the words come out of your mouth and then you’re like, "Wait, what? Give a sermon?" I had heard a few sermons growing up and I always thought that the sermon raised that existential question, 'What’s for lunch?', you know, it was just boring. But I came out of band world where you engaged an audience, where there was something happening in the room from the back row to the front; let’s all go somewhere together. And so I remember doing my first sermon and thinking this is why I’m here. I’m going to reclaim the sermon as this lost art form. For many people in our culture, the sermon is just a belief-affirmation device. Just tell people what they already think so you all can feel smug in your rightness. For other people, the sermon is how you convince people to give money so you can build bigger buildings. For some people, the sermon is just how you get people to vote a certain way.
But you think about Martin Luther King—"I have a dream". Now that’s a sermon. Nobody heard that sermon and then thought, 'I don’t know, he’s usually funnier.' Do you know what I mean? You were either there or you weren't. It was dangerous and comforting and healing and provocative and you learned something and it gave you a new vision for what might be possible—that the sermon is an art form. And in many ways, in our culture, it’s been lost and some of us are trying to reclaim it as this art form that’s somewhere between performance art and guerrilla theater and a TED talk and a recovery meeting and a revival.
And that a sermon is for everyone. The sermon isn’t for a particular people who have already agreed that they all believe a particular, narrow set of things. A sermon is about what it means to be human. And so a sermon is poetry. A sermon is science. A sermon is visual. A sermon is experiential; I’ve set stuff on fire, I’ve had actors planted in the audience, I’ve built solar systems out of exercise balls that we hung from the roof, I’ve used live animals. I’ve done the sermon backward and then forward to make a larger point about time. Everything you can think of I’ve probably tried in relation to a sermon. And right now I do a residency at a club in West Hollywood near where I live, a comedy club called Largo, and I do these hour-and-15-minute, hour-and-30-minute sermons—I guess you call it a sermon, a one-man show, and I want to take you somewhere. And it’s history and it’s anthropology and it’s theology and sometimes it’s funny, and it’s pop culture and it’s data about all kinds of things, and it all mashes together. But we want to be inspired. We want new insight into who we are and who "we" are—we as human beings. Meaning is like oxygen for the soul; we want to know what it means. We want to know where it’s headed. We want to make sense of our past. We want to know how to forgive. We’re looking to make connections because, otherwise, the world is fragmented and fractured. It just comes at you with no narrative thread. And one of the things a sermon does is it connects this to this to this and you walk out of there with a little more sense of centered grounding, like, 'Oh, yeah, that is who we are. That is who I am. That is what we’re doing here.' And that’s, to me, a sermon.
I always begin with the depth of the common. So, you are going about your life and you’re getting coffee in the kitchen at work and somebody says, "Man, I had a rough weekend." You can go: 'Oh my word, Joan is so annoying. Oh Bill, another one of his weekend stories." You can sort of do that—or that can be a door and you can open it and you can say, "Tell me why your weekend was so rough." Because, the person, when they say my weekend was so rough they’re basically saying: could you please ask me about my weekend? And you have no idea. They may be splitting from their partner. Their kid may be sick. They may be in serious financial trouble. They may have a relative who just got a cancer diagnosis. So I begin with the idea that there’s more going on here and there’s always depth in the common, everyday, mundane, average moments of life. But you have to be moving a half step slower.
So I begin with most of us are missing all of these fascinating stories, all of these insights. It’s like the whole universe is a megaphone and it’s speaking to us. It’s reminding us what matters. But generally we have our head down and we’re checking our texts.
And secondly there is the universal and there is the particular. So there are the particulars of a story. What she was wearing. He was driving a Ford. She was in the front seat in a green sweater. It was a Thursday. It was raining. You saw them in a parking lot. You saw them arguing. You realized it was some ugly fight between these two lovers and they happened to be having it in the parking lot of the drugstore, and you describe the details and the particulars of that moment. The universal is: love can break your heart. And it takes a while, it takes a lot of work to keep a relationship together.
So there’s the particular and then there’s the universal, which is true for all of us. And so a sermon is moving back and forth between the particulars and the universals. And it knows the power of a good story and it knows how that story is true at some level for all of us. And then thirdly, a sermon is about good news. What good news do you have to bring us? Oftentimes the good news needs bad news for it to be good news. So we’re doing some horrible things to our environment. We’re polluting rivers. We’re filling landfills. We’ve got issues with the ozone layer. We’ve got climate change. That’s the bad news. The good news is: we can do something about it. We can all take little steps in our day-to-day lives to actually change the way we think about the soil and our relationship to the environment. So, a sermon, if it doesn’t have good news at some level then it’s missing sort of the key thing. But for it to be real, solid, actual, authentic good news it’s going to have to be honest about just what a mess we’ve made of this place.
A great sermon doesn’t mean setting props on fire—but it sure doesn’t hurt, says Rob Bell. Having gone into preaching after being in a band, Bell's methods are unorthodox—and the world is a better place for it. Rather than use the sermon as a belief-affirmation device, or to sway votes and donations, Bell uses his sermons to connect dots of meaning into a universal narrative. "A sermon is for everyone. The sermon isn’t for a particular people who have already agreed that they all believe a particular, narrow set of things. A sermon is about what it means to be human... You think about Martin Luther King—"I have a dream". Now that’s a sermon... It was dangerous and comforting and healing and provocative and you learned something and it gave you a new vision for what might be possible—that the sermon is an art form." Here, Bell shares his three-step process for how to tell a powerful story. Rob Bell is the author of How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living.
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