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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Narrative Preaching

There has been lots of buzz of late concerning the power of narrative preaching to connect with postmodern people who crave, enjoy, and are moved by a good story, or narrative. Of course, narrative preaching is not new. Some homileticians, including Fred Craddock and Eugene Lowry, have been talking about the power of narrative sermons for more than three decades. However, the presumably more practical and relevant 3-5 point linear sermons have monopolized the preaching scene since the rise of Post-Enlightenment Modernity. Point by point linear sermons can be effective but, despite their promise of practical relevance, this sermonic form has become quite predictable. And, as preachers and listeners alike will confess, predictability can crash a sermon before it even takes flight. Perhaps another sermonic form is needed to captivate, inspire, and even surprise listeners.

The parables Jesus preached had a knack for inspiring and surprising listeners. Furthermore, the parables did not always tie up loose ends in the name of practical relevance. Jesus’ parables were structured by a narrative, not linear, logic. This is not to say that the only sermon that will honor the name of Christ is the narrative sermon; but we can conclude that if Jesus, the master preacher, employed narrative elements in his sermons, there has got to be wisdom in utilizing this form.

What a Narrative Sermon Is Not…
So, what is a narrative sermon anyway? I’m glad you asked. Let me first describe what it is not. A narrative sermon is not merely a few video clips thrown together to support the points the preacher is sharing. It is not the stringing together of a few personal stories from the preacher’s life to convey a handful of propositional points. Making points and then illustrating them with a variety of personal stories, though not homiletically diabolical, does not a narrative sermon make. No matter how many little narratives are placed within these sermons, they still incorporate an overall linear logic.

Even if the genre of the main preaching text is narrative the sermonic form may itself be more linear than narrative. Summarizing the story about a biblical character, say Moses, through linear points (i.e., Moses Prays with Passion, Moses Obeys with Passion, Moses Leads with Passion) forces a narrative text into a linear sermon that robs both the text and the sermon of their power.

Sermons with a linear logic flow from the introduction to point one (proposition, exposition, illustration, and application) to point two (proposition, exposition, illustration, and application) to point three (proposition, exposition, illustration, and application) to the conclusion. This form made good sense for a Modern world that, thanks to scientific empiricism, sought to dissect and explain the sum of the whole by reducing it to parts, or points. The desire to know, master, explain, and simplify a biblical text drove the homiletic machine.

What a Narrative Sermon Is…
The structure and goal of a narrative sermon is quite different. The narrative structure is not built with points but with the elements of a good story. Setting, character development, problem, plot, climax, and resolution make for a good story and, I would add, an excellent narrative sermon. The difference between the two sermonic forms is striking:

Linear Logic Sermons
Point 1 (explain/illustrate/apply)
Point 2 (explain/illustrate/apply)
Point 3 (explain/illustrate/apply)
Conclusion (or more points)

Narrative Logic Sermons
Setting/Character Development

The preaching landscape, especially in the West, has changed. People shaped by postmodernity tend to crave inspiration more than information, and experience over knowledge. This is not to suggest that postmodern people do not want to be well-informed; most do indeed. However, the people in our world and church must first be inspired before they even care to be informed concerning Christ and His kingdom.

Narrative has been the most successful mode of communication for inspiring people across cultures and centuries. Simply put, story speaks to us in a manner that inspires movement toward an encounter with God. The Bible, in its canonical form, really is a unified meta-narrative that tells the redemptive story of God’s saving love for the world. Perhaps this is the reason why the Bible is the number one selling, cross-cultural book ever.

While I have incorporated various sermonic forms in my preaching over the years, the narrative expository preaching of a single biblical passage has impacted my own faith development significantly, not to mention what it might have done for those who have heard those sermons preached. While linear sermons are a necessary and helpful form for communicating didactic information, narrative sermons seem most-suited for transformational inspiration. The church will always need informative teaching but my preaching “gut” tells me that the narrative form has a better track record for opening up the door of didactic desire.

© 2010
Lenny Luchetti


Brad said...

Hey Pastor Lenny…We we’re so blessed under your leadership at SWC, and I am continuing to pray for you and your family during this transition in your lives.

Although you are an excellent preacher, it is quite obvious that you are also a great teacher!

As far as the narrative preaching style, I believe the style is much more engaging for the congregation, especially the new comer. I really connected to God and others through your preaching over the years!

Lenny Luchetti said...

Hey Brad. Thanks for your kind words. I think of you often...really! Our love and prayers are with you, Anita and the rest of the SWC family as you too continue in the transition. God's got it!

Anonymous said...

Hey Pastor Lenny,
Hope you and the family are doing well and enjoying your new home.
I agree with your thoughts on narrative preaching. You really have a gift with preaching, always inspiring and motivating us.
Reading your blog, you'll be a GREAT PROFESSOR!

P.S. For Professor Lenny's Students

He is such a great preacher, he had my kids engaged too. You will be blessed to learn from him. And somehow 90% of the time the topic somehow(through GOD) was a topic I was struggling with.

Best wishes,

Lenny Luchetti said...

Thanks, Desi, for your kidn words. We miss you and your family. Please give them our love. We're still looking for a church but haven't found SWC yet.


Joshua said...

Hey Lenny,

I was in your class this week and I have the narrative style to be much harder to implement, but much more effective.

I have normally always been a linear speaker, not because I thought it was better but because my mind tends to process things linearly.

However, as I have applied the narrative process to the points I find linearly it has helped to make my delivery much more effective I think.

In fact, after much prayer and thought, God has given me a modern day parable to accompany the entire sermon I have to preach for the follow up to your class--but you'll get the details of all that in my reflection paper.

In anycase, I agree that the narrative style of preaching is not only more effective, but it is the way that Jesus spoke--in stories and images, not in point by point lessons--although some topics still require a linear approach.

Lenny Luchetti said...

Josh, it was great to have you in class this past week! I agree that linear and narrative can work together, as long as the story line (plot, climax, and resolution) and not the linear points lead in the homiletic dance. I also agree with you that some sermons (and genres of Scripture) will communicate best in a linear form. But since the linear form has dominated the preaching scene for too long, I'm trying to swing the pendulum back a bit toward narrative.

Anton Topilnyckyj said...

I've been looking at your blog to seek some insight into a comment you made that "some people" feel preaching is out of style and will be replaced by something. I can not imagine how we could get the message across more effectively then by talking about it. I had taken classes in adult education and we had an interesting conversation on the topic of how adults learn. Many cultural linked communities shared their past and encouraged their youth through story. They remebered in this form. This revelation lead me to look at Jesus the story teller and has allowed me to appreciate the impact of engaged communication and see something different in his messages. Oh to be like Jesus.

Matthew Yoder said...

Great thoughts. I've been doing some form of narrative preaching about about three years now (ever since I read Stanley's 'Communicating for Change') and it's made a major impact not only on the congregation but in how I remember sermons. Have you ever given a first person narrative sermon? Lots of fun. Looking forward to having you in class again...hoping for the same grade too. :)

Lenny Luchetti said...

Ahh...grades must be earned and you earned it my friend! Looking forward to having you in the Christian Proclamation course in two short years:-)