Column entry, “Soul Baring in the Pulpit: Lessons in Storytelling from The Moth,” by Robert Stephen Reid

Robert WoodsBlog, Member Publications: Other, News: Other Leave a Comment

Column Title: Communicating Faith in the Cross-Walk of Life

Column Entry: “Soul Baring in the Pulpit: Lessons in Storytelling from The Moth”

By Robert Stephen Reid, Professor Emeritus, University of Dubuque

Description: During most of Christendom people lived with some form of a theistic identity. But in our post-Christendom secular society most North American Christians are faced, sometimes explicitly but mostly implicitly, with a daily choice of whether to keep believing in God. Or, believing that, in Christ, God is still seeking to be reconciled with each generation of people in this world. If faith in God is to matter amidst the busy, bustling intersection of cross-purposes and cross-identities of contemporary secular life, my interest is to reflect on the diverse ways people communicate with others about this desire to pursue cross-centered lives of faith.

April 2024 | March 2024


Soul Baring in the Pulpit: Lessons in Storytelling from The Moth

April 2024

I was hanging on Tina Zimmerman’s words as I drove home from church. I listened as she shared her personal struggle over being worthy to respond to a call to ministry, her struggle in finding meaningful words to say to the blue-haired teenager Travis, who only lived just across the country road from her home. Travis had recently tried to commit suicide. Could she respond to the call of being a pastor if finding something helpful to say to this teenager came so hard? Then she heard the crash of a car failing to negotiate a curve just outside her home. And the lives of people in her neighborhood were suddenly turned on-end.[1] As she rushes to the crash scene and finds Travis there, actions replace words as a way to communicate the power of hope and her choice to serve in ministry. Her soul baring story may break most of the rules concerning self-disclosure in preaching, but it was perfectly designed to appeal to the radio audience of National Public Radio’s Moth Radio Hour listeners.

What if those who preach or serve in roles of communicating the gospel to others consider Brian McLaren’s powerful point about rethinking what’s involved in our preaching to millennials, to Gen Z-zoomers, and now to our link-following Zoom audiences. McLaren maintains that unlike previous generations, these age groups are looking for expressions of beauty more than a presentation of truth. And they are looking for something that is “usually narrative in form. And conversational rather than analytical. And more about showing and listening than telling and convincing.”[2]

That’s just what Rev. Zimmerman’s story was doing.

My interest, as one who has written a number of homiletics books, has taught some homiletics courses, and still preaches occasionally as well, is to consider how using first-person narrative talk that is drawn from personal experience can provide meaningful insight as a way to embody gospel truth found in a Biblical text. Previous generations have regarded this kind of experiential personalization of the pulpit taboo. It was considered tantamount to preaching oneself rather than preaching the gospel. But what if it can be used as a way to bring a kind of sudden, gestalt insight about our humanity and a spiritual truth directly relevant to a Biblical text?

Of course, clergy and other faith communicators are rarely professional storytellers or raconteurs. But that’s true for most of the people who have the courage to step up to the microphone at a Moth story slam. Yet, if you happen to be listening to one of these stories while driving somewhere, they are invariably so compelling that you simply cannot leave your vehicle until the current story comes to its end. Imagine if our preaching, conference presentations, or faith-based podcasts were that compelling. I mean really imagine preaching being that captivating. Whew!!

The Moth Radio Hour has been a weekly staple for National Public Radio since 2009. Moth StorySLAMS are held regularly in 25 cities preceded by Moth storytelling workshops where speakers receive help in shaping the stories they bring to the stage. The origins of this self-revelatory style of storytelling began with poet and novelist George Dawes Green who wanted to create a venue for telling tales that have the feel of someone taking their turn on a warm southern evening when the porchlight drew both the moths as well as the listeners to hear a tale. Moth storytellers have only a few requirements. Their stories must be personal and true. They have to share their stories without notes before a live audience. They have to work with the time limits prescribed.

