Narrative Preaching, by Lenny Luchetti

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                                                           Narrative Logic Sermons
Introduction                                                                                     Setting/Character Development
Point 1 (explain/illustrate/apply)                                           Problem
Point 2 (explain/illustrate/apply)                                           Plot
Point 3 (explain/illustrate/apply)                                           Climax
Conclusion (or more points)                                                      Resolution

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
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

  • B Whitesel

    Well said Lenny. I have noticed the same PoMo propensity in my case studies if the emerging church. And, as you note their is an organic, symbiotic quality to the narrative that connects to those nor well versed in the Scriptures. 

    Two thoughts. The organic nature of this preaching (exemplified today in popular communicators such as Mark Driscoll) was evident in the preaching styles that characterized the 1970s Jesus renewal. Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel (Costa Mesa, CA) and the various denominational offshoots (Vineyards and Harvest Fellowships) embraced a narrative style that became their hallmark. When I interviewed people for my DMin in the 1980s they noted that this type of preaching was episodic (think Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim’s Progress) and helped them put into perspective the OT/NT progression and revelation. 

    And, PoMo organizational analysts such as Mary Jo Hatch, Monika Kostera and Andrzej Kozminski are discovering that successful secular leaders weave together narrative to create a shared history (The Three Faces of Leadership: Manager, Artist, Priest). 

    Important insights Professor Luchetti. Thank you. Bob W

    • lenny

      Bob writes:

      “When I interviewed people for my DMin in the 1980s they noted that this type of preaching was episodic (think Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim’s Progress) and helped them put into perspective the OT/NT progression and revelation.”

      It is fascinating to think of the Bible as an unfolding story through which God progressively reveals himself. I realize some of the theological thin ice we step on when viewing the Bible this way, but it makes complete sense to me that God would reveal himself through episodes that lead to the full revelation of his ultimate plan- Jesus.

      Blessings,
      Lenny

  • Jordan Gardner

    From my own experience I find that Narrative sermons seem to get the audience more engaged in the text. When you can make a 2000 year old story come to life something special happens. I also get more feedback after services in which I preach narrative sermons. Narrative sermons tend to help people think up and ask good questions that deal with the story and how it relates to their lives.

    • lenny

      Thanks Jordan. The word you use “engaged” is, I think, the key word. The more people are engaged in the preaching moment the better chance they have of experiencing significant life-transformation. This is not to say that the linear 3-5 point message is totally incapable of engaging listeners. But the linear form can tend to lull people toward disengagement after they fill in the propositional blanks.

  • Sean Gladding

    Lenny,

    i appreciate your reflection on narrative preaching. i’m a big fan myself. 😉

    all the best mate.

    • Lenny Luchetti

      Great to hear from you Sean! Where are you serving these days?

  • One question I have (inspired by some pushback on a narrative emphasis in New Testament interpretation) is whether the human mind is more impressioned by shorter rather than longer stories. So which is more impressionable, a shorter illustration or a longer narrative dance that dominates an entire sermon? In either case, I’m quite sure that it is the illustrations of a propositional sermon that are most remembered, as I think you would agree.

    • Lenny Luchetti

      Good question, Ken. I would actually argue that the longer narrative sticks more in the minds of hearers because it has been painted with more detail. What is most important is that the biblical text being preached is more memorable if it is preached in a narratival form. I cannot always remember the five points of a linear sermon, which are often stated as propositions detached (pulled out) from a given biblical text. However, I can almost always recall the plot, climax, and resolution of a well-formed narrative sermon. Stories, in most cases, are more engaging than propositional statements because the listeners are called on to participate in the journey of the story.

      I recently heard a sermon from someone who used about 10 little illustrations in the sermon. The preacher hardly made a point without sharing something anecdotal and while I may remember a couple of these illustrations, I could not articulate what the sermon intended to say (focus) and do (function). Of course, this could just be a form of spiritual A.D.D. on my part.

  • Nicky Gumbel gathers quite a large crowd at HTB in London every week and his sermons are quite entertaining but typically have more anecdotes than actual teaching. Their focus is neither on doctrine nor on story in the abstract but on personal stories about how God impinges on reality. What I would call “concrete Christianity”. We may bring the most stirring sermons but it may be all rhetoric and “fine sounding words” unless there is real power and miracle.

    “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

    • Lenny Luchetti

      Thanks for the reminder Marc. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, unless the power of God flows through our preaching, whether narrative or linear, it is just a bunch of rhetoric.

  • Prof. Luchetti, I enjoy hearing and delivering narrative sermons. When I have the time to prepare, I try to not only tell the story, but become a character in the story. But it seems to me that people are acclimated to the point by point sermon, and I wonder, when they leave do the majority of people know how to take the story to heart? The people that can make the leap from story to application speak the most passionately with me after a narrative sermon, but after a logical sermon I hear from a far greater number of people who were able to take a nugget of insight or application. It’s not that I don’t give application in the narrative; I wonder if some people don’t/can’t put themselves into the story. Do you think it is more important to have follow up discussions (such as sermon based small groups) when using narrative preaching? Have those in your congregation just gotten acclimated to your preaching style?

    • Anonymous

      Great insights and questions, Paul. Most of the people in most churches (talk about generalizations:-)have cut their Christian teeth on the point by point linear sermon. These are not inherently bad sermon forms, but they tend to be what most long-time churchgoers are used to. In the church I most recently led, the majority of attendees were new to church and Christian living so they had no preconceived preference for sermonic form. While I preached linear and narrative sermons, I tended toward the latter most often-perhaps that’s one of the reasons why our church attracted the unchurched???? There were a few people who wanted more point by point fill in the blank sermon outlines- but those tended to be long-time churchgoers.

      The fact of the matter is, people learn in multiple ways. The challenge for preachers is to help people stretch their imagination so that they can hear “the word of the Lord” to them no matter the form in which the sermon is packaged.

      My personal opinion, as stated in the article, is that the narrative sermon engages people at a deeper, more participatory level. The narrative sermon invites people into the story to determine conclusions, applications, and “points” the story injects into the story of their lives. This requires lots of listening skill and deep engagement. Perhaps the church has lulled people to sleep through the spoon-feeding of propositions.

      The other consideration is context. If you are serving a congregation in which most of the people “buy into” the Bible as God’s word, you don’t have to work too hard to inspire them. They want to be informed. I served a congregation that consisted of lots of seekers who weren’t convinced of the Bible’s validity. I had to work hard to inspire them, with God’s help, to want to be informed by God’s word. Narrative sermons were a back-door way to surprise people with the power, relevance, and validity of God’s word.

      • I once hear Timothy Keller say, “Preach to the people that you WANT to come to your church, not those that do.” He went on and said that your current congregants would then invite people because the pastor was dealing with issues in a way that non-believers would resonate with.

        Of course, your congregants have to be in relationship with non-believers first! But that’s another topic.

  • Monkgogi Nthubu

    Good day!

    Please help me preach a parable of a rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:1931

  • Hugh

    Thanks for the helpful ideas on structuring a narrative sermon.
    Just one request for some elaboration:
    Please can you define what you mean by ‘Plot’ and how this is distinct from ‘Problem’ and ‘Climax’?

    Many thanks,

  • Pingback: Premium Accounts 2011()