Narrative preaching

Many preachers feel that giving a narrative sermon is simply telling a story, but much more is involved than that. Seven simple steps are outlined here in developing a narrative sermon to its fullest potential. One step is to fill out the dynamics of the story immersing your self completely into the Biblical life situation, so that you are able to "walk your character around." You will be interested to discover the other six steps.

Des Cummings, Jr., Ph.D., is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

No preaching succeeds so well as that which treats some Biblical story. . . . Reality and revelation can join in the Biblical narratives, and from them we gain a certain understanding of God and a crucial understanding of ourselves." 1 James Massey's assertion signals the reason for the renewed emphasis on narrative preaching in the seminaries and pulpits of America.

This article introduces the seven-step system that I utilize in preparing a narrative sermon. I 'have used the word system to indicate that while there is a progression in developing the sermon, the progression involves interaction among all the elements. Thus, my own sermon development is more akin to conducting a symphony than to building a house in a precisely ordered sequence.

Powerful preaching begins and ends with powerful praying. So if this system can be thought of as a symphony, then prayer is the overture. Scripture asserts that understanding God's Word is directly related to prayer and meditation. "I have more insight than all my teachers, for thy testimonies are my meditation" (Ps. 119:99, R.S.V.).* Helmut Thielicke boldly states: "All our libraries and studies are mere emptiness compared with our closets. We grow, we wax mighty, we prevail in private prayer. Your prayers will be your ablest assistants while your discourses are yet upon the anvil. . . . Texts will often refuse to reveal their treasures till you open them with the key of prayer." 2 Rather than being one aspect of narrative preaching, prayer is the atmosphere in which the sermon is born and incubated. This atmosphere allows revelation to illuminate modem reality and the old stories to become fresh with relevance.

What Is narrative preaching?

When I use the term narrative preaching, I am referring to preaching the story passages of Scripture. The narrative sermon focuses on revealing to the hearer the truth about life contained in the interactions between God and man and fellow human beings. Thus, it is a form of Biblical preaching.

Narrative preaching can be presented in one of two ways: first, the storytelling mode; second, the introduction, body, conclusion mode. Each can be illustrated graphically.

The storytelling mode can be visualized as loops where the storyteller passes over his main points two or three times, building the focus and tension (Figure 1). This process can be repeated for each major point. In this case the story carries the message and the points are emphasized through repetition.

The introduction-body-conclusion method allows the preacher to point out the significant elements in the study. These points become the peaks of the sermon. They are what Milton Crum calls the "holy points." The preacher takes the hearer at the point of need (life situation) and moves into the theology of the narrative, asserting that "this story answers your needs." Together the hearer and the preacher climb to God's vantage point to find an answer. The preacher may tell part of the story to show the answer, then he descends the mount to demonstrate how this truth will work in life. Next, he ascends the second mountain, or point, and repeats the process. This method allows for storytelling, word studies, and deductive teaching, and therefore is more eclectic.

I would encourage you to experiment and develop your own variation or combination of these methods of presentation. Then practice, pray, and plead that God will be glorified.

I would suggest three process goals if you choose to preach a narrative passage, such as Mark 1:40-45: first, experiencing the story; second, interpreting the story; and third, relating the story. Each of these three goals is achieved by one or more procedural steps.

Experiencing the story

Step I: Identify the dynamics. The power of a story is experienced through identifying the dynamic factors that provide a systematic way of approaching any narrative passage. Milton Crum has developed five dynamic factors of change that I have found very helpful. 3 After reading the passage, you can identify the factors by answering the following questions: a. What actions/words are involved in the story? b. What motivations prompt these actions/words? c. What is the result of these actions/words? d. What is the "gospel content," or truth about God, revealed in this story? e. If this truth was lived out by the characters, what was the result? If the truth were lived out today, what effect would it have on our lives?

I have found that it is helpful to go through this list of questions for each major character in the story. For example, in Mark 1:40-45, the major characters are the leper and Jesus. The actions/words of the leper are: he comes, he beseeches, he falls on his knees, he says, "If You are willing, You can make me clean," and he proclaims. The actions/words of Jesus are: He comes to Galilee, He allows the leper to approach Him, He touches the leper, He heals, He says, "I am willing, be cleansed," and He warns the leper.

