Perform (vb.)–to enact, accomplish; to bring to completion; to carry out (a command or promise).
One of the hot topics in homiletics the last twenty years, perhaps the hottest topic, has been narrative preaching. We’ve been told that Jesus told stories, and so should we; we’ve been told that over half of the Bible is narrative, so we better sit up and take not- ice that this form of communication is powerful; and we’ve been told that anyone who wants to reach our TV-conditioned audience had better traffic in images and plots, not ideas and arguments. I believe all of this. Many of us do, but I wonder how many of us actually preach narrative sermons.
The exhortations of the last twenty years toward narrative preaching may not have done much more than make us feel guilty for not trying it. We are better at arguing for narrative sermons than we are in preaching them.
This article is a modest attempt to equip the already (or partially) convinced. It takes a practical approach to a particular type of narrative preaching, the first person sermon — sometimes called the “dramatic monologue.”
What Is A First Person Narrative Sermon?
A first person narrative sermon is a form of preaching which expounds and applies a biblical text by retelling the story through the perspective of a character in the story. The personality of the preacher is subordinated to the personality of the narrator who is an observer or participant in the story. The first person narrative sermon uses first person pronouns (for example, “I said to her… Then I went to the Temple…I tried to hide, but he saw me.”) Sometimes this kind of sermon is called the “dramatic monologue” because (surprise!) it is dramatic and it is a monologue. This term makes some preachers uneasy because it blurs the lines between acting and preaching. True, but I believe that it’s possible faithfully to exposit a text and capitalize on the power of a story well told. Drama and preaching are not necessarily at odds.
Can You Preach This Kind Of Sermon From A Non-Narrative Text?
You can, but I don’t recommend it. Preachers who would radically alter the form of the text by the form of the sermon need good reasons to do so. The next section of the article implies why this is so — because form is significant — but here it is enough to point out that over half of the Bible is narrative, so during the course of a typical year, we should have plenty of opportunities to preach first person sermons from narrative passages. No one should be inconvenienced if they stick to narrative passages for narrative sermons.
Aren’t First Person Sermons A Lot Of Trouble to Prepare? Why Bother?
Yes, this kind of sermon takes longer to prepare than “three points and a poem,” but the advantages make it worthwhile. If preachers mix in only one or two monologues a year they’ll add some zing to their homiletical stew. Why bother? For two reasons: To adapt to our culture, and faithfully to exposit the text.
Cultural critics such as McLuhan, Ong, Muggeridge, Postman, Ellul, and Guinness have argued persuasively that a shift in communication media has taken place in modern western culture: a shift from print culture to electronic culture, (a mixture of orality, typography, and pictures).1 With the shift in the way we communicate came a shift in the way we think. We now derive knowledge and judge truth based more on image and story than on propositional argument. As Postman explains, “A new major medium [television] changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content — in a phrase by creating new forms of truth-telling.”2 Postman claims that we have created new forms, but in reality we are merely returning to old forms, or at least one old form — story.
Preachers should adapt to the current culture by returning to storytelling as a robust form of proclamation. Today’s listeners have been conditioned to follow plