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Narrative Preaching: Possibilities and Perils

Given the fact that there is much interest in story preaching, two questions must be addressed to aid the preacher in exploring the possibilities of narrative preaching. First, what is the definition of a "narrative sermon," and second, what are the strengths and weaknesses of this type of preaching?

Pure Narrative

A pure narrative sermon is just that: a narrative. Or as Jensen says, "The story is the preaching itself."1 In other words, a pure narrative sermon is a story -- no more and no less. The story may be embellished in its detail and dressed up in its execution, but it is still only a story. Pure simply means that the story is in no sense explained to the hearer, or commented on, outside the bounds of the narrative. In such a sermon, no introduction or conclusion outside of the story is used. The story's introduction is the sermon's introduction; the story's conclusion is the sermon's conclusion.

In a pure narrative sermon, the storyteller should allow the Bible's own way of expressing its concerns to inform directly his or her way of expressing those concerns. Thus, in matters of both form and content, a pure narrative sermon tries to mirror in detail the Bible's story.

This does not mean, of course, that the storyteller merely tells the Bible's story word for word, or simply reads it dramatically. A pure narrative sermon does not hamstring the storyteller's imagination when it comes to contemporizing the Bible's word for the modern congregation. Nor does this mean that narrative preaching is old-style expository preaching in modern dress. Rather, a pure narrative sermon does not move through the text line by line, offering comments on matters of exegetical niceties, but it tells the story by recounting details provided by a careful reading.

Frame Narrative

Sometimes a preacher may wish to provide some sort of introduction to the narrative in order to help the congregation understand the significance of the narrative -- as "discovered" by the preacher. Such a device might be used if the story is unusually rich in its drama or detail -- so rich that the hearer might get lost and thereby lose the thread of its significance. I call this kind of narrative sermon a frame narrative.

In a frame narrative sermon, the preacher not only may choose to introduce the narrative with some sort of introduction outside of the narrative itself, but he or she also may choose to use a conclusion that focuses the narrative for the congregation. By focuses the narrative, I do not mean "explains" the narrative. The story is not an extended illustration for a point to be made at the sermon's end. After telling a story, the preacher should never lean over the pulpit and say, "Now, for all of you who did not get the point of the story I have just told you, here it is." That sort of tactic is not a part of narrative preaching, as I am defining it.

The more traditional repertoire of illustrations can be called on to introduce the narrative that is to serve as the bulk of the sermon. We are familiar with these stories -- either personal, biblical, contemporary, or original quotations-hymns, songs, or words of famous persons; and imaginative -- sentences of our own devising. You can add to the list. The idea is to establish, between you and your hearers, the particular reasons why you plan to tell them this extended story. The frame conclusion has the same rationale and takes its material from the same list of illustrations.

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