Jesus' motivation, as stated by Mark, was compassion. But what moved or motivated the leper? Mark does not state explicitly. However, we are given clues in the leper's words.

Practice this procedure by using Mark 1:40-45 to answer all five of the questions as they relate to Jesus and the leper. Step 2: Fill out the dynamics. This step focuses on gaining Biblical insights to add depth to the dynamic factors. It involves the following techniques: a. Using only the concordance, identify and study the key words or symbols (e.g., leper), b. Describe the situation and its context, using sanctified imagination. For example, we know that leprosy meant leaving church, family, job, and community. Imagine yourself going through that experience and how you would leave. Describe your last farewell—what you would say to your family members. Imagine hearing that Jesus is in Galilee. Describe your feelings as you approach Him, and your return home. I call this "walking your character around." c, Look for personality clues to help identify the natural makeup of the person. This will prevent foisting your personality upon his actions, d. Gather historical data from Scripture that will indicate the historical setting when the event took place.

Interpreting the story

The goal of this process is to under stand the gospel content of the story. This is accomplished by utilizing sound principles of interpretation that will allow the passage to speak. Haddon Robinson describes the process well: "An expositor pulls up his chair to where the Biblical authors sat. He attempts to work his way back into the world of the Scriptures to understand the message.

Though he need not master all the languages, history, and literary forms of Biblical writers, an expositor should appreciate the contribution of each of these disciplines." 4

Step 3: Biblical research is a procedural step that is essential. It is sweeping in scope and consumes about half of the sermon development time. Since other articles in this series have dealt with interpretation, I will not review this subject (MINISTRY, April, May, 1984). In addition to employing classical hermeneutical principles, I have found the following techniques helpful:

a. Interaction analysis is a technique that aids the expositor in thinking theologically. It involves contrasting divine action with human tendency. This is facilitated by asking the question "If I were in Christ's/God's place, how would I respond under these circumstances?" For example, would I touch a leper? Why did Jesus touch him? The great paradox between God's nature and man's is upheld as we understand the beauty of His responses. This beauty is often magnified by identifying how humans would respond to particular circumstances. For example, if I had been in Christ's stead, how would I have looked at Peter when he denied that he knew me? Humans realize all the more their need of God when His glorious character is upheld in contrast to human nature.

b. Check conclusions. It is vital that the passage determine the message. Thus all insights gained through the process of experiencing the story must be checked by asking the question "Are my personal insights supported by Biblical research?" One of the most exciting moments in sermon preparation occurs when we find that Biblical research confirms insights gained through personal study. On the other hand, the preacher is put to the test when he discovers that a cherished concept is not supported by Biblical research. This is the point at which personal insights must be overruled by Scripture.

c. Record the sources. Research reveals that the average Adventist pastor spends only ten hours per week in all sermon preparation. 5 Thus it is vital to manage those ten hours well. Since I find that I often need to hear a concept several times before I own it, I read some of my sources into a tape recorder. Then I listen to the tape while I am driving or jogging, thus maximizing my time.

Relating the story

The goal of the process is to prepare the sermon for preaching by relating the story to the life issues of our hearers. It involves four procedural steps,  

Step 4: Construct a logical flaw. Constructing the logical flow of the narrative sermon begins by determining the plot. The plot is the theme or thesis the glasses through which the story will be viewed. In a symphony the plot is the theme music. To identify the plot, first ask yourself, "What human needs does this story meet?" Brainstorm a list of human needs and then identify the need that is most relevant to your congregation at this time.

After selecting the plot, you can proceed to identify the major points of the sermon by asking, "What are the specific insights about God and man that my listeners must understand to realize God's answer to this need?" The key word is specific. The preacher must focus the structure of the sermon on application. If we have not identified how a truth can be utilized for dynamic living, it is doubtful that the listener will see its application. Pray for application, study for application, structure for application. The art of matching life issues with scriptural truth is at the heart of the power of the gospel. The previous process of interpreting the story places emphasis on what is the truth in the story. This process places emphasis on how we live this truth. You have completed the logical flow procedure when you have identified the plot (theme), the main points, and the supporting material (secondary points). The entire procedure is focused on application.

