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Narrative Preaching: Possibilities and Perils

Multiple Story Narrative

A third kind of narrative sermon is the multiple story narrative. In this narrative variety, one biblical story is used to comment directly on another, but the preacher does not comment on either story outside of the bounds provided by that story.

The rationale for this kind of narrative sermon is to allow one part of the biblical record to comment on another part, and thus permit the Bible's unique and varied witness to be heard in a richness not available through any one text. If a nonbiblical story is chosen, the sermon would be a frame narrative.

Fictional Narrative

A fourth kind of narrative sermon may be called a fictional narrative sermon. In this kind of sermon, the preacher creates a new story inspired by a close reading of the biblical narrative. Sometimes the preacher may discover that the biblical story in its ancient dress does not speak as clearly or forcefully as a contemporary story might. This has prompted some of our greatest authors to tell stories that present the most significant themes of the biblical witness in fresh and often startling ways, which modern hearers, who are perhaps dulled by the familiar formulations of the great old themes, might be enabled to hear these themes again with renewed power.

Preachers are well advised to read and contemplate those authors who, in effect, are attempting to do what preachers are in the business of doing -- namely, seeking fresh ways to say familiar things. For example, Flannery O'Connor, an ardent Roman Catholic, spent her tragically brief life trying to confront an increasingly secular society with the awesome mystery of the grace of God. She often chose overtly grotesque forms to effect the confrontation, but her choice was a conscious one. She once said, "I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see."2

Personal Narrative

In the fifth type of narrative sermon, the preacher's own unique story or personal experience, related as illuminative of the biblical witness, is the bulk of the sermon. By a personal narrative sermon, I do not mean that some specific experience of the preacher is used as an illustration of the theme of the day. Rather, one specific experience of the preacher is narrated in direct response to a specific biblical text, in order to make that text fresh and new to the hearers.

Merely telling "my story" may or may not be a personal narrative sermon as I am defining it. The key is that the experience must be one shared in response to a text. For example, the preacher might relate his or her own conversion experience as it has been illuminated by the conversion experience of Paul.

If one of the chief concerns of the preaching task is to share the biblical witness of faith with congregations, then it is incumbent upon the preacher not to use his or her experience merely as an end in itself -- regardless of how interesting that experience might be. A personal narrative sermon is offered in response to the Bible's story and should be used only if the Bible's witness is enhanced.

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