Listening to Jerry Clower will make you a better preacher and a more effective sermon-listener. Of course, many of you about now may be asking yourself, “Who is Jerry Clower?”
If you grew up and lived in the Deep South in the 1970s through the 1990s you know all about Clower. A comedian, Clower was born and raised in South Mississippi and looked every bit the part; heavy-set, thick gray hair, huge smile and deep southern drawl. His down-home humor and comedic routines about southern culture were downright hysterical. He was the clean comedian of my parent’s generation, and I never heard of an audience he did not have rolling in the aisles with laughter.
But what made him so funny and effective as a comedian was not his material. You or I could have taken his material and received blank stares. What made him so effective was his ability to tell a story. Clower would say, “I don’t tell funny stories, I tell stories funny.”
Clower was working as a fertilizer salesman in Yazoo City, MS and figured out clients were more likely to purchase products when he told them humorous homespun stories. One client recorded some of them and a tape ended up in the hands of a Hollywood agent who phoned Clower and said, “The next time you are in the vicinity of the West Coast please drop by.” Clower responded, “I ain’t ever gonna be in that vicinity. Fellow, you don’t leave Yazoo City, MS, and just drop by Los Angeles” (Jerry Clower: Stories from Home, xv).
Some might say that Jerry Clower was a one in a million talent, but the truth is he was about a one in a dozen among his generation in the South. There were Jerry Clowers all over South Mississippi. They did not perform on stages with vast audiences; they simply told stories on the front porch steps to listening family members and friends. Storytelling was a part of the fabric of the culture and it took place wherever two or three were gathered. Clower said, “The funniest things in the world actually happened.” He attributed his storytelling success to the fact that when he tells a story his mind is “actually there in the middle of the story” (Jerry Clower: Stories from Home, 11).
A short time ago I downloaded one of Jerry Clower’s famous bits about a baseball game on my iPod. An amazing thing happened: My boys absolutely loved it, and after hearing it a few times they could repeat it almost verbatim. They begged me to put more Clower on my iPod, and I noticed how intently they listened to the stories—knowing that they had to listen carefully for how the story fit together so they could enjoy the punch line.
I realized then just how impoverished our culture is with the lack of storytelling. Television, with its imagination zapping power, has replaced those front-porch times.
The culture of Jerry Clower not only produced good storytellers but also good story-listeners. How important is it that we become good story-listeners? Our spiritual health and well-being depends on it. Have you ever thought about how God chose to reveal Himself in His Word? He gave us the awe-inspiring story of creation, fall, the promise of a skull-crushing Savior, the preparation for His coming, His unusual arrival, His counterintuitive ministry, His death, burial, bodily resurrection and the promise of His sure return and consummation of His everlasting Kingdom. The unfolding of His story is full of twists and turns, high and lows, irony and suspense every step of the way. It is the story of Christ that makes all of the stories in the Bible one story.
God certainly could have revealed Himself to us in the form of a Bible dictionary. We simply could have looked things up in the index and learned about all of the topics and doctrines we needed to understand. But He did not do that. That is why good expository preaching does not come in a Bible dictionary format, but rather it tells the story of Christ and the unfolding of His Kingdom purposes, and it also challenges you to evaluate your story in light of His. This is also why sermons that skip the Story in an attempt to boil the Bible down to lists and life application points fall short and call into question the wisdom of God in the way He chose to reveal Himself to us.
If you see my family driving down the road in fits of laughter, we probably are listening to Jerry Clower—and, I am convinced, becoming better sermon-listeners. After all, nobody ever stopped Clower in the middle of a story and said, “Would you just skip all of the detail and description and give us the point?” If he had done that you would not have gotten the point.
I recently started having my pastoral interns learn how to preach by listening to Jerry Clower bits. There is much wisdom to be gleaned from Clower on how to effectively tell a story. As followers of Christ, we are called to spend our lives listening to and telling the story of the Bible. God thought enough about the importance of stories to have many recorded for us in Scripture. We are to understand each story in light of the gospel story of Christ. The Scripture calls us to apply our personal stories by faith in Christ to the biblical gospel story. Let’s tell and listen to His story on front porches, in break rooms, hallways, pulpits, and everywhere two or three are gathered.
A form of this article was originally published by Baptist Press, January 14, 2008.