Friday Fives: What The Top Five Story Songs Can Teach About Using Stories

Whether you are into the “narrative preaching” trend or not, I’m guessing, by the fact that you read content here, that you agree that a story is a powerful tool for an effective preacher or teacher.

People are God-wired for story. We learned important truths about life when our parents read to us as children. We happily (well, perhaps not happily), plunk down twelve dollars and go into a darkened room with a bucket of nine-dollar popcorn so someone can tell us a story. We still learn much about life through story.

Most importantly, stories were fundamental to the teaching of Jesus. He understood and, in fact taught, that a story is a critically important discipleship tool.

Which brings us to the story song. If you are in your 40’s or 50’s and I mention the term, “story song,” there are probably many that come to mind: The Gambler, The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia, Angie Baby, A Boy Named Sue, Unanswered Prayer, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Devil Went Down to Georgia, etc. etc.

For this week’s Friday Fives, I’m presenting my top five story songs and what they can teach us about crafting a strong story for our messages.

#5 James Taylor/Frozen Man

The Story: It’s the fictional story of William James McPhee, a man who was frozen to death and revived a century later. Wouldn’t it be cool to be that man? As it turns out, no. “When I die make sure I’m gone. Don’t leave ‘em nothin’ to work on.” The song reflects the famous discovery of the Tyrolean Ice Man in the fall of 1991. Through it, James Taylor wonders, “What would it be like if you could revive him?”

What It Teaches: Sometimes great stories ask such questions: What if? When a story does that well, and the hypothetical answer to the question is a surprise, that’s a very effective way to construct a narrative because it drives the audience’s attention. What if Job lived in 2015? What if Joseph really had died when his brothers left him for dead?

#4 Gordon Lightfoot/Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Story: This is the true story of the wreck of the largest coal freighter ever to sink on the Great Lakes. The Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a storm on November 10, 1975. There is still some mystery as to why the ship sank, especially so suddenly. (No distress calls were received.)

What It Teaches: Fictional stories are important tools in a preacher’s toolbox I think. But there is something about a true story. A story that is true, or, at least inspired by a true account, tends to have a higher profile in the mind of a hearer. Although, as I have mentioned earlier here, if you represent a story as being true, please do double and triple check to be sure that it is. In this case, a true story was re-told in terms of poetry put to music.

#3A and #3B Don Francisco/He’s Alive & Carman/The Champion

The Story: I put the two classic Christian story songs together in the third slot because they just seemed to fit. Both are timeless interpretations of the Gospel. Francisco’s was the Dove Award winner for Song of the Year in 1980. Carman, who is surely the prince of the Christian story song, performed the classic, which he also adapted for a movie, on his 1992 album of the same name. He’s Alive, of course, is a straight telling of the Lord’s resurrection from John 20. The Champion turns the Gospel into a fight to the death (and resurrection) in the boxing ring.

What It Teaches: Many great preaching stories, of course, come directly from Scripture, as well they should. Others are creative re-creations in modern context. Both are very valuable approaches to the use of stories in teaching and preaching.

#2 Michael W. Smith/Kentucky Rose

The Story: Although this may be my personal favorite, it simply can’t be placed ahead of the iconic story song that ends up at the top of the chart. (You know that song you could listen to over and over? That’s this one for me.) It’s the story of a faithful and courageous preacher who gives his life to save the life of a child. “And he practiced what he preached, imagine that.”

What It Teaches: Smith wrote the song with Wayne Kirkpatrick, who has probably co-written many of the Christian songs with which you may be familiar. The story element it teaches relates to the power of a hero. A story with a strong and loveable central character who is true to his values and reflects the values of the story’s hearers is powerful. I have found that writing characters that are both real and loveable/likeable is one of the most difficult aspects of good story writing. D

#1 Harry Chapin/Cats in the Cradle

The Story: I have the song at number one not necessarily because it’s the greatest story song of all time – although some would make that argument – but because it may be the most widely recognized. It’s the story of a man who grows to regret the fact that he didn’t invest time in his son.

What It Teaches: The late Harry Chapin and his wife wrote this song with their son Josh in mind. In terms of the construction of the story there are two elements in play. The first is the poignant conclusion. There is closure without a happy ending. That can be a very powerful approach, especially to start a message. The second element here is the parallel structure of the story where the same words spoken by the father at the beginning of the story are spoken to him by the son at the end.


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