In my previous column in Reformed Worship (RW 144:43), I discussed how reading books aimed at children and middle schoolers provides preachers with an array of benefits that can improve their sermons. It goes without saying that books aimed at younger people almost universally tell stories. Picking up from there, in this column I want to talk about the role narrative should play in our sermons generally. Since this is the Advent/Christmas issue, I hope we can all make the obvious connection to the story of Jesus’s birth, too.
Many preachers know that the biggest revolution in homiletics in the last century was the move from deductive preaching (think three-point sermons) to inductive preaching. Whereas deductive preaching is long on heady content and teaching, inductive preaching centers more on narrative, on stories, on appeals to shared experiences in everyday human life. It could be debated whether this turn to inductive preaching is something new (it is referred to as the “New Homiletic”) or a recovery of homiletical practices that had been lost for a time. But since we are told in the gospels that Jesus rarely taught anything without using a parable, it may be that preaching that incorporates narrative is a return to a practice established by our Lord himself.
But recognizing the importance of narrative is vital for other reasons. After all, we seem to be born narrative creatures. Many researchers have confirmed in recent decades that we learn best through stories. This explains why the earliest lessons we learn in life come to us not because our parents lectured us on certain topics, but because they read stories to us that displayed various virtues. As children, we learned generosity not because our parents tacked up lists of the key marks of generosity on our nursery walls, but because they read us stories that showed generosity in action.
The novelist David Foster Wallace once noted that we humans seem to need narrative the same way we need space and time—as though it is a built-in thing. As narrative theologians in the late twentieth century noted, you cannot even tell someone about how we are saved through Jesus without telling the story of Jesus as narrated for us in the gospels. “Tell me the story of Jesus,” one old hymn says. Even in heaven, another hymn claims, what we will savor the most will be “the old, old story that I have loved so long.”
What’s more, the fact that narrative is built right into us can be detected if you listen in on conversations at places like Panera or Starbucks. If we want to convey to a friend what is happening in the lives of our children, we don’t reel off a list of facts; rather, we tell stories. When couples are dating and getting to know each other, they do not exchange fact sheets listing relevant information on their families or where they lived and went to school. No, they spend hours sharing their stories—funny stories, sad stories, stories that tie in with significant turning points in their past.
And when we tell such stories at Starbucks or on a date, we include lots of important details, we give a sense for the drama of certain events, we speak in the first-person voice of the people involved in our stories—in short, we narrate our lives. Preachers do this too in all kinds of settings, and yet too many of us seem to toggle this narrative switch to the “off” position the moment we enter the pulpit.
Even when we have a cracking good story from our Bible text, we tend to atomize it, boiling it down to some single nugget of truth that then, instead of the story, is what we talk about in the sermon. We ignore all the first-person speech in Bible stories. We drain these narratives of their drama and color and end up with a kind of “just the facts, ma’am” sort of sermon. We act as though the story itself is not important.
The Bible itself ought to prevent us from doing this. As the preacher Thomas G. Long has often noted, if you ask the average person what the Bible is, you are apt to hear an answer along the lines of, “Well, the Bible is a kind of compendium or encyclopedia of doctrines and concepts about God that now and then throws in some stories by way of illustration.”
That has it backwards, according to Long. The Bible is really one giant story from beginning to end. Further, the Bible is chock full of smaller stories. Doctrines and concepts about God emerge from those stories. Since the Bible is God’s book, one has to conclude that according to God’s way of looking at things, the whole universe and how it unfolds is one giant Story. God reveals himself narratively.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle taught that every good story needs an emotionally engaging originating event. Every story needs to be premised on something interesting, something that is “up in the air.” The story then moves from that originating event through some escalation of that event and then finally on to some kind of resolution. To put it another way, it’s not a story until something goes wrong.
Sermons need this too. Different homileticians have different names for this. Paul Scott Wilson calls it “trouble.” Eugene Lowry calls it the sermon’s “ooops!” and “ugh!” moments. Bryan Chapell looks for “the fallen condition focus” of the Bible text. Once we encounter a crisis that needs resolving, a tension that needs relaxing, a mystery that needs solving, or a question that needs answering, we are off and running with a good story.
This is also why few if any church school Christmas programs are based on John 1 or the last few verses of Matthew 1. Neither Matthew nor John begins with a story (Matthew’s subsequent tale of the Magi notwithstanding). Luke, on the other hand, bombards us with stories in his first two chapters, so, not surprisingly, church-school programs and some made-for-TV Christmas movies spin out of Luke’s gospel. We like it when something comes to us as a narrative.
People respond best not to a sermon that is indistinguishable from an academic lecture, but to a sermon that unfolds like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a plot that motors the sermon along. And when we have biblical texts that are themselves good stories, we need to retell these narratives inside our sermons, highlighting and maybe even augmenting the dialogue and the drama and the characters in ways that pull people deeper into the text.
When there is a good story in the offing, people everywhere lean in. As every child knows, it’s a good story when you want to ask, “And then what happens? Tell me more!”
Come to think of it, we preachers would love it if that eager posture were true of every person listening to our sermons each week, too: “Tell me more!”