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!

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 5

This week I have been getting my head and heart in gear to prepare messages from the book of Ruth.  I’ve pondered issues of contextual unawareness, perceived irrelevance and the challenges of application.  I am not saying any of this should come before issues of study and interpretation, but before the messages can be prepared, these issues have to be faced.  I’d like to raise one more issue:

What is my strategy for preaching through the book?I have four sessions to preach through Ruth.  Slam dunk, decision made, right?  Four weeks, four chapters.  Voila!  Perhaps.  But I’m not a fan of instant obvious decisions.  I want to think through it first.

1. Preaching a narrative means preaching multiple scenes, not multiple chapters.  It may be that there are four scenes in four chapters, but I need to check that first.  Going with chapter breaks is lazy and sometimes naive.

2. How do I keep the unity in mind?  Ruth wasn’t written to be read over four sittings in four weeks.  It was written to be heard in one sweep.  I have to ponder that.  Should I preach the whole narrative in one go?  I could do that week 1, but then what?  I could take three weeks to revisit the text and zero in on specific aspects of the story.  Or I could review the whole narrative at the end.  Or I could let it build week by week, as if people don’t know what is coming.

3. And what about other options given by four weeks?  Maybe I need to take a week on the opening verses and engage the complexity of divine providence, suffering and life as experienced by most people.  Perhaps there are a couple of chapters that could flow together.  Perhaps the ending that points forward to David is worthy of a wrap-up message on its own.  So many options.

Simply splitting it into four roughly equal chunks with a big number at the start does seem a bit too hasty at this point.  I need to spend some more time in the text of Ruth, and be prayerfully considering what would be most helpful to our congregation.

Feel the Force: Narrative

Yesterday we touched briefly on poetry and noted how easy it is to preach without conveying the force of the text.  Today let’s have a brief reminder regarding narrative.  If the “force” of poetry lies in often emotive imagery, the “force” of narrative rests in the lack of rest, the tension necessary for a story to be a story.

1. We mustn’t sacrifice the tension for other details. It is easy to preach a story in component parts as if it were merely an illustration of propositional truths.  I certainly am not prepared to give up the reality that a single story will be held together by a single sense of purpose, tension and thus, a proposition.  However, preaching story requires telling story and feeling story.  It is not enough to break up the text into segments and describe each as if we were writing a commentary.  For the force of the story to get across, the listeners have to be aware of the tension in the story, more than that, they need to feel the tension.

2. We mustn’t lose the resolution in the rhythm of the message. If the story really becomes a story by the introduction of tension, then the story is rapidly approaching the end once that tension is resolved.  It is in the resolution of the story that we usually have the key to unlocking the purpose and meaning of the whole.  How is the prodigal brought into the family?  (And interestingly, why isn’t the tension resolved for his older brother a few verses later?)  What is God’s evaluation of the two men praying in the temple?  Who demonstrates neighborly love to the injured man by the road?  If our message is not built around telling the story, then it is easy for the resolution to be lost in the detail of our structure.

3. The text is lean, but effective engagement requires the forming of imagery. The Bible does not give much detail in the telling of most of its stories.  Every detail counts and should be studied carefully.  However, the listeners are not studying the text at length, they are listening to you preach it.  So for them to be able to engage with the text, to be able to identify with central characters, to disassociate from others, to wrestle with the tension, they need effective and developed description of the events.  It takes time for the mists to clear on the screen of their hearts so that they can feel the force of the narrative!

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 . . .

Preaching Story: Make the Switch

A switch that could make a big difference when preaching narratives.  How do you preach a story?

Common Default Approach – This is the approach that begins the message with the reading of the text, then moves on to talk about the story, noting elements within the text and giving both explanation and application based on those observations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – It is easier to read a text straight through than to interrupt the reading of the text, people know the whole story from the start and it allows great freedom in terms of what you do with the rest of the message.  These are strengths to one degree or another.  However, there are also inherent weaknesses in this approach.  The story becomes a specimen to examine, rather than a narrative to be experienced (once the reading is over).  The inherent tensions within the narrative are essentially lost, although a good preacher will attempt to rekindle them in the elements of retelling the narrative that follows the reading.

Original Force Approach – Okay, I made that name up, but it does convey my point here.  The simple switch I’m suggesting is instead of “read the story and talk about it,” rather try to “tell the story homiletically.”  What I mean by that is allow the form of the story, and the telling of it, to form the spine of most of the message.  In the process of telling the story, combine explanation of context, culture, historical setting, etc., with deliberate application for contemporary listeners.

Strengths & Weaknesses – The weaknesses that stand out to me with this approach are the greater challenges involved in telling a story effectively such as vivid description, maintaining tension, etc. Thus it may be slightly harder to preach well in this way.  However, the strengths of this approach are significant.  The original force of the passage can be recreated for listeners, whether or not they already know the end of the story.  The inherent tensions and intrigue in a narrative can become strengths of the message (you don’t have to create tension with a story, it has tension inbuilt).  Explanation can feel natural as the story is told, application can carry the implicit force of the narrative.  The ability of a narrative to overcome resistance is harnessed rather than lost (in the common default approach, listeners often put their guard back up once you start “preaching” again after the story’s been read).  There are other strengths too – while it may be harder to preach this way, it makes preaching preparation more interesting as you enter fully into the narrative rather than standing over it with scalpel in hand.  So much more could be added . . .

Next time you preach a narrative, instead of reading it and then talking about it, try telling the story so that the original force is felt as the thrust of the sermon.

Have You Ever Watched A Movie Twice?

Most people have.  Let me share the three reasons people gave at the seminar last weekend for having done this, then I’ll make my point clear:

1. It’s like children wanting the same story told over and over – it gives a sense of security.

2. You catch details you didn’t see first time through.

3. You still enjoy the satisfying bits.

All very true.  My point?  When your preaching text is a familiar narrative, it may be tempting to just talk about it rather than to tell the story again . . . don’t.  Tell the story!

1. If you tell the story well, all of these three things apply.  It’s not just children that appreciate security. In a changing and often worrying world, it is very reassuring at a deep level to be reminded of the unchanging truths of God’s Word – God is still on the throne, Joseph’s story still works out God’s greater plan, Daniel still honors God in the persecution, Jesus still tells Jairus not to fear, and ultimately, the story of the gospel is still true.

2. People do notice things when a story is well told that they may have never noticed before – “I never realised she understood Jesus that way!”  or “I never picked up his gentleness of tone with her before” or whatever.  Just because people have heard a story numerous times, it doesn’t mean they have really understood it.  (How many times has Jonah been told and the point been missed?)

3. It is very satisfying to again experience the resolution of tension in a narrative, even if you know how the story ends.  If this is true with a movie, how much more with true narratives of the Bible?  It’s satisfying to hear Nebuchadnezzar’s statement about God after the grass eating incident.  It’s satisfying to see the ram caught in the bush after having your heart pounding as the knife is raised over Isaac.  It’s satisfying to see everyone safely on shore after the incredible adventure of Paul’s shipwreck.

Narratives create security, they intrigue with new insights, they satisfy with tensions resolved.  Narratives tap into the human ability to identify with others.  Narratives stir the emotions.  Narratives drop the guard of the listener so that truth can hit home.  Narratives are powerful.  That’s why God inspired so many of them.  When you preach a narrative . . . be sure to tell the story well!

3 Words of Wisdom on Preaching Narratives

Personally, I enjoy every opportunity to preach a biblical narrative. This is not only because of the preaching itself, but also because of the study. I always feel stretched when I study a narrative, and blessed when I stick with it.

In his excellent book, Preaching with Variety, Jeffrey Arthurs offers three reasons to be cautious when it comes to preaching narratives (and like me, he is very much in favor of it!)

1. Pastoral Reason. Many may consider narrative sermons as mere entertainment. While they may be wrong, the best convincing tactic is not to force-feed them! There are ways to preach a narrative passage that feels like a traditional sermon (without dissecting the story to death). Think very carefully about the timing of a first 1st-person sermon (Arthurs suggests Christmas and Easter).

2. Exegetical Reason. Particularly in reference to 1st-person sermons, many narratives are written in 3rd-person. We shouldn’t cavalierly jettison the form of the text, but recognize that often a move to 1st-person is a move, rather than a starting point.

3. Epistemological Reason. While narrative is the most used genre in the Bible, it is not the only genre. While our culture may be becoming increasingly a story culture again, humans are not limited to one approach to communication. Narratives and propositions belong together. People need to hear direct communication from the Bible, not just indirect. They need to hear directly stated truths from us too.

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!