Pastor's Pastor: Should you try narrative preaching?

Pastor's Pastor: Should you try narrative preaching?

Guidelines for effective narrative preaching.

Floyd Bresee is the Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

The funny thing about homileticians, specialists in religious oral communication, is that they don't communicate much with one an other. They don't even get together enough to agree on definitions.

For example, what types of sermons are there? You can easily find a dozen sermon types discussed in books on preaching, but everybody's list is different. Worse yet, homileticians define the same words differently. We shouldn't draw our lines too sharply: a sermon may include more than one type. But sermons do tend to fall into about three basic categories: expository, topical, and narrative/ biographical.

Determining sermon types serves a more important purpose than establishing correct homiletic theory. These sermon types involve three very different approaches to sermon preparation. You can quickly determine which sermon type you use by asking yourself how you go about preparing a sermon. If you're an expository preacher, you likely begin by settling on a passage of Scripture. If you're a topical preacher, you probably start by picking a subject. If you're a narrative preacher, you tend to begin by choosing a Bible character or incident. And where you begin has an overwhelming influence on where you end up.

My recommendation is that you experiment with each sermon type. Experimenting will help revive your interest in preaching. Besides, congregations crave variety. Nobody plants a whole garden with only one color of flowers. Experimentation keeps the preacher alive. Variety keeps the congregation interested.

"Preach the word" (2 Tim. 4:2)! All preaching should be based on the authority of Scripture. I've eliminated the textual sermon from my list of sermon types because of its weakness here. The textual sermon is typically based on only one or two verses of Scripture. It tends to be a springboard sermon, using the Bible merely as a starting point from which the preacher sails into the stratosphere. Expanding 15 words from Scripture into 5,000 words from the preacher isn't biblical preaching.

Do not choose one of the three suggested sermon types purely because it seems more biblical than the others. That just isn't necessarily so. I want to illustrate with the one often presumed to be least biblical narrative/biographical preaching.

Effective narrative preaching

Narrative/biographical preaching normally centers on the story of a Bible character or incident. Narrative preaching typically places the story in a con temporary setting, with the preacher sometimes telling it in the first person. Biographical preaching is closely related but usually places the story in the setting in which the Bible character lived.

The Old Testament prophets and those who wrote the Bible were master storytellers, as was Jesus. Alton McEachern observed, "The gospel it self is made up principally of narration. It is a series of accounts of people, places, and happenings, not simply rational arguments. Modern preaching appears to have reversed the percentages: while the gospel is nine-tenths narration, most of our sermons are ninetenths exhortation." Narrative preaching is practical. The writers of the Bible clothed its theology in the flesh and blood of living characters.

Narrative preaching is interesting. However, therein lies a danger. Listeners may go away only entertained and not enlightened.

Narrative preaching is subtle. It tends to convey its spiritual lessons implicitly rather than explicitly. So, again, be careful. The audience may not be learning what you think you're teaching.

Some suggestions for keeping narrative preaching both biblical and effective:

1. Begin with the biblical facts. Find out everything the Bible has to say about the person or incident.

2. Add historical facts. Learn all you can about the times the account deals with.

3. Add an informed imagination. Jesus did, in His story of the rich man and Lazarus. But make sure your imagination does not violate the biblical ac count and the historical facts.

4. Teach the lesson the Bible is teaching.

Should you try narrative preaching? You might first attempt it in only part of a sermon to see whether both you and your congregation can be comfortable with it. You should probably not settle into preaching only narrative sermons, but using them occasionally can add spice to the sermonic diet.

We'll discuss the ongoing dispute over expository versus topical sermons in a later column.


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Floyd Bresee is the Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

July 1991

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