The Form of Narrative Preaching

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One of the errors some preachers make when they think of “narrative preaching” is that they assume that narrative preaching means either preaching by telling a story (i.e., a fable, parable, or illustration) or preaching from a story (i.e., a parable, narrative account, etc.). Narrative preaching can have narrative foundation or narrative content, but what makes a narrative sermon a narrative sermon is its form. Narrative preaching takes a narrative form without necessarily having narrative content. In other words, epistles, poetry, wisdom, etc. can all be preached as a narrative sermon.

There are several kinds of narrative sermons. For ease, let me unpack just one form—a modified version of the homiletical plot from Eugene Lowry. To preach this sermon, you must engage the text and make six moves in the sermon. Don’t let this be complicated. Many sermons have four or five moves: Introduction, didactic portion, illustration, application, conclusion. The moves center, typically, around the didactic portion of the sermon. The illustration makes it clear; the application makes it practical; the introduction and conclusion are for the content. The narrative sermon, however, attempts not a circle around the content, but a sermonic journey. There is a beginning, middle, and end that don’t circle back, but progress through the moves. The six moves are Conflict, Complication, Shift/Good News, Unfolding, Implications, Concrete Next Step/Spiritual Practice. Let’s examine them more closely.

Conflict

The sermon must find a way to upset a person’s equilibrium with or from the text being preached. If everything is in balance, then the sermon cannot address the listener with a redemptive word. The sermon must show that something is wrong, will be wrong, or could go wrong. Every good story introduces conflict. If there was no conflict in the story, then you would not read, listen, or watch very much. It’s the same with the sermon: people tune out when there is no conflict.

Complication

The sermon must follow up this unbalancing with showing how the listener is personally impacted. While it might make for a good story that Batman is worried about Superman’s power, it really doesn’t impact the viewer as much as whether or not there’s enough popcorn. A sermon must not simply engage the listener, but engage the listener in a personal way. Why does the conflict found in the text impact the listener personally?

Shift / Good News

At some point, the listener must sense resolution is coming. This is the Shift. People can handle a movie without clear resolution, but not all the time. The Conflict that sparks interest and the Complication that gets under their skin will need to be resolved. There is theological rationale for providing resolution: Jesus is resurrected, ascended, and coming again. He himself is the resolution. Nor will all of time be found without resolution. Conflict must be resolved with the Good News of Jesus. I always encourage students to have a crystal clear, simple gospel statement. Don’t make the congregation wonder what the Good News is. Make it clear and concise. Deep preaching occurs when the simplicity of the Gospel cuts definitively through the Complication of the world and sin.

Unfolding

Just as the Complication showed how the Conflict impacted the listener personally, now the unfolding shows how the Good News impacts the listener personally. The sermon can massage into the wound the healing salve of the Gospel.

Implications

So what? What difference does it make? What will be different moving forward? What tools develop from the Gospel that can now be used? What lenses can be applied to see the world rightly?

Concrete Next Step/Communal Spiritual Practice

Finally, the story of the sermon inspires specific action or fills a spiritual practice with meaning. The best stories inspire me to immediate action. I need to do something! This can be communion, baptism, singing, confession, reading a creed, etc.

These steps can be taken with any genre of Scripture. The most challenging aspect to this format of narrative sermon, in my opinion, is the first two steps. Rarely does a preacher preach a sermon without Good News or application. Conflict and Complication can be difficult to find in various genres of Scripture, but remember that every passage of Scripture was written for a reason—to convince, inform, inspire, encourage, etc. When Conflict is difficult to find, ask, “What moved the author to write this passage?” Sometimes the Conflict is found behind the text. It can also be difficult to find a passage’s contemporary Complication. What difference does it make to me, for example, about an exile that happened 2500 years ago and a prophet’s poetic warning? Sure, it would not be pleasant (Conflict), but how does it impact me? The preacher, in this case, must work in front of the text to discern the Complication. Ask yourself the question, “What parallels exist?” or “What feelings would I have had back then and what situations or worries bring about the same feelings today?”

Regardless of content or genre, the sermon that is arranged in this order takes the form of the best stories. It becomes a narrative sermon. This homiletical style can be very difficult to learn if one is not accustomed to preaching in this form but you can preach a narrative sermon. It might take practice, but your congregation will benefit from your hard work.

Editor’s Note:

Aaron has written a marvelous e-book on narrative preaching for Seedbed, which you can purchase here.

Image attribution: IPGGutenbergUKLtd / Thinkstock

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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