Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 1

Perhaps you have read Between Two Worlds by John Stott?  It is a classic textbook for preachers.  In it, Stott lists the biblical metaphors for a preacher: a herald, a seed sower, etc.  Then he reverently adds his own – the preacher as a bridge-builder.  Well, this is not a classic textbook, this is a blog post.  And I am not John Stott.  So I am going to offer several only marginally helpful metaphors for the preacher.  They are probably helpful as far as they go, and it is also helpful to not go too far!

A Video Painter – When you are preaching biblical narrative it may be helpful to think of yourself as a video painter.  You might be thinking these metaphors are only marginally helpful because this is not a real thing, but hang in there.  Narratives are powerful.  They grip listeners with the tension of a plot.  They stir identification and association with the reality of the characters.  When a narrative does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those narrative features and perform an autopsy on a dissected and dead story?  Or are we supposed to preach that story in words that paint moving pictures on the internal video screen of our listeners’ imaginations?  A good preacher of narrative ignites the imagination, paints pictures that move, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching narrative than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add another!

The Identification Situation

One of the secrets of the success of narrative writing and storytelling (whether that is historical narrative, fiction, fantasy, film or whatever) is the power of identification.  When you read, hear or see a story, you naturally find yourself either identifying with or disassociating from characters in the story.  If you are left cold, it is usually a sign that the story isn’t being told well, or you are in some sort of disconnected state.

So, if this is a central function of narratives, then it is a factor to consider in preaching biblical narratives.  Some might try to make a hard and fast rule here, but again I would urge wisdom and consideration of the options.

Identifying with the Central Character. This is the most obvious and typically the most natural.  As we see the faith or failure of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, etc., we naturally find ourselves identifying or disassociating.  Actually, I read a reference to a small study recently that suggested preachers are more likely to associate with the hero of the story than non-preachers are.  Interesting.  There is a danger here.  We can easily turn a God-centred biblical narrative into a moralistic tale of “so let’s try hard to be like Benaiah.”  The other danger is that we are theologically informed of the danger and then fail to engage with narratives in the way they naturally function.

Identify with Non-Central Characters. This is where the non-preachers apparently will naturally identify – with the disciples, the fearful soldiers of Saul’s army, the guilty brothers of Joseph, etc.  This changes things from a preaching perspective.  Suddenly the temptation to moralise is diminished somewhat, though not entirely.  The preaching of the narrative is suddenly fresh instead of predictable, for one thing.

Identify with the original recipients. From an applicational perspective, this is probably the best place to start.  Moses wasn’t telling Israel to all try to be like him, but rather to see afresh the heritage of God at work amongst them.  Samuel wanted Israel to celebrate David and the God of his faith, rather than try to generate a new generation of Davids.  While not narrative texts, Paul’s letters all had applicational intent, specifically related to the recipients of each letter (whom we can identify with by the ongoing characteristics of church life and struggle).

Identification is a primary feature of narratives.  Engage with this truth wisely.


Preaching Longer Narratives – Part 2

Yesterday I began to respond to Anthony’s question about preaching longer narratives:

How do you handle the tension of wanting to tell the story as it was intended to be told and not wanting to overload the hearers?

We saw that how a story is told is critical (more critical than the amount of information included).  We saw that not every detail requires equal focus.  This leads on to another thought that is sometimes hard for some people to accept:

4. True expository preaching does not always require every verse to be read out. With a long text, tell the whole story, but read selected highlights.  The readers can look down and check what you are telling is accurate, but you don’t have to read every verse in the preaching of the text.  If you preach a narrative in first person, you probably won’t read any of the text, but still you need to preach the text!

5. Remember the three ingredients in a sermon. A sermon consists, according to Don Sunukjian, in the combination of three elements.  A biblical text plus the big idea plus a preaching purpose.  Often sermons are lacking one or two or even all three of these ingredients!  The biblical text ingredient means that the message is the text’s message, not a superimposed preacher’s message.  Usually this means the text will be opened and read before or during the sermon.  However, in a longer message, the text may only be read in part.  For instance a single sermon on Romans as a whole will not read the whole thing, but probably will include the reading of 1:16-17 and a few other key highlights.  The same is true with a long narrative.

What is always important is not that every word be read, but that the listener is confident that this message is the true and exact message of this text.  They can look down while you’re preaching and see it there, they can pull a Berean attitude and check it out later for themselves.  Usually the best way to build confidence in the biblical textual nature of the message is to read the whole text and let the exposition show clearly there, but that is a typical strategy, rather than an absolute requirement.  With a long narrative the sense of purpose and a clear statement of the main idea are critical, but the biblical source of the message can be conveyed without full detailed exegetical explanation of every verse, or even the reading of every verse.

Preaching Longer Narratives

Anthony asked the following after one of the posts last week:

I preach only occasionally, and have tackled a couple of narrative passages recently. I like to respect the narrative chunks in the text, which often have a clear beginning, middle and end. But last time I ended up preaching two whole chapters (75 verses), which was probably a bit much!

I’d be interested to hear what you think about this. How do you handle the tension of wanting to tell the story as it was intended to be told and not wanting to overload the hearers?

This is an important question.  After all, not every biblical narrative is contained within a few verses like some of the parables, there are some substantial narratives in the Bible.  The David and Bathsheba narrative lasts for nearly 60 verses if you include Nathan’s visit.  Anthony is referring to one lasting for 75 verses.  A few points to bear in mind:

1. Listeners are more overwhelmed by how something is told than what is told. Especially with narratives, if they are told well, listeners will be glued.  Tell children a good story in a compelling way and they won’t be asking you to stop so they can go to sleep.  Let’s assume the narratives are good ones since God inspired them, that just leaves the storyteller to do their job well.  I’ve sat through the most compelling stories told painfully, but it shouldn’t be that way.  Let the story live, tell it well.

2. Good storytelling involves both detailed description and pace change. When you’re telling a Bible story, there are times when you need to add detail to the description to help the images form on the screen of the listener’s heart.  There are other times when the story can move ahead in leaps and bounds.  The text does this, so can you.

3. True expository preaching does not require equal attention to every detail. The traditional read a verse, explain a verse approach to preaching can become burdensome with a 75 verse narrative.  Tell the whole story, but focus in on the details at key points in order to convey the true message of the passage.  This requires absolute attention to every detail in preparation, but selective focus in delivery.

A couple more thoughts tomorrow on this . . .

The Bible, Expository & Consecutive Preaching – Part 2

Daniel Goepfrich wrote a substantial interaction with this blog over on his site – here – this post is specifically addressing this sentence in paragraph 8:

Most of the Scriptures were not written as sermons or messages to be taught straight through. Sure, some of the letters in the New Testament are designed that way and a few books in the Old Testament, but the majority of the Bible is not.


Whether or not the books of the Bible were written as sermons or messages to be taught straight through seems to be slightly besides the point.  NT letters, for instance, weren’t designed to be taught through, but were written to be read through in one sitting.  In a pre-literate world where orality was central, believers would almost always be hearers not readers, and capable of hearing and retaining in a way that we don’t need to be today. I would suggest that none of the Bible books were “designed” to be preached either straight through (one chunk at a time) or dipped into (topical selectivity).

One issue to consider, though, is that there is a unity and cohesion to each of the Bible books.  They are not random (with the possible exception of parts of Proverbs), but deliberately ordered.  I would suggest that historical books are anything but randomly ordered narratives.  The gospel writers and the OT narrative writers were theologians, as well as the writing prophets, who based their ordering neither on strict chronology as we might expect, nor on random order of recollection, as you later suggest, but on their theological goal in writing.  Recognizing the structuring of books does not require consecutive preaching (and many consecutive preachers are painfully unaware of the connections between their preaching sections).  However, whether we choose to preach through a book or topically, my concern either way is that the preacher should strive to understand the authorial intent in any given passage.  Understanding a passage in its written context is critical in achieving that understanding.


I will continue my response tomorrow.

4 Reasons to Preach Bible Stories

Today I am leading a seminar: Preaching Biblical Narrative.  I have really enjoyed preparing for this event.  Hence I am writing about Bible stories on the site at the moment.  Here’s four good reasons to preach Bible stories, and there are more too!

1. Stories are plenteous. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Ray Lubeck states that 44% of the Bible’s chapters are predominantly narrative.  There’s lots of stories in the Bible!

2. Stories are pervasive. They stretch throughout the canon.  We read stories throughout the Pentateuch, the history books of the Old Testament, in the wisdom books and the prophets.  We read stories about Jesus and from Jesus in the Gospels and throughout Acts.  We read glimpses of stories, or implied stories in the Psalms, in the Epistles, in Revelation.  They are everywhere, because life is lived story.

3. Stories are powerful. Unlike bare proposition, stories lodge in the memory.  They reach down deep to the emotions of the listeners as they identify with characters and get absorbed into real life action and tension.  They have a powerful ability to slip past defenses and reach the heart.

4. Stories are preferred. Historically humans have been primarily story—tellers.  Life legacies have been passed from one generation to the next by means of story.  Globally, most cultures are story cultures.  In fact, if we live in a time when story has taken a back seat, we are living in a blip in time and space.  But that is an if.  Even in the “enlightened” west we still are shaped and gripped by story.  Just look at Hollywood, or what predominates on TV schedules, or how advertisers shape many ads, or even how sports journalists frame big games – stories continue to abound!  And now as culture is shifting from modernism to postmodernism, story is increasingly preferred – authentic personal story is perceived to be of greater value than abstract truth statements.  People are, and always have been, everywhere, primarily creatures of story.

An Implication of Inspiration

This site is for those who care about biblical preaching, not just preaching that includes a bit of Bible.  Consequently I presume the majority of us reading this have a high view of inspiration.  The Bible tells us that ‘all Scripture is given by inspiration of God’ – it is “God-breathed.”  In a sense, inspired implies it was ex-spired from God.  It was written by humans, in their own style and wording, fully conscious, etc.  But what was written was exactly what God intended.

In discussions of this issue, we often end up focusing on the implication of “verbal plenary inspiration.”  That is, that God inspired the very words (verbal), all of ‘em (plenary).  This is critical on many levels.  But in this post I want to point out another implication:

Perhaps we could call it “form plenary inspiration” – that is, that God inspired the very forms in which the Bible is written, all of ‘em.  As Paul Borden put it in a seminar I was listening to, (I paraphrase slightly); “when God wanted letters written, he inspired a good letter writer, Paul.  But when he wanted narrative written, he inspired great narrative writers.”  I think that’s a good point.  The narrative in the Bible is there by design, God’s design.  God knows how powerful and effective narrative is, so he inspired very good narrative.

Narrative in the Bible is not there primarily to give historical account, although it is historically accurate.  The goal was not to write a school history text-book with a balanced chronology.  Accurate, yes, but balanced?  Not in the way we might expect.  Narrative in the Bible is theological writing, it is story-telling with a goal, a point.  It is designed to convey truth about God, about His dealings with humanity, about our responses.  It tells the story, but it is not “mere history.”

All this to say that we should honor the text as inspired down to the words, and down to the form it is in.  Let’s strive to handle every text in the Bible as well as we possibly can, because when God inspired it, his work was very good!

Do You Preach Bible Stories?

Biblical narratives spark differing reactions.  I just had a conversation with someone who preaches periodically.  I mentioned the subject of my seminar this weekend and he responded that he loves preaching on that kind of passage.  Yet others seem to avoid narratives, especially Old Testament narratives, at all costs.  The difficulty for the avoiders is that there is so much narrative in the Bible.  Ray Lubeck counts 44% of chapters as being predominantly narrative.  Michael Rydelnik has a more general approach when he concludes that three-fourths of the Old Testament and half of the New Testament is narrative (more like 70% of the whole).

I think it is accurate to say that narratives are generally easy to read, but they can be hard to interpret accurately (we all like a good story, but that doesn’t mean we always “get it.”)  As far as preaching is concerned, on one level they can be relatively easy to preach, but they are usually hard to preach well.

So the challenge today is two-fold.

1. For those who jump at the chance to preach narrative. Make sure you are really seeking to grasp the point of the story rather than merely making the easy moralistic observations that can easily jump out of such stories (we’ll address the various short-cuts to be wary of in the next few days), and strive not just to preach the narratives, but to preach them well.

2. For those who do gymnastics to avoid preaching a narrative. Take the plunge, they are so rich for both personal study and preaching.  Take the hint, God inspired a lot of the Bible in narrative form.  Take the opportunity to provide a more balanced diet for all who hear you.

Ingredients of Delivery: Biblical Narratives 2

Yesterday we noted how critical description is in the telling of a Bible story.  Today I’d like to mention another key ingredient.  Without thinking through this, your preaching of that Bible story will not be what it could be.

Dynamism – Stories move.  They have tension, movement, interaction, emotion.  We cannot tell a story while standing like a four-storey building.  We need to consider motion, body language, and emotion in voice, face and gesture.  Consider how to physically and subtly represent the movement of the story on the platform.  Always point to Goliath in the same direction, generally let time flow from left to right from their perspective, etc.  Stories move.  Good storytellers generally do too.  And the best storytellers move physically, in gesture and in expression in a way that is consistently natural!  Being natural takes work!

Effective description and engaging dynamism . . . two critical ingredients for the effective preaching of biblical narratives.

Ingredients of Delivery: Biblical Narratives

When it comes to preaching a Bible story, many skills come into play.  I would like to mention a couple for your consideration.  In the next weeks many will be preaching story, even those who tend to stay rooted in the epistles.  So what is needed for effective delivery of a Bible story?  One thing is important to mention before we get to the delivery . . . when you are preaching a Bible story, tell the story!  Don’t just dissect it, label it, apply it, etc., but fail to tell it.  Stories are powerful, so let them loose on your listeners.  Here’s the first key skill, another is coming tomorrow:

Description – Good stories form in the imagination of the listener.  In the old days people would crowd around a crackling radio to catch the latest installment of a powerful story.  Ever since there were children, stories have been told to captivate, excite, scare and encourage.  In recent generations the visual media of television and film have overwhelmed the traditional theatrical presentation of story.  Either on the screen, or on the screen of the mind, a good story forms images, it can be “seen.”  When we preach we need to tell the story in such a way that people aren’t hearing information, but seeing the images.  Description is not easy, but it is worth working on.  Accurate description is important, but so too is sensory description – what it looked like, what the sounds were, the smells, the touch, the taste.  We need to grow in our awareness of and use of adjectives.  Not to show off obscure vocabulary, but to effectively describe so that the story can form for the listener.  When was the last time you read quality descriptive literature?  (And I don’t mean description of kenosis or intra-trinitarian relationality!)

To tell story well, we must describe well.  Practice in your conversations today, practice on your children, seek to develop this skill . . . your preaching will benefit every week!