Step 5: Design the bonding. Bonding is the "amen" of preaching. It is the point at which the hearer makes a conscious choice to allow God to live out this truth through him/her. My primary problem with bonding is that I once had a limited repertoire of methods. Thus, I sensed the need for choice-making but was limited to an altar call, a raised-hand response, or simply a concluding prayer of commitment. Convicted by the knowledge that the power of truth is limited or released by human choice, I set out to expand my repertoire. This has been a rewarding experience. To date, the Lord has led me to discover twenty-three different methods. Several are listed below:

a. Generational call. This method focuses on inviting the older generation to affirm (by standing or coming forward) their commitment to a Christian ideal or practice. Then invite the next generation to join the older, and finally, the youth are invited to join. It is especially effective when related to Christian family values. I utilized this method with my Mother's Day sermon. The theme of the sermon was the power of praying mothers. At the close of the service I told the young people that they were going to see God's support system for their lives. Then I invited the grandmothers and mothers to stand in a reaffirmation of their commitment to pray for their children. Next I asked the fathers to stand as a symbol of their support both in prayer for the grand mothers and mothers and in prayer support of the children. Next I invited the single adults to stand in commitment to praying for the children as Paul had joined Timothy's mother and grand mother in prayer support. Finally I invited the youth to stand and commit themselves to praying for their mothers. The Lord used this method to begin a spiritual healing among some families, refocus the spiritual goals of others, and celebrate the existing spiritual commitment in a third group. One caution when using this method—be sure to make single-parent families and single adults a part of the sermon and the call.

b. Written responses. There are many variations on this method. The one I like is a letter written at the close of the service. Theme music can be played while the worshipers write. Then invite them to place their name and address on an envelope and seal the letter inside. Tell them that the letters will not be opened but that you and your family will pray over the letters every week for the next quarter and select a few letters to return to them. The letters will serve to remind them of their covenant and often come with the exquisiteness of divine timing. Furthermore, it is a blessing to your family to hear of the way God uses these letters to encourage and strengthen faith. Don't forget to include the children in this method. Invite them to draw a picture if they cannot write. Other written responses include: keeping a spiritual journal for a period of time, a bulletin insert with the sermon outline, room for notes and a covenant, a symbolic commitment certificate to sign (i.e., a Declaration of Dependence on Jesus can be used when preaching John 21).

Other bonding methods include symbolic responses, verbal responses, musical responses, silent responses, and action responses.

I would encourage you to plan for choice-making opportunities and enlarge your repertoire of bonding methods. It will equip you with the dynamic of decision-making without the limits of predictable stereotyped methods.

Step 6: Select the illustrations. In some cases, a narrative is so rich with dialogue and dynamics that illustrations are not needed. Other stories are more skeletal and need illustration. The selection of illustrations is purposely delayed to this step in the sermon development because theology and application have now been clarified. Thus, the illustrations can be chosen to visualize the theology and/or application. If I choose my illustrations prior to clarifying my theology, I run the risk of making the text fit the illustration as opposed to making the illustration fit the text. A pitfall of good storytellers is to rely on the illustrations to carry the sermon, thus giving center stage to the illustrations versus the text. My criteria for a good illustration is that it rationalizes, emotionalizes, and spiritualizes the theological point.

Step 7: Write out the sermon. The choice of writing a manuscript or an outline is a function of one's time, skill, and personality. Therefore, I will leave that decision to you.


1 J. E. Massey, Designing the Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), pp. 35, 36.

2 Helmut Thielicke, Encounter With Spurgeon, trans. by John W. Doberstein (Philadelphia, 1963), p. 17-

3 Milton Crum, Manual on Preaching (Valley Forge, Pa.:Judson Press, 1977), pp. 111-127.

4 H. W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 23.

5 Roger L. Dudley and Des Cummings, Jr., A Study of Factors Relating to Church Growth in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Institute of Church Ministry, April, 1981).

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Des Cummings, Jr., Ph.D., is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

August 1984

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