Points in a Narrative Text Sermon

There is a field of homiletics referred to as narrative preaching, but this post is concerned with the preaching of a narrative passage – eg. David and Goliath, Joseph in Potiphar’s House, Hannah & Samuel, etc.

In other posts I have encouraged the use of full sentence points, rather than descriptive titles that make the message outline look like a commentary synopsis.  The full thoughts help you communicate effectively, generally avoiding historical past tense sentences helps you not sound like a commentary recycler.  But it is worth clarifying a couple of points on points:

1. If the message structure reflects the story structure, then some points may be better stated in historical terms. What I mean is that in an attempt to be contemporary, we can end up making three or four life principles out of the developing elements of the story, rather than allowing the story to be told properly.  The problem then becomes a moralizing approach to the details of a story, rather than allowing the force of the story to stand behind the main point, which itself might best be the only focus of application.  Stories that are told effectively will hold attention, so it is not necessary to generate points of relevance or application throughout the detail of the story.  Pay careful attention to the introduction, generating a definite sense of sermon relevance there, then feel free to be in the world of the narrative for a large part of the message, continually building to the relevance that may only become overt in point 3 or 4 (i.e. whenever the main idea is revealed with its abiding theological thrust).

2. Shorter biblical stories may work best with a default sermon outline. Namely, point 1 is to tell the story.  Point 2 is to state and clarify the main idea of that story.  Point 3 is to reinforce and drive home the application of that main idea.  In this case point 1 is automatically historical.  Point 2 should be written in contemporary terms.  Point 3 has to be contemporary, including all sub-points.  Again the introduction is important, but I suspect that will be the case in almost every sermon that we preach (whether we give it the necessary attention or not).  This approach underlines the fact that the outline of a sermon is for your eyes only.  Once we realize our goal is not to transfer an outline, but to give the text in such a way as to clarify the main point and apply it, then we are freed from the burden of turning every narrative into a parallel rhyming assonated demonstration of guilded wordsmithery.

14 thoughts on “Points in a Narrative Text Sermon

    • Hi Brandon – I presume you are asking in relation to the first part of the post? Let me give an example from a book. It is a sermon based on John 8:1-12. Here are the points:

      1. Jesus, the Light of the World, was caught in the tension of grace to a sinner and upholding the law. John 8:1-6a
      2. Jesus, the Light of the World, exposed the condition of all men and women. John 8:6b-11
      3. When we are exposed by Jesus, the Light of the World, we have a choice. John 8:12 (and main application)

      I’m not saying it is a perfect outline, but it does serve to demonstrate how points 1 and 2 are written in historical description because of telling the story. The third point is stated in today terms (i.e. “we”). Typically I would want all points to be stated in today terms, but not necessarily if a story is being told.

      If we had a more extended example from somewhere like the life of Joseph in Genesis, using today terms for points/movements might make it sound like a series of mini tales, each with their own moral for today. Much better to live in the story and then make the main idea the main applicational thrust for today.

  1. Peter, great post. Finding a suitable sermon form for narrative passages has been a real struggle for me as an expository preacher. You brought a lot of clarity to some issues that were cloudy for me. Blessings to you brother! Great blog too, by the way. I plan on browsing much more here.

  2. Dear Dr. Mead, this post resonated with what I’ve been teaching to my Homiletics students recently. In order to avoid principalization, I assume that the main points for preaching a narrative text must ALWAYS be in the historic past tense and follow the structure of the text. Do you agree with this? Or are there any exceptions to this general rule? Thank you in anticipation of your feedback.

    • Hi David, sorry for the delay in responding to this. I agree with generally following the structure of the text, but I would encourage people to write main points in contemporary terms. By going with historic past tense you will avoid over principalizing the text, but you can also lose a sense of ongoing relevance in the sermon. I don’t feel that making points contemporary automatically means the message will be inappropriate in terms of principalization – that will come from the hermeneutical approach of the preacher. My tendency would be to encourage the best possible hermeneutics and exegesis, and then to make the message feel as relevant as possible. A lot of preachers sound very out of touch with listeners (perhaps a fruit of hours in historical study!)

  3. Dear Dr. Mead, I agree with what you’re saying. While preaching on narrative texts, I think that it’s better to have an outline which reflects the structure of the text and then give the proposition at the end. This was the outline of the sermon which I’ve preached yesterday. I divided the text into 4 different scenes:
    Each of these main points had sub-points as well.
    After preaching through this passage, at the end, I stated my CPS.
    CENTRAL PROPOSITION OF THE SERMON: We must seek and worship Jesus.
    What’s your feedback on this outline?

    • Thanks David – following up my previous comment … I haven’t compared your outline to the passage, but in line with what I wrote about relevance, I feel the danger of this type of historic past tense outline is that it can feel like a historic lecture. Obviously you can overcome that to a certain extent with sub-points, but equally we can prioritize relevance by making the points more contemporary, then immediately support those points by going back to the text in the way you demonstrate here. I suppose the tension I feel with the outline is that the central proposition feels like a leap from the points made. That is, ‘they … they … they …’ and in conclusion, ‘we must…’ I am sure that with the full content this tension would have been overcome, but my tendency would be to avoid that tension at the outline level if possible.

  4. Hello, Dr. Mead,

    I happened to revisit this very helpful article. I have another question:

    You mentioned a “default sermon outline,” in which we tell a story in point 1, state and clarify the meaning of that particular story in point 2, and give the application in point 3.

    My question and concern is, wouldn’t hearers be waiting for 30-35 minutes before we start giving them an application? Don’t you think that there must be application throughout an OT narrative sermon too?

    I would appreciate your perspective on this.

    • Hi David – that is a very good question. I agree that we should be looking to demonstrate relevance throughout the sermon, not just at the end. In the case of a narrative where the actual application of the main idea is going to come at the end, I would look to demonstrate relevance from the start. The introduction is a key opportunity to surface need for this message by highlighting a contemporary and felt need that will be addressed by the message. Then the wording of the sermon allows for a contemporary feel, and often in narratives there are moments of explanation that can connect with modern listeners. Even though the actual application may need to wait (in order to avoid a moralistic copying of relatively incidental details in the story), I think that with some effort by the preacher, the whole message can be registering as relevant to the listeners throughout.

      One time I preached for an hour at a Bible conference and knew that the vast majority of the sermon was essentially explanation without the expected illustration and application every couple of minutes. The organisers, my hosts, had spoken much about the need for illustrations and connecting the message with the listeners during our pre-event meal together. I preached the narrative as I had planned. And afterwards they were very thankful for how much I had illustrated the sermon. I hadn’t. It was a strange situation (both to preach with essentially no illustration for an hour, and to be thanked for my great illustrations). I think they felt there must have been lots of illustration and application because images had formed as I preached and it felt vivid to them. Typically that comes from illustration and application throughout, but I had decided on that occasion to immerse the listeners in the story and it had been like a movie to them. (I don’t recommend preaching this way all the time, but we shouldn’t discount the power of well-told biblical story.

      I really appreciate your question – it is exactly the right question to ask.

      • Dear Dr. Mead,

        Thank you very much for taking the time and answering my question so comprehensively. I agree with you. When it comes to preaching from the narratives, I’ve been following a similar pattern that you mentioned. But as a preacher, I’ve wondered whether waiting for the application till the end is helpful. Your reply is excellent, convincing, practical, and persuasive. Thank you once again!

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