The people of the Bible are an important vehicle for us as Christians to learn from, understanding the relationship between us and God; the ways in which we draw close to Him, fall short, and the grace we’re given when doing so.
Growing up, I wasn’t the most literate of children.
My father not only taught English and writing but could recite passages from books he read in the ‘70s with eidetic precision. To his dismay, titles such as Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan or The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne did not pique my adolescent interest.
However, to my own surprise, this mindset began to change my senior year of high school. I found myself turning the pages of Lew Wallace’s classic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, where the titular character, at odds with his traitorous childhood friend, Messala, competes in a high-stakes chariot race in a quest to clear his name. Then followed the heartbreak of martyrdom, gripping the pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s revolutionary Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the novel’s namesake remained strong in faith under the persecution of slavery.
My interest in reading was rooted in fiction and sprouted to various forms of nonfiction too. While I find that certain theoretical, educational or technical forms of nonfiction don’t particularly pique my adult interest in the way that fiction typically does, I’ve noticed a common trait between the fiction and the nonfiction that I consume with satisfaction: a focus on characters.
In this post, I'm going to talk about why characters–and more specifically character studies–are important to pastors.
When it comes to reading about characters, fictional or real, I feel a sense of unity and perspective.
Fictional characters are, whether intentional or not, often written from the author’s personal views, observations, and interpretation of the world. This not only gives me a new perspective into the headspace of another individual, but specifically a glimpse into that individual’s world of experience, encounters, and lessons. This allows me, the reader, to build a worldview and develop a better sense of empathy, while also finding relatability in the human experience.
While this can also be the same for nonfiction, receiving facts and information that help shape one’s worldview, I find nonfiction to be the most delicious when exploring ideas, themes, and lessons through the stories of people.
It’s these traits of fiction and nonfiction alike that add to the richness of what’s perhaps the most compelling book the world has ever known: the Bible.
The Bible is full of wisdom, parables, prophecy, history and (of course) people.
The people of the Bible are an important vehicle for us as Christians to learn from, understanding the relationship between us and God; the ways in which we draw close to Him, fall short, and the grace we’re given when doing so. Understanding these characters is important for creating a healthy, spiritual worldview that glorifies the Kingdom and helps us flourish as followers of Christ.
In the words of Pastor Chuck Swindle:
“Thankfully, the Bible places before us a spiritual "hall of fame"—raw, uncensored, gritty stories of men and women sometimes soaring, often stumbling, through the incredible life of faith. They wrestled with sin, experienced God's grace, struggled with weakness, and overcame by faith. Their inspiring biographies have been memorialized in Scripture, not simply because of their faith in God but because of God's faithfulness to them.”
Because the Bible is filled with so many different characters, often imperfect and complex, pastors can enrich their sermons with character studies.
The term “character study” is commonly used when talking about film or literature.
According to Suzy Woltmann, writer of the entertainment and casting website Backstage, “A character study is a deep dive into a character’s traits, personality, and development (...)”
Woltmann breaks this definition down into three different aspects of character study:
While “character study” can refer to a character-driven plot, it’s also used for the way we analyze and learn from a character’s actions and circumstances.
For example, George Bailey from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life can be used as a character study for analyzing how disappointment can cause self-deprecation and doubt.
George Bailey is a relatable family man who, through unforeseen circumstances, has his hopes and dreams deferred at every turn and, as a result, sees his life as a failure that everyone would be better off without. Through the highs and lows of Bailey’s life, we can relate to his feelings of frustration, sadness or joy, and find hope in his revelation: the value of life.
Similarly, a character study can be used in a sermon to contextualize, relate, and give understanding to characters in the Bible, breaking the illusion that these people were from a time that no longer bears any relevance to our modern lives.
Virginia Griffin of Grace Church explains that “The God ‘full of grace and truth,’ comes alive to us as we study someone like Peter, who denied even knowing Jesus at His most grievous hour,” concluding that “We can be encouraged by God’s grace as He later made this very same Peter a foundational leader in the early church.”
I found this sentiment to be especially true when studying the bleakest of Biblical characters.
At the beginning of 2023, my church decided to dedicate an ongoing sermon series to the book of Ecclesiastes. A wisdom book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes can often be a challenging text to navigate due to some of its nihilistic sentiments (“Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the Teacher. Utterly Meaningless! Everything is Meaningless!” Ecclesiastes 1:2), questioning of morals (“This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all” Ecclesiastes 9:3) as well as the narrator’s overall lifestyle (excess of riches, wine, slaves, multiple wives).
While a difficult read at times, my pastor was able to make it –– not only digestible –– but relatable. How did he do this? By entering the series around a character study of the narrator himself, Kohelet. My pastor framed the narrative of a man who has everything the world has to offer and contrasted it to living as an affluent citizen of modern America.
This character study compared the narrator’s own wisdom, knowledge, comforts, and frustrations with meaning and life as an educated nobleman, to the way we might feel in our world of modern science, technology, creature comforts, and constant awareness of global issues and self.
Because of this, the character of Kohelet came to life in a way that not only allowed me to empathize with the narrator’s struggle but also allowed the congregation to see how God’s love fulfills us in spite of worldly cynicism and desire.
Writing a sermon and developing a character study in support of it can be difficult. It takes time and research to develop a captivating study that’s relatable, effective and properly communicates the message God intends for us.
Virginia Griffin of Grace Church offers a six-step guide on “How to Approach Character Studies” here.
Additionally, there is sermon writing applications available for pastors that assist in the process of writing character studies, as well as generating sermon outlines and developing modern-day examples of biblical topics.
Stories are a powerful tool for connecting us through ideas, feelings, and experiences. This is especially apparent in the way we respond to characters, whether through fable or reality.
The Bible allows us to better understand the author of the Word and learn how to connect with Him through the study of His followers. With a rich assortment of characters whose documented lives have set the foundation for God’s Word, from the calling of Abraham to the Gospel of Jesus, character studies are a powerful device for communicating the word of God in a personal way that relates to the congregation.