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.

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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.