Stephen Chapin Garner, Getting Into Character: The Art of First-Person Narrative Preaching. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Paper, 142 pages. ISBN 978-1-58743-218-7
It has never been a common sermon form – even where it is used, it tends to only show up around the Christmas holidays when the preacher dons a bathrobe and pretends to speak as Joseph or the innkeeper. Yet in recent years there has been a growing interest in the first-person narrative sermon, and some helpful resources are appearing to help pastors learn to use this homiletical form more effectively.
First came It’s All in How You Tell It by Haddon and Torrey Robinson, then J. Kent Edwards produced Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching. Now one of Robinson’s D.Min. students-Stephen Chapin Garner, a Massachusetts pastor-has written Getting Into Character, a useful guide to developing and presenting such sermons. Garner-who is also an actor and playwright-offers practical advice for preparing and presenting first-person narratives that will be fresh and engaging. Pastors who don’t have much experience with such sermons will find this a helpful resource and an encouragement to try such sermons from time to time.
Using a baseball metaphor, Garner reminds us of the need for successful pitchers to have several types of pitches available and that, “Even a great fastball pitcher won’t last long in the big leagues unless he has a solid breaking ball and perhaps an effective change-up. I have realized that the preaching art is much more akin to pitching than it is to hitting. We take the biblical text, and through prayer, exegesis and thoughtful reflection we come up with a homiletical idea that serves as the strike zone for our sermon. The next question we need to ask ourselves is: which homiletical style of delivery will best serve my congregation on a given Sunday? Will a deductive, an inductive, a narrative, or a first-person sermon style best communicate the homiletical idea? I have come to believe that, like an effective pitcher, a preacher’s ability to command several different styles of delivery and memorable.”
First-person narrative brings characters to life in ways that can illustrate memorable gospel messages, thereby increasing effectiveness. Garner draws the connection between first-person narrative sermons and the dramatic monologue in theater, then uses those insights to help preachers develop their own work. He discusses selecting characters and use dialogue, how to plot your narrative, and other vital elements in crafting such messages.
In his discussion of writing, Garner reminds us of an important reality that applies to other sermons as well as narratives: “People do not write like they talk. A term paper for an honors class and a conversation with a neighbor are often radically-different discourses-and they should be! . . . Effective preachers tend to employ a more conversational style of delivery that allows the listeners to feel as though they are part of the conversation.” In first-person narratives, such a style is essential because “you are taking on the voice of a flesh-and-blood human being, and interpersonal discourse is always conversational in nature. If you don’t learn to write like you talk, or as you envision your character talking, your efforts to communicate character will be futile.”
While many such sermon attempts involve costumes, Garner discourages their use in preaching, noting that “Costumes, props, and sets hold tremendous power over the audience; if you misuse them you will lose your audience. If your Abraham is dressed in a shepherd’s costume from last year’s Christmas pageant, your first-person narrative will be about the shepherd’s costume. If Abraham enters the sanctuary wearing sunglasses and talking on a cell phone, the dramatic monologue will be about the sunglasses and the cell phone. Our goal in every sermon is to help focus people on the Word of God; don’t distract them from God’s Word with a poor attempt at a costume or the awkward use of a prop.”
Getting Into Character will help equip the pastor who desires to teach via first-person narrative by taking on the voice of biblical characters. The book equips pastors to deliver dramatic sermons without being an actor. Getting into Character will be helpful for pastors and seminary students looking to expand their styles and pastors who want to perfect their storytelling skills.