What stories have shaped you as a person? What movies or books or family histories have molded you to be who you are today? Over the last few years of doing Youth Ministry I’ve found that some stories are more meaningful than others, and some are downright epic. I have a few and I’ll share them in the middle of this post. But what makes a story epic? I suppose it is the story that hits us hard and challenges our notion of what it means to be human and forces us to act on it in real life. The basis of a good story is the “idea” or kernel of why the characters do what they do and think what they think. In our own lives, amidst our comforts, we often become complacent in what we have become and how we do things. Anyone or any group at any time may stop challenging themselves – to be better, or to be more disciplined, or to go beyond what they already know. It is these stories that push us past our previous borders, that are epic – larger than life. They mold us and they take us places we never thought we would go.
These epic, life changing stories are also ripe for sermon illustrations to your youth and congregations. From time to time I’ve found myself rifling through illustration banks, and through files of saved illustrations that have hit me in the past, only to realize that some of the stories don’t mean anything to me. They are just stories that have happened that illustrate a logical point that I’m trying to prove. The problem with this, is that crowds do not respond to calculated messages. This cold preperation is noted by the audience, and the ideas you are proving get placed exactly where you had them before your sermon – in a folder, tucked away, where no one will be able to remember or act on them. This is the benefit of remembering your “epic” stories. When you tell these stories something different happens. You light up before the audience, you smile, you frown, you may cry, or burst out into laughter. These pieces are not just fragments from paper, they are the fleshing out of your soul. You’re identity is wrapped up in them, and they make you better because of them. Think about it. If you have been changed, and radically moved by these stories, so will your teens, your congregants. And when the story illustrates God’s plans of redemption and interactions in the lives of the people of the world; the story goes beyond epic and finds a proper place as you bring the heavens to bear on the earth, and God’s ways to shed light on how we should live despite our own ways.
It is true, that such preaching and speaking may lead to mistakes, because such passioned stories sometimes bring us to the depths of our emotional being. Some illustrations are too cutting to share, and should be kept to our trusted confidants rather than to a congregation, and that is up to our discretion to ensure that we are not treating out listeners as a group psychologist, but rather as a group of people who need to see and understand God’s glory in real and tangible ways. Story is a way to do so, so be wise in your illustrations, and even wiser as you apply them to real life and move forward from the life in the Holy Scriptures.
Personal Epics: So as you share your own epic stories here, I will take some time to share some of mine. Since I am an avid movie goer I will share Five Movies That Changed My Life, and I will give a breif set of examples of why they changed me, and then give one way that the movie can be used as a powerful, “epic” illustration.
(1) Groundhog Day – A man finds himself trapped reliving one day over and over and over again. The cycle of reliving the same day, begins to wear on him and as he discovers himself, finds refinement, and moves beyond the superficial life that those of us trapped “in time” can become slaves to. The viewer relates to this man who doesn’t know how to react to this strange situation, and each day we ask, “Will he see another day?” He first uses his power to live one day forever for his own self satisfaction, but begins to discover the warmth and goodness that humans can attain with proper thought and reflection. Illustration: The truth behind this is that we often don’t find the time to stop and experience the good that is all around us. The main character must do as Jesus taught:“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25). The message is powerful and with a good setup for context, and a few scenes throughout your message, this can be a powerful illustration. The application can be immediate as students can begin dialogue on “Who they think they are,” and the difference of “Who they think they should be,” and how that relates to their relationship with Christ.
(2) Gladiator – ***Spoiler alert*** A Roman Soldier lives during a bloody transition between Caesars. His livelyhood is taken because of his knowledge of the new Ruler’s criminal ascension, and the the Soldier’s family is hung. He runs ends up being sold into slavery in a far away province where he becomes a Gladiator (warning; it is a bloody movie and can be very gritty if you have a weak stomach). The Soldier, named Maximus, seeks to find justice for the murdered Caesar and his family. As he rectifies the situation, the new Caesar (a villain), sets up an unfair fight, and there is a devastating death of the hero in the midst of victory. The tragedy is that the hero ensures justice at the same moment that his life is taken away. Illustration: The end of the movie is the most powerful after watching a man fall from greatness, then become nothing, and then seek justice and rise again only to be hewn down by evil in the midst of victory. The audience is unable to celebrate, but The Good of the empire is secured, so the future is free to have life. The correlation to Christ’s sufferings and his victory in the midst of his own death show that sacrifice is often the only way to bring about more life. Whether that is sacrifice of things, or misconceptions of life, or just showing the power of God’s victory over Death on the cross, this last scene hits hard with students troubled by the problem of evil, so be prepared for the “Why do good people die?” question.
(3) The Secret of Nimh – This is a movie about a mother mouse who has a sick son. Their home is within a cinder block in a field that is about to be plowed, so they need to move. Unfortunately, her son Timmy is so sick that the move would kill him. She then goes on a journey to seek wisdom on how to move her home so Timmy does not have to leave their home. Illustration: The lengths that Mrs. Brisby goes to save her son, show a deep love that young people may or may not have experienced. This is a deep, dedicated love that goes beyond the consumeristic, “I love that.” It’s tie ins about going to great lengths to find wisdom and discovering reality are powerful learning tools for youth. There are also many moral dilemmas in the movie, involving some self-centered, power hungry rats who manipulate the good impulse to help a mother and her son, and turn it into a way to kill a very wise and influential leader for their own power gains in the community of intelligent rats. Several scenes of perseverance and journeying are relevant if set up properly.
(4) The Devil Wears Prada – This movie is about a journalist who enters the fashion world thinking she will be able to just make a living, but finds out how serious and hard working the people there are. She deals with a super-demanding boss (thus, “The Devil”) and has to live up to her expectations. The movie is grueling, and anyone who has ever had a demanding boss that forces personal sacrfice for status, would relate to this movie. Illustration: Perhaps give a picture of the title, and explain the dilemma of an over demanding boss. The point would be to highlight the climax of the movie where the journalist must decide whether or not she wishes to live a life of high power and prestige, or keep the things that really matter, like her dream to be a good journalist and to have a meaningful relationship with her boyfriend. Application can be about being who you are rather than living up to others expectations, and then tie it into Genesis, and explore who God wants us to be.
(5) Searching for Bobby Fischer – This movie is simple. It is about a boy who is seen as the next “Bobby Fischer” in his community, and it tells the story of this Chess Genius as he stuggles with being a kid, and being talented. This movie is great for us Youth Ministers to watch and be ministered to. Watch specifically the Dad push his kid too hard to be a Chess Winner/Proffesional, rather than the fun loving kid that happens to be a Chess Genius. The Illustration/Application in this one comes as you watch a boy struggle with growing up, accidentally discovering a gift, and then dealing with the different pressures and pulls from the many people in his life. It really brings me to think about how we as Youth Ministers can really pressure our kids, and so can their parents. The question becomes, how can we make life worth living, and work worth giving again, after so much intense pressure sucks the life out of living. I’ll let you wrestle with that, but I know I often find myself sitting with my youth leadership students, and realizing that we just need to have fun, or just sit and be human again. This film can be used to help show that to us, and to our students.
So those are my flicks, some epic stories that changed my life. Watch em and see if you are impacted like I was. These stories speak to really deep parts of what it means to be Human and made in God’s Image without being scripture. When used appropriately, these stories can be experienced together and processed. Some work better than others, and some might be more for older students than younger, but try some of the above out. There is nothing like a powerful story to kindle the imagination and get a kid thinking about God reaching out to them. God is there, and since we are so limited at times, we forget to reach out. Illustrations help us show kids that there is something more, something beyond. Let’s do it right, and mean what we say.