Winston Jones wrote, “Storytelling is the most ancient of the arts, and the most universal.”1
Preaching is a demanding task. William Barclay insisted that preachers should be chained to their desks four mornings a week and forbidden to rise until they have produced something worthwhile to show for their labors.
Dogma is Drama
Dorothy Sayers made high drama of biblical material. After writing twelve passion plays, she said, “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that has ever staggered the imagination of man — and the dogma is the drama.” She found the Gospel narratives anything but dull: “Any journalist hearing it for the first time, would recognize it as news; those who did hear it for the first time did call it … good news.”2
Why then is so much modern preaching anything but interesting and exciting? One reason is that it has lost its dramatic narrative character. The drama we find in the Bible is interesting, universal, and timeless.
One of the great needs of biblical preaching is the need to be contemporary. Narrative preaching is a variant which elaborates the basic biblical materials and creates a sense of contemporaneity. Both the personality and the life situation of the biblical character come alive for the hearer.
The dramatic monologue sermon allows the biblical personality to speak in the first person. Listeners may well feel that they are reliving the biblical event. Thus, the Word comes alive in the experience of the hearer to challenge, heal, and redeem. The hearer feels that he is there, a contemporary of the biblical personality and events.
Many times worshipers are not moved by powerful biblical truths because of the truths’ familiarity. The listeners have heard the narrative or parable many times since childhood. Some even think of the biblical accounts as fairy tales. This problem calls on the preacher to present his material through new and fresh methods. Narrative preaching is one approach worthy of our consideration.
The theology of the Bible is clothed in the flesh and blood of living characters. Human nature is essentially the same today as it was in biblical times. Some of the characters of the Old and New Testament walk our streets in modern dress, their temperaments and their basic problems the same as our own.
Persons like Judas are sticky-fingered treasurers and bankers of our time who enrich themselves at the price of betrayal of trust. Cain still stalks modern parks and alleys. Delilah plies her trade in Paris frock or hot pants. Prejudice did not die with Simon Peter at Caesarea. Salome dances atop French Quarter bars, and Potiphar is preppy. Canaanite fertility cults are practiced by pill-liberated suburban housewives, unaware of Herpes. Modern preaching dare not do less than clothe theological truth in the flesh and blood of imagination.
Christian worship at its best is dramatic and exciting, though not necessarily theatrical. The church has largely lost its sense of the dramatic nature of the gospel. The ordinances of baptism and Lord’s Supper are powerful symbolic presentations of gospel truth. They appeal to all the human senses and have a dramatic quality which we fail to exploit.
Narrative preaching tends to heighten interest in the message and, thus, enhance communication. While it should not become the only form of preaching, it can add variety and spice to the congregation’s sermonic diet.
Narrative preaching is in the finest biblical tradition. Henry Grady Davis contends that the gospel itself is made up principally of narration. It is a series of accounts of people, places, and happenings, not simply rational arguments. Modern preaching appears to have reversed the percentages: while the gospel is nine tenths narration, most of our sermons are nine tenths exhortation.
Most biblical ideas were first presented in story form. It is easier to remember a story than an ordinary sermon or even a poem. The prophets and the author of Genesis 1-11 were master storytellers, as was Jesus. His parables are vivid stories that stick in the mind. We could not forget them if we tried.
A well-told story still has great appeal. Children beg their parents to read or tell them a story. Adults almost universally enjoy “a good story.” Theater and the television industry are built on our human interest in stories. A good story can capture the essence of an event and hold it before the hearers for either entertainment or instruction.
The preacher will be wise to capitalize on the dramatic nature of the gospel and our innate interest in drama. Jesus made people see the truth by simple stories. The modern preacher’s task is much the same. Skillfully done, narrative preaching, including the dramatic monologue, can improve the effective communication of the gospel. It gets and holds the congregation’s attention. It creates a high level of interest in the message. Narrative preaching can be an effective teaching device, conveying Bible knowledge, as well as stirring the emotions and moving the will of the hearers.
Considerations in Narrative Preaching
The use of imagination has an important place in narrative preaching. This type of sermon calls for filling in the gaps not covered in the biblical narrative. The preacher has more opportunity to make use of his imagination in dramatic preaching than in other types. He is at liberty to create the feelings and emotions of the character, as well as to describe the setting. He will be careful that his imagination does not violate the biblical account.
The narrative sermon can create suspense. People will listen eagerly. Spurgeon called the use of imagination in preaching “surprise power.”
