Sermons That Live; Preaching Through Stories
Stories—all of us love them. A good story lives in the memory, enlivens and evokes thought and feeling, invites identification and involvement, and works its special magic long after truths stated in a more dogmatic way have sunk into oblivion. As Anthony de Mellow says, "The shortest distance between truth and the hearts of hearers is a story."
The Bible uses stories to reveal who God is, what God desires, how God acts, and how humans should respond to him. Unfortunately many ministers ignore the narrative structure of the Old and New Testaments. Ask people in the pew, and they will tell you that ministers often seem to treat the passages in question as an object, some thing to be preached on, a still-life picture to be lectured about.
Such an approach is unfortunate. One of the most important principles for preaching is that it should be a proclamation of and not about Scripture. This means that the biblical texts need both to form the content and to shape the structure of a sermon. Reducing a moving story to a prepositional statement developed with three points and an illustration betrays the nature of Scripture. It prevents us from seeing the Bible as the revelation of an on-the-move, purposeful God to his reluctant, resisting pilgrim people. The story of this relationship between God and his people gives a certain narrative context to all of Scripture that should enable ministers to preach dynamic narrative sermons.
More than Anecdotes
Narrative preaching, as I have been describing it, is not to be confused with telling brief anecdotes or stringing together illustrative stories, a la Norman Vincent Peale—however entertaining, and even helpful, this might be. Narrative preaching is rather the use of narrative structure and style in the whole sermon or at least a significant chunk of it. It includes paying attention to all the elements of the "story" genre in literature: plot, setting, characters, point of view, movement through crisis to resolution, and the vision of life or wisdom revealed through the story.
A sermon need not follow the sequence of a particular passage slavishly to be considered narrative preaching. After all, the story was a whole in the mind of the writer before he or she presented it in a certain way. And a study of the same story told in two or more places in the Bible (e.g., the gospels) will often reveal variations in order, details, conclusions, and the like—indicators of the different purposes writers have for telling the stories. The how and why of the form is more important than the form itself A sermon of a biblical story need not be a full-scale story itself, therefore, but can rather move with a narrative logic as the hearing and understanding of the story moves the consciousness. The important thing is that the sermon move and that it respect the basic dynamic, purpose, and underlying shape of the text.
Sermons Shaped by Stories
In preaching a narrative sermon, then, a pastor might choose to create a new story that makes the same point and follows the same basic movements as the text. For example, he might construct a story that follows the movements of the story of the prodigal son (or waiting father) in Luke, but which involves different characters, setting, and plot.
Or, a pastor might select a story from another source—a story that makes the same point the text is making—and retell it for the congregation.
However, I believe it is usually best (and certainly more possible for a wide range of preachers) to use a narrative text from Scripture, letting the story inform and shape the structure of the sermon. Such a sermon is more than a simple retelling of the biblical text. It involves a particular way of approaching and studying the text, out of which the sermon then flows. One might think of one bank of a river as a story text, the other bank as the lives of the preacher and the congregation, and the sermon as the water that flows between the banks, shaped by them but not identical to them.
For example, in the parable of the wedding banquet, the minister can retell the story, staying very close to the bank of biblical story:
Everything is ready. The food is prepared—a sumptuous banquet of flavors, smells, and sights. The hosts and servants have labored long and hard to provide this delightful feast. God (who the story is really about) waits with anticipation for the coming together of his many friends. He imagines their delight at the food he has prepared and carefully plans the seating chart so that people who might otherwise never meet will have the chance to get to know each other in that special way that can only happen at a meal. How happy they will all be about this wonderful chance to sit at table in the kingdom of God. Or so one would think.
But instead of glad and excited guests arriving, only the servants return, bearing excuses: "I just bought some land and must inspect it." "I just got married and must spend the time with my family." "I have to try out my new oxen." In other words, the very people one might expect to be honored and delighted to be invited to this banquet, as we might be honored to be invited to a gala dinner at the White House, turn out to be too busy.
Next the minister approaches the other "bank" and examines the lives of his contemporary listeners. Is the story designed to challenge some assumption, attitude, habit, or thought? How does the situation of the original listeners compare with that of the congregation who will hear the narrative sermon? How might the "world constructs" of the contemporary hearers shape the storytelling, pointing it in a different direction than the original story? What response is God calling for today in this story? What questions or roadblocks probably exist in the hearers' minds? How will the sermon story address these difficulties?
Being willing to come to the feast in the kingdom of God is a matter of heart and of life. Such willingness implies highly valuing the company of God and all God's people enough to spend quality time with them. It means valuing the company of those friends of God whose denominational affiliations, doctrines, habits, worship, economic and social status, race, and culture are very different from our own.
We encounter people like that where we work, in sections of the town or city we seldom see, under our very noses—yet we live such separate lives! We too are preoccupied with the "more important" matters of family, business, and work. If we are honest, we will admit that we do not value nearly as much as God values the gathering of his friends together with him. We do not look at our church services as a time to really talk and share each other's lives as we might at a good dinnerparty where everyone is being open and genuine.
In constructing such a sermon it is important to approach the scriptural story with questions such as these:
(1) What is the plot? How does the action move? Where is the crisis point? What is the resolution?
(2) What is the setting? What kind of place or places does it involve? What do they look like? What is the effect of the setting on the plot and the people?
(3) Who are the main characters? The minor? What is the nature of their interaction? What can we know about them?
(4) What is the point of view in this story? Does it change? If so, what is the significance of the change?
Careful consideration of these questions enables the pastor to answer the final one:
(5) What meaning or vision of life does this story reveal? What is its message, and how does the story help deliver that message?
I have found that the dynamic quality and creative possibilities of such narrative preaching have enriched and excited me as a preacher. I invite you to explore the stories of Scripture and to find your own unique way to let them shape your sermons into "the shortest distance between truth and the hearers' hearts"!
For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.