Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

2 thoughts on “Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

  1. Thanks for that post, all your posts. I’m following from Austria and learn a lot.

    In seminar I’ve heard a friend preach a first person sermon for the first time. It was amazing.
    Since then I’ve done it a couple times. Here is my input: I have done it with complete dressing up, even a fake beard (got a real one since then). It depends on the church culture I’d say.

    I’ve done a sermon in a family church service as Peter and used the three animals in Peter’s life to illustrate the story: the rooster (proud Peter and failing Peter), the fish (Jesus restoration talk with Peter) and the sheep (Peter being called to ministry… Again)
    When I reviewed it, I made sure that all illustrations were added in a Biblical accurate way. Did John mean to symbolize the rooster as proud Peter? I don’t think so. But the detail is still Biblical.
    That would be my suggestion. If you add detail, make sure it’s in line with the main message of the text(s).

    The second time I was an old man in today’s culture who was an older brother type in the prodigal son(s).
    He pridefully und judgementally tells the story of a neighbors son who left home to become a drug addict in Thailand. All the details were chosen to transfer the impressions that the readers back then must have had (unclean swine, far away…)
    When the son came back and was welcomed by the father, “I” was upset first. In the end I went to church and the pastor preached about the prodigal son. I let the pastor end with the pun of the parable: what is the older son going to do?
    That convicts me and I apply the gospel to my pride as a older brother neighbor.

    Even though it is further removed time wise, I think it was even closed exegetically than the first one.

    I encourage everyone to stay very close to the Biblical message and do good exegesis and still be very creative. It is possible to do it well and I hope to learn even more how to do it.

  2. Thanks for the article, but I am not in favour of this method – for me, anyway, apart from perhaps a children’s address, and even then I cannot recollect ever having done it. Any evidences of this method being used prior to the 20/21st century.

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