I recently spoke with a (pastor) friend who told me about a fascinating talk he had heard in person given by an attorney named Morris Dees (of the Southern Poverty Law Center). There is a version of the talk available online HERE. Politics aside, the talk is very helpful.
In it, he makes the point that the job of an attorney is not simply to present facts. Rather, he says, the job of the attorney is to present a compelling story. In order to do this well, the attorney must crystallize that narrative into one clear, compelling statement – a theme.
He further makes the point that the main point of the theme must get ‘to the heart’ of what was lost in the case. He gives an example of what this looks like: a mentally challenged African American man named Billy Ray Johnson was beaten and severely injured at a party in or near his east Texas hometown. As a result of this beating, Billy Ray became physically disabled. The perpetrators of the crime were basically given a slap on the wrist by local authorities.
Dees took up Billy Ray’s civil case, seeking a large amount of money for his injuries. The problem – how could he get a jury in east Texas to give a large sum of money to a man who was already mentally handicapped, had no education, and had essentially no earning power to begin with? What did the man really lose?
After interviewing multiple people that knew Billy Ray, Dees and his team pulled together a common theme that Billy Ray loved to go to parties and dance. In fact, the only picture of him (before the accident) that they were able to find showed Billy Ray standing next to a jukebox. From this, Dees set forth a theme for the case: Billy Ray can’t dance. Witness after witness testified that the one thing Billy Ray truly loved to do was dance – and that his assailants had taken away his ability to do the one thing he truly loved. This argument won the case for Billy Ray, and he was awarded around $11.5 million for damages and future care.
Again, politics aside, though he never intended it for this, Dees’ point about themes is helpful for Christian preachers, and Christians in general. Any sermon, or evangelistic presentation, should have a compelling theme, and more times than not that theme should get at the heart of something significant that has been lost.
As a preacher, I should always be looking for a compelling theme in my text; and I should be asking how that theme points to the heart of our condition as fallen people. This ultimately will allow the preacher to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ poignantly to the lost condition of man in a very clear way. Too often we dance around a text, making points here and there, giving commentary or insights or applications on various verses throughout a passage. But do we develop a compelling theme? This is precisely what men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Haddon Robinson have called upon preachers to do. And is this theme compelling in a way that it speaks to the heart of man’s condition?
And this theme, says Dees, should do more than present facts. It should present a narrative. Now I recently spent a lot of time studying what has been deemed ‘narrative preaching’ and have found much of it to be atrocious. However, we must remember that the ‘dogma’ of Christianity is really a ‘drama’ (to quote Dorothy Sayers). Our message revolves around a real-life, dramatic story centering upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our own stories must intersect with the story of Christ. In this day and age arguing for the fact of the resurrection is not enough – we must present Christ not just as fact, but as the ultimate centerpiece of the story of the universe, and the very heart of what man must gain if he is to recover what was lost. We have lost fellowship with God; we have become the villains and rebels of the great cosmic drama, and God has entered the story that he might reconcile us with himself.
I know that most of my readers are not preachers; but most of you are Christians; so let me apply this. When you are dealing with an unbelieving coworker, friend, family member, etc. and desire to see them come to the Lord, do not simply worry about stating facts. You must state facts, but that is likely not all. Be sure to present your facts around a compelling theme that gets to the heart of what your friend has lost. That theme will always end up terminating on the person and work of Christ, but it will be slightly different in each case, depending on the needs of the person you are dealing with. What loss have they experienced that cuts the deepest? It’s not that they literally can’t dance, but there is some form of alienation that they feel, some wound that is out in the open that needs to be addressed. Show them that they can’t dance, and show them that, and how, in Christ, they can.