Moth Workshops in which story slam participants are chosen provide even more help in learning to craft a story for listeners. For the rest of us, however, The Moth website offers a tab with Tips and Tricks Advice for live storytelling. I have copied several of the recommendations directly, modified others, and added a few of my own in what follows:

  1. Have some stakes. Stakes are essential in live storytelling. What did you stand to gain or lose in what happened? Why is what happened in the story you tell still important to you? A story without human stakes is not a story.[3]
  2. Have a great first line that sets up the stakes and grabs attention.[4] Instead of beginning by setting up a story’s action with exposition…

When my aunt got divorced she had a difficult time getting over what happened. She came to live with us that year and took up residence in our guest bedroom. She watched a lot of TV and just went to work and stayed in her room. My mother worried about her, tried to convince her to get back out there. But that was a non-starter. In exasperation mom looked at me and said ‘Do something with her!’” So, I told my aunt there was a movie I wanted to see and I didn’t want to go alone. Would she come with me?”

Start in the action. In this way listeners can quickly grasp what’s at stake in the story.

“So, there I was with this attractive blonde almost twice my age on our way to screen 6 in our multiplex theater when we walked past the guys from my high school. None of them said anything, but the looks I was getting said it all. I was seventeen when I started to take my aunt to the movies on Friday nights. She was staying with us after her divorce—a 32-year-old divorcée who was spending too much time alone in our guest bedroom when my mom said, ‘Do something with her!”

For most first-person narratives, it has to be more than just a story about a crazy thing that happened. “It should be about something that changed you.”

  1. Be vulnerable. Be willing to bare your soul. It’s your vulnerability that creates rhetorical identification with the listener—identification is the key. They may not have experienced the issue at stake in your story, but they know what it is to worry about how something will work out. The revelation of your personality, social sensibility, and your willingness to be vulnerable all enhance what becomes your storyteller’s insight regarding “the human condition.”[5]
  2. Know your throughline and stay true to it. Newscasters telling us about “stories” they are following and try to give us facts and witness statements. But because they cast it as a story, they feel a moral obligation to at least point to the resolution of the tale even if it is just to promise to share more “as the story develops.” Story plots need to have a beginning, middle and an end. Edit out anything that does not advance the plot. Follow the stakes of your throughline.[6].
  3. Dialogue advances action in a story. It also develops characters, provides realism, defines characters more sharply, all while providing dynamic nuance by giving depth to the information shared. Dare to eliminate your third-person prose at several points to opt for the first-person immediacy of dialogue. Drop the past tense of “So I said/she said” of written description of a conversation and just embody a crucial dialogue that occurred: e.g.,

My aunt saw my look of frustration and asked me, “What’s the matter, sweetie?”

So I told her, “Guys take their girlfriends to movies, not their aunts.”

She looked at me askance and asked, “And that matters because…?”

So I asked her whether she wanted to know what people were saying about us. [Instead] “Do I need to tell you what they’re saying about us?”

She became sad and said nothing more. We didn’t go out together after that.

  1. Steer clear of meandering endings. They kill a story! Your last line should be clear in your head before you start.[7] It needs to resolve the stakes and bring the throughline to fruition. Knowing where you are going is crucial to the art of storytelling.
  2. No essays. Musings look pretty on the page but unless you can make them gripping and set up stakes, they won’t work on stage.[8]

Just a few weeks of listening to The Moth (on Sunday NPR radio or on their podcast repository) would give any preacher pause to consider whether having the sermon tell such a compelling story may serve a gospel concern on occasion. The danger, of course, will always be how easily this kind of preaching can devolve into making the preacher the source of authority rather than the truth of the sacred text and the person of Christ. Still, Brian McLaren’s words speak to me as I consider how the culture has come to privilege the power of a personal experience of truth rather than its expression in more abstract propositions. Soul-baring, on occasion, may.

**This is a shortened version of an essay that includes a sample sermon available at my website

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


[1] Rev. Zimmerman’s story, “Go in Peace,” is available on the Moth Podcast at The Moth Radio Hour is distributed by PRX (Public Radio Exchange).

[2] Brian McLaren, “Preaching to Postmoderns: An Interview with Brian McLaren,” in Preaching with Power: Dynamic Insights from Twenty Top Pastors, ed. Michael Dudit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 123.

[3] This tip is taken directly from “Moth Story-telling Tips and Tricks.” Retrieved at

[4] This is a Moth tip, but I have devised my own examples.

[5] This tip is not in the Moth list, but should be.

[6] Nancy Lamb at Writer’s Digest says that, “Some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character’s desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. This personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative;” Nancy Lamb, “What is the Throughline of a Novel? (And Why It’s Important you have One),” Writers Digest (August 28, 2012). Retrieved at

[7] From the Moth “Story-telling Tips and Tricks.” Additional material mine.

[8] Ibid. All Moth.

Leave a Reply