I have found that the fruit of critical Bible study can often be introduced into a sermon by imagining the life situation of a biblical character.
One problem in narrative preaching is the danger of anachronism. By this, I mean putting things into the character’s life and speech that could not have been true to his time. It is very easy to let untimely references or jargon slip into the narration. This is always a literary problem. The King James Version of the Bible speaks of candlesticks instead of lampstands. Shakespeare had a clock strike in his play Julius Caesar, though clocks had not yet been invented. One must be sure to check the historical accuracy of the facts included in narrative preaching.
This type preaching also requires careful research and preparation on the part of the preacher. You will want to be as familiar as possible with the times in which the character lived, striving for historical accuracy. The objective of confronting persons with the claims of the gospel requires the preacher’s very best effort in both preparation and delivery.
The How-to of Narrative Preaching
You will want to make careful research notes, giving attention to your sources. After the basic research is complete, give it some time to mellow. The entire sermon idea may be put on a back burner until a central theme surfaces. Frederick Speakman says that it often requires a month for him to write a dramatic monologue sermon.
Once you’ve found the key for the sermon, organize your facts and narrative around it. Do not be afraid to eliminate good material in favor of the best. Ideally, a sermon should run not more than twenty to twenty-five minutes. You can’t have a character relate all the facts you know about him in that brief span. Therefore, you will choose only the most important facts which fit your theme. Severe pruning can make the sermon more effective. No one will be impressed by being told all the preacher knows at a single sitting. Remember to deal with only the central aspect of the character.
You may choose to write out your manuscript or use what Clyde Fant calls the “oral manuscript” in preparation for delivery. Writing will help to polish phrases and maintain a conversational style. Use short sentences and simple strong words. Write the introduction and conclusion carefully and commit them to memory.
The introduction sets the scene and introduces the speaking character, as well as those to whom he is speaking. This helps prepare the congregation for what is to follow.
Write out the narrative in simple language. You will want to use active colorful verbs and vivid descriptions of people and places. Always be faithful to the biblical material.
I find that the sermon needs to be rehearsed both mentally and verbally in order to have it clearly in mind. There is hardly any way to speak effectively in the first person or to deliver an exciting narrative while reading from extensive notes or manuscript. It is not necessary to memorize the sermon word for word, though a few persons have such a gift. Only the key passages need to be memorized–the pegs on which the narrative hangs. A key word or phrase can act as a transitional device and trigger the preacher’s memory to recall the next section of the sermon. W.E. Sangter contended that the preacher should learn to “think paragraphically.”
In delivery the narrative sermon may be addressed to an imaginary person. Dramatic techniques of flashback and reverie may be employed as well. Conversational tone is usually best for use in this type preaching. However, conversational speech need not lack excitement and emotion.
You may want to create the scene verbally or on occasion make proper use of lighting, costume, and makeup. It appears that the use of costume is more effective in the evening service than in the morning. Children, youth, and young adults have a greater appreciation for the use of costume than do middle or older adults.
One of the weaknesses in dramatic preaching is at the point of the application of biblical truth. The application has to be self-evident or implicit rather than explicit. It is awkward for the preacher to step out of character and apply the sermon’s spiritual truths to modern-life situations. Most hearers are more capable of making their own application than we preachers think.
One way to begin narrative preaching is not to attempt an entire sermon. You may try painting a word picture of biblical scene, such as Peter’s call beside the Sea of Galilee or the siege of Jerusalem or the wailing of the songless Israelite captives of Babylon. After you feel comfortable with the method, it can be expanded and used for a full-length sermon.
The Advent and Easter seasons lend themselves naturally to dramatic preaching. It can be great fun and may provide a fresh and effective tool for communicating the gospel.
The late J. Wallace Hamilton of Florida gave us some words which can be aptly applied to narrative preaching. He wrote: “Clarity, poetry, vitality! We must make it clear; we must make it sing; and above it all we must make it live.”3
From Dramatic Monologue Preaching by Alton H. McEachern. (c) Copyright 1984 Broadman Press. All rights reserved. Adapted and used by permission.
1Winston Jones, Preaching and the Dramatic Arts (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1948), p. 106.
2Dorothy Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), pp. 17, 14.
3J. Wallace Hamilton, Still the Trumpet Sounds (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1970), p. 159.
Winston Jones wrote, “Storytelling is the most ancient of the arts, and the most universal.”1