There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of Scripture. People are surrounded by the power of narrative every day. And yet preachers are often tempted to skimp on telling the story. Why?
Life is lived in multi-layered narratives. People engage with narratives all week: every film, TV show, sports commentary, most commercials, interactions at the coffee machine at work, catching up with spouse and children at home, chatting with neighbours over the fence – it is one mini-narrative after another. Then they come to church and we too often leave the stories for children and preach a more “sophisticated” message. Oops.
God gave us so much narrative in the Bible because of its power in engaging us with the wonder of his self-revelation.
So when you preach a narrative, tell the story. It will be more effective than offering lists of instructions and points from the same passage (not to say that you shouldn’t clarify the main point and seek to demonstrate the relevance by means of possible applications).
How does telling the story work?
1. Listeners will identify with characters – if a story is told even relatively well, listeners will either be drawn toward a character, or repelled by a character. We humans are wired to connect or pull back. Neutrality to people is not a natural reaction (although in a fallen world we will be more neutral than we were intended to be).
2. Listeners will feel the tension of the plot – once the story moves from mere setting to some disequilibrium, listeners will typically feel compelled to listen for resolution. We can’t help it.
3. Listeners will be marked by the resolution of that tension – that resolution, if the story has been told effectively, will register a mark in our hearts because we have been feeling emotionally engaged by the characters in their situation.
4. Listeners will find their lives superimposing on the image of the story – humans naturally overlay their own situations, struggles, feelings, doubts, hopes, etc., onto the stories of others. This could be our empathetic relational wiring, or it could be self-absorption, but either way, we tend to be marked by stories not involving us because we connect somehow.
Preaching that tells the story is better than preaching that ignores the story and goes after just presenting propositions.