Narrative preaching: Engaging young listeners

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech” (1 Tim. 4:12a, ESV).

Stephen Reasor, PhD, DMin, is the chair of Religious Studies, Burman University, Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.

In general, because young people do not generally love preaching, there are two competing demands on the preacher. The first, from the church at large, is the expectation that preaching be biblical.1 The second, from the young people, is, “Don’t make it boring!” Young people are quick to tune out a sermon if they get lost or sense it is not relevant.

So how can preachers both meet the expectation that preaching be biblical and also capture young hearers?

Ambiguity and interest

In 1980, Eugene Lowry, in The Homiletical Plot, gave the basic elements of a narrative form that, he proposes, can make a biblical sermon interesting.2 He describes the following five stages:

  1. Upsetting the equilibrium. In this first stage, the preacher injects an unanswered question, problem, or sense of ambiguity into the initial moments of the sermon. Lowry claims that initial ambiguity is “a motivator both to attention and to action. One cannot breathe easily until some solution occurs. And when resolution comes, the result is both a knowing and a feeling.”3 There are two important benefits of initial ambiguity: heightened interest and attention, ideally leading to a sense of presence; and audience identification with certain characters or positions before the plot twist.
  2. Analyzing the discrepancy. The preacher then considers possible answers to the solution, answers that, at some point, fail to resolve the problem satisfactorily. This helps build a sense of mounting tension, which allows the audience to experience the sermon in a way analogous to reading a good novel, watching a movie, or playing a video game. We are “caught up in it.”
  3. Disclosing the clue to resolution. The preacher then presents a shift in perspective that allows resolution of the problem. As Lowry describes it, “Against such an analytical wall, often there comes a resolution, a clue which feels revelatory. . . . Until found, the matter seems irresolute; after being found, the matter seems self-evident!”4 If the audience has seen themselves in a certain position or character in the initial stages of the sermon, then the plot twist lets them see themselves in a new light as well. “It is often the case that the clue making understandable the issue at stake comes as a surprise. It is not quite what one had expected, and ‘arrives’ from where you were not looking. And it turns things upside down.5 This new perspective becomes an internal shift in perspective, a shift that the hearers have realized themselves.
  4. Experiencing the gospel. The preacher then explores the claims of the gospel from this new perspective, which allows for a new understanding of foundational attitudes and beliefs.
  5. Anticipating the consequences. The preacher concludes by inviting the audience to consider the potential implications of this new perspective and new understanding of the gospel.

“Presence”

In one study, young people listening to a sermon given in this form said that they had experienced a sense of being within the sermonic plot.6 In other words, they experienced “presence.” In group interviews afterward, they described this sense of presence without prompting from the interviewer.7 One young person claimed, “It was more like a conversation with us, more, to say, than, just like, telling us. He wasn’t just telling us; he was talking to us about it.” Another replied, “And if you had a question, he didn’t just directly say, or give you a list, he made you think about your question [general agreement from the other students], and you kinda had to answer it for yourself. And it was better than him just telling you.” The introduction of ambiguity and building tension facilitated a shift in experience, from observer to actor.

Teenagers, who have deep questions about life, may mistakenly think that the Bible has little to say about the ugly world they face.

Although the participants described a sense of “presence” when discussing both nonnarrative and narrative content, they were more likely to describe “presence” in the sermon during the narrative aspects of the sermons. However, this enhanced interest in the sermonic experience is beneficial only if it results in positive change in doctrinal knowledge and attitude. The enhanced sense of “presence” during narrative portions of a sermon correlates with findings related to doctrinal attitudes. Positive response to the doctrines presented in the various sermon groups was proportional to the narrative content of each group.

What the study showed, basically, was that sermons, even doctrinal sermons, that had the more narrative content and form, enabled students to have more sense of “presence,” and they were more positive about those than any other ones. Although other factors were involved, higher narrative content and form may lead to an increase both in the understanding of and positive attitudes toward doctrine when preaching to young people.

Tell a good story

Thus, telling a story well is the responsibility of the faithful speaker. Stories must be taken seriously when preaching. As Friedrich Schleiermacher noted a century and a half ago, “One distinguishes the instructive speech from the one that moves. We cannot accept this absolute distinction as appropriate, for instructing and convincing, considered entirely separately, are both the vocation of the preacher.”8 This becomes especially true when speaking to young people. Young people sometimes feel that there are already too many voices telling them what to do. Instruction without meaningful context simply sounds like one more authority-claiming voice. On the other hand, a good story can help young people act as their own moral agents.

The young people noted two narrative elements that they viewed as instrumental in their sense of being in the story and its power to change their perspectives:

First, the stories did not have the positive ending often associated with Bible stories. As one student noted, “it was so harsh.” Disturbing stories captivate young people.9 Biblical stories that would be inappropriate to tell in some venues fascinate teenagers. I believe this stems from the idea, especially among church-raised youth, that the Bible is a collection of pleasant stories about nice people and that everything works out well in the end. While there certainly are pleasant stories in the Bible, Scripture deals with the realities of a sinful world. Teenagers, who have deep questions about life, may mistakenly think that the Bible has little to say about the ugly world they face. They are surprised, perhaps, to find stories of danger, death, love lost, and failure in the Bible.

Second, in the end, study participants saw themselves in a character they had already judged. The narrative allowed them to make an objective decision about the story before they saw themselves in any of the characters. One of the sermons included an allegorical retelling of Israel’s relationship with God from the perspective of Hosea. One character in the allegory stood out as rejecting multiple offers of grace and love. They wanted the main character of the story to stop offering grace and love to this character because they identified with the pain and loss of rejection. I believe most of the students already understood on a logical level that God offers grace every time we sin, but this story connected the logic with an emotional and relational realization of God’s grace in the context of their own failures. The moral of a story means nothing until a young person can see it worked out in the details of his or her own life.

Narrative power

This connection between biblical content, relationships, and emotions is what gives narrative power. In response to various questions by the facilitator, of which none used story or narrative language, the students continued to discuss the stories they remembered, and they were able to recount the stories in significant detail. More important, they sensed that the stories meant something to them.

One student claimed the sermons put him “back on track.” This same student struggled to identify how the sermons had affected him and why, but he sensed that these sermons were different. “It meant more because, I don’t know, just because the stories were . . . so powerful.” Stories create complex logical, emotional, and relational matrices that language has difficulty defining. Preaching with narratives allows for self-examination and judgment, which leads to self-volition at the end of the sermon. The natural response to being judged by someone else is self-defense.

Both narrative form and content allow young people to enter into the world of the sermon and feel as if they have come to their own conclusions on the matter. To the degree that they view themselves as present in the sermon and actors within the narrative event, they are able to navigate change and growth in relation to various doctrinal points.

There is no pat answer to the question, “So how can preachers meet both the expectation that preaching be biblical and also capture young hearers?” However, telling relevant stories is about as close as one can get to an answer.

  1. Many churches and denominations share this concern for biblical preaching. Tom Long calls biblical preaching normative both in that “it is what is usually done” and “it is the standard (the norm, the rule) by which all other ways of doing the practice are measured.” Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 59.
  2. Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 26. Research was completed in partial fulfillment of Stephen Reasor, Practical Application of Seventh-day Adventist Theology Through Narrative Preaching at Parkview Adventist Academy (dissertation, Andrews University, 2012).
  3. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot, 29.
  4. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot, 54.
  5. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot, 54; emphasis in the original.
  6. The study consisted of a series of sermons preached in 2010 during a Week of Prayer event at Parkview Adventist Academy in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada. The results demonstrated that narrative content, the sermonic time that was devoted to the telling of actual narratives, correlates with positive student response.
  7. The interviewer was not coached by the researcher to initiate a discussion relating to presence, as this was not one of the initial hypotheses of the study.
  8. Friedrich Schleiermacher, “Religious Discourse,” in Richard Lischer, ed., The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 12.
  9. At a recent student Week of Prayer, the speakers chose to preach on the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, the lion that killed the man of God in 1 Kings 13, and when God told Isaiah to walk naked for three years in Isaiah 20, to name a few of the topics. These topics captivated their classmates—and made more than one faculty member extremely nervous.
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Stephen Reasor, PhD, DMin, is the chair of Religious Studies, Burman University, Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.

January 2020

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