Narrative Preaching – telling the story or missing the point?
On Easter Sunday evening at the Easter Event “Resurrection” in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, Peter Grainger preached a narrative sermon based on the story of Thomas from John 20 – read the sermon Believe It Or Not or watch the video. He reflects on the experience and answers some of the questions about “narrative preaching”.
How many other times have you preached a narrative sermon?
This was the first! (not a smart move in front of over 2000 people I was warned by well-meaning friends and family!) I had used narrative preaching in telling a Biblical story in an introduction to a traditional sermon, but never a full first person narrative – until now!
So why now?
Two reasons. First of all, I have been teaching “Preaching New Testament Narrative” at International Christian College in Glasgow on their MTh in Biblical Interpretation & Preaching course, and this covers “narrative preaching” (as well as preaching narrative in the usual expository format.) The theory is that post-moderns like narratives but not metanarratives and this seemed a good opportunity to see if this approach could get under their radar at an event to which outsiders were invited in a neutral (non-church building) venue.
Secondly, on a personal level, even after almost 50 years since I first began preaching, I still want, with God’s help, to be a better, more effective preacher of the gospel (one of convictions of 2 Timothy 4, the Preaching Trust I direct, is “every preacher can become a better preacher”). I am keen to use “all possible means to save some” and this provided an opportunity to put this principle into practice.
What Biblical warrant do you believe there is for narrative preaching?
First of all, the Bible is a narrative – from Genesis to Revelation, the story of salvation (the metanarrative). Secondly, the Lord Jesus Christ used story-telling in his own teaching and preaching (Mark 4:34 says that “he did not say anything to them without using a parable”). So, when an expert in the law asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”, our Lord replies “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” and tells a (two minute!) story! We might have been to inclined to interrupt, “Hang on a minute! I asked for an answer not a story.”
Obviously, my (or anyone else’s) narratives don’t have the same authority, but I think the principle is valid.
So how did you go about preparing this narrative sermon?
I began, as always, with the Biblical text (and the narrative sermon itself began, as I think it always should, with a reading of the text). I decided to speak on the account of “Doubting Thomas” and looked at how I had preached on it several times in the past and especially adapting one sermon focusing on “seeing and believing”. I toyed with the idea of using Thomas as the narrator but eventually settled on the apostle John writing the conclusion of his gospel. Then it was an enormous amount of work and imagination to somehow include as much information (explanation/exegesis) as I could in a natural way, plus application that flowed from it. I wrote out the final text in full (after numerous drafts) and more or less learned it by heart (with with a written prompt in front of me).
Narrative sermons are sometimes criticised for adding to Scripture. So, what information did you include?
A surprising amount! The death of Christ (and its fulfilment of Scripture), his burial, resurrection, ascension and return. The basis for faith/believing. The authority of Scripture and even the dating of the New Testament and the Synoptic problem!! One limitation of a narrative sermon is that it’s difficult to qualify what is uncertain as you can in a traditional sermon. So, for example, I assumed that John’s Gospel was written by John “over fifty years” after the resurrection, and that it was just the ten apostles in the locked room at the first appearance of the risen Christ (while some scholars believe it was a larger number which I would have stated in the normal format). Sometimes you can qualify – for example, that Thomas died in India “it is rumoured” – but not always. So my narrative sermon was prompted by wondering why Thomas wasn’t present at the first appearance, and it begins with John saying he doesn’t recall the reason and speculating what it might have been. All we actually know for sure is that Thomas wasn’t there. I think you need to be careful in what you add (and there are some pretty wild examples of narrative sermons!) and try to ensure it doesn’t teach additional truth outside of Scripture. But most preachers paint pictures which add colour to the Biblical account.
Isn’t application more difficult in narrative sermons?
Perhaps not more difficult but more subtle. So running through the whole sermon is the reliability of the Gospel accounts (assumed by John actually in the process of writing) and therefore good reason for faith given by those who were reliable eye-witnesses to those of us who weren’t – “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.” The sermon concludes with more directive application with John saying that he has included material that the other Gospel-writers didn’t include – “for the benefit of every doubting Thomas to come, every doubting John, every doubting Mary, every doubting Hamish, every doubting Morag…you who, on an occasion like this, on another Easter Sunday evening, feel like Thomas, that you have missed out while the rest joyfully sing, “The Lord is risen!”
And I concluded with an appeal to the listeners to read the story for themselves:
“You’ll find my full story in the Bible under ‘The Gospel according to John’ ”.
What about the use of props and multi-media?
I thought long and hard about dressing in costume (as Haddon Robinson and others recommend) and decided in the end to wear a cloak over my shoulder, as I sat a writing desk, pen-quill in hand. (there was an obvious anachronism unless you believe the apostle John wore spectacles!). I found it somewhat limiting being seated for the whole time (let alone not being able to engage eye-contact with a single person because of the stage-lights). As far as multi-media goes, we used one screen image of a picture of the crucifixion, and every time I wrote, the scripture verses were scrolled across the screen. (note: not shown on the video)
So, how do you reflect on this as you compare it with a traditional sermon, and will you do it again?
It was interesting for me to go back and to listen to and compare the same sermon in traditional format which is about 25% longer (available on www.charlottechapel.org). I think both forms of preaching have validity but I would (or could) not make narrative preaching a frequent practice for several reasons – primarily the imagination and work required, but also the fact that not all genres in Scripture lend themselves to a narrative approach. However, I do think it is especially appropriate in an event/service with an evangelistic focus. Reflecting on preaching to a thousand people on Sundays for 17 years, I think some of my 800+ sermons might have benefitted from a narrative approach.
And finally, what sort of response have you received?
More than normal and all (so far!) positive – though it may be that those who didn’t like it are too polite to say so! I’d appreciate any (constructive!) feedback or answer further questions on email@example.com.
2 Timothy 4 are running a Preachers’ Workshop on “Preaching Narrative Texts” on May 7th which I will be leading, along with Rev. Alex MacDonald of Buccleuch & Greyfriars Free Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, author of “Tell me the Story” (Christian Focus Publications) which includes narrative sermons he has used.