It’s nearly time to preach and I can’t find my trousers! Frantically, I run through the church trying to locate them. The pulpit hymn is coming to a close! It’s time! I’m up! Unfortunately, my trousers aren’t. It’s a nightmare!
Over the years, I’ve had a similar dream numerous times. Since I turned 40, however, I’ve been spooked by yet another dream, a narrative nightmare. Allow me to share it with you.
The dream begins with me stepping up to the congregation, dressed only in my corduroy bathrobe and slippers. (I avoid looking at the teens who are snickering.) I’m self-conscious in this costume but willing to be “a fool for Christ’s sake” in order to help people see, as well as hear, my message. I want to regenerate the impact of this event for my congregation and to do that I must draw them into the story with more than words. The Scripture won’t be read. It will be reenacted in a dramatic, monologue narrative.
I am Jesus; the listeners are my disciples. With descriptive speech, I transform the sanctuary into a rickety fishing boat and launch my sermonic craft out into the open water with a dramatic flair worthy of the theater. My disciples are in that boat. I have just finished feeding the 5000. I’m going off to pray now. I disappear from sight but continue talking, crafting the verbal storm of the century. The room darkens; the wind begins to blow and the boat sways with such vividness that Mrs. Johnson grips the end of the pew for stability. Soon everything is rocking with such imaginary ferocity that old man Peterson cries out for a life preserver!
“Where’s Jesus?” cries my associate. Suddenly, the spotlight finds me again. I appear bigger than life and somewhat iridescent (thanks to the lights and a change of robe). Screams of fear I calm with the waters as I raise my hands in dramatic gesture and utter, as divinely as I am able, “Yo! Wind! Chill out!”
My Chairman, on cue, cries, “Lord? If it’s really you, ask me to come.”
No one is even close to falling asleep! “Come.” I extend my arms to him and he fearfully gets out of the craft and begins making his way toward me. Suddenly he drops to his knees, as if going under and I grab him by the collar, just in time! Together we stand at the altar as the organ plays “Rescue the Perishing.” I open my arms to the folks and invite them to come, like Peter, to Jesus.
I awaken in my dream only to find myself standing before the real Jesus, still in my bathrobe and slippers, pensively waiting for that awesome word, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Instead I hear him say, “Get dressed.” Finally, I startle awake!
It’s my narrative nightmare and it reveals my deep-seated fear of homiletical embarrassment before Christ. Narrative preaching is particularly susceptible to such red-faced sermonics. This is because imagination is essential to good narrative preaching and all imagination includes speculation. Increased speculation is often directly proportional to increased attention, which is what we want.
We sometimes miss, however, the negative side of the equation. Speculation is inversely proportional to veracity. We move from speaking things we know to verbalizing things we think. Every congregation will allow their preacher a certain latitude in this. Speculations, which are stated as such, and which pertain to aspects of the story not directly related to the text, can be a considerable aid in both attention and understanding. Such use of imagination will generally be permitted by even the most discerning audience. However, if the preacher offends peoples’ discretionary license he will diminish his believability.
Decreased veracity in the particulars will lead, in turn, to erosion of authority in the generalities. What you gain then, in immediate interest, is more than off-set by a loss in long-term credibility. This, unfortunately is the sorry end of much narrative preaching, and especially dramatic monologue. You preach “as one without authority.”1 This is precisely what our pluralistic, relativistic society wants from its preachers. Jesus on the other hand, “gave them (his disciples) power and authority and He sent them out to preach” (Luke 9:1,2)
To abdicate such authority is a gospel crime. We must preach “with authority” and that authority must be integrally attached to the text. Are we then consigned to endless homiletical boredom? God forbid! The greatest attention-getter is neither story-telling nor images, but the personal conviction of the preacher. If you don’t have this, sit down. With conviction in place, story-telling, like other illustrative material, can be used graphically to communicate the gospel message. I suggest a few general principles to keep in mind when preaching in narrative form:
1. Stay close to the text. If you choose not to read the particular biblical story which you are going to preach narratively, then perhaps you could read a corresponding didactic passage, which the story illustrates. Either way, stay in touch, not just earshot, of the Bible. To lose sight of the text while preaching is to drop the football while running for a touchdown. Once the ball is fumbled you might as well stop running.
2. When you retell biblical narratives, accept the caution of not adding to, as well as not taking away from, the text. Imaginative speculation can be acknowledged as such. One can paint pictures of settings which will be consistent with what is known of the biblical cultures and one can do this without compromising integrity.
3. Illustrate the biblical message but be careful not to undermine the same with cheap drama. You are not competing with Broadway, but with the marketplace. Your sound and lights show will not sell tickets unless it can be done extremely well, as few churches are set up to do and fewer preachers are capable of doing. Humor is helpful, but not just to get a laugh. The drama of personal conviction is your greatest draw. It is yours and yours alone. Stretch yourself, but remain yourself. Corny preaching is not what Paul had in mind when he spoke of being a fool for Christ’s sake.
These suggestions are not guaranteed to dispel the narrative nightmare from your Saturday evening stupor. They may, however, when followed carefully, bring relief to your soul upon waking in that familiar cold sweat only to realize that it’s just a dream and that you really do have your pants up.
1Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority, Nashville: Abingdon, 1971.

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