The First-Person Exception Clause

I just received a really encouraging email from Steve.  Steve has attended a couple of my preaching seminars and also helped to set one up in his own church.  We had talked about the possibility of preaching in first-person, and he followed through on the idea.  Here are the highlights of the email with some added comments from me:

“Whereas I’ve heard another preacher do this with a slight tongue in cheek approach, I did the whole thing totally straight, trying to maintain the idea that I was Abraham telling my story to my grandchildren.” – that’s an important point, it’s so easy to slip into an ongoing humour that distances us from our character in order to connect with our listeners.  This may be appropriate in some settings, but I say if you’re going to go for it, go for it.  Now, was it easy?

“It was really tough going as I had no notes whatsoever and when you realise you’ve missed something it is so hard to think around whether you should go back and make that point you forgot or carry on, whilst still keeping totally in character.” Most people agree that Abraham would not use notes to give his message (I would suggest the same principle might apply as you give “your” message next time too, but that would be taking us off the point of this post).  Preaching without notes in any form provides that kind of challenge.  It does get easier, but never easy.  Here comes the exception clause:

“I think many were impressed with the fact I listed out Abraham’s genealogy from Abraham back to Noah. That was just a memory trick though and very early on in the sermon.” Generally we should avoid anything that smacks of showing off in our preaching.  It can be easy to do after spending hours with our nose in the books, but we are there to serve and communicate, not to show off.  However, Steve has made a comment here that I view as an exception to the rule – in this case such information would obviously be known by Abraham himself.  People may be impressed, but if used judiciously, this type of communication can serve to underline that this is a serious sermon.  But this should be carefully weighed so it is not the big talking point or lasting effect of the message:

“It was so good though as I was taking the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac and so many people came up afterwards and said that the story had come alive for them like never before and made them think what it really felt like for them both. You could really see people on the edge of their seats.” That’s the power of well-told narrative!

So, last words to a first time first-person preacher: “It was definitely worth doing though even if it was a real challenge.”

4 thoughts on “The First-Person Exception Clause

  1. Eight or nine years ago I did a first person narrative of Elijah. I thought that it was profoundly helpful and I enjoyed doing it (I didn’t do any of the hokey costume stuff…I just did it as I normally dress).

    But I was not prepared for the reaction. There were a minority who had very thoughtful comments about how it had helped them see the story more clearly.

    But the great majority were negative, some even hostile. Some were offended by what I had said (it is long ago now that I don’t really remember much of the content). Others said it was a waste of time. I even had one older church member write a letter to our board of elders asking that I be dismissed because it was “the sorriest excuse for a sermon he had ever heard” and I was “the sorriest excuse of a preacher he had ever heard.”

    In debriefing the sermon with my staff, (they loved it, but…they are my staff, after all!) they believed that we should have set it up differently. I simply had my children’s minister read the scripture upon which the narrative was based and then I got up to speak/preach/whatever it was I did. She didn’t “warn them” about what was about to transpire (I didn’t want her to). In the debrief, the staff believed that people were caught off-guard and never really got over being taken aback.

    I would like to do it again, but never, ever attempted it in that church again. I think that they and I were the poorer because I didn’t. I think, used sparingly, it can really shed light on the scriptures.

  2. I’d really like to hear the audio of Steve’s sermon. I have only heard one or two really well-told narrative sermons. Do you have any recommendations of narrative sermons to listen to?

  3. I will ask Steve if his message is available. Honestly I don’t know where to find first-person sermons online. I would suggest searching for Torrey Robinson and Kent Edwards, who both have published on this approach to preaching (there are a couple of others too – Chapin Garner and Daniel Buttry, but I know nothing about these two gentlemen). If anyone finds first-person messages online, please let the rest of us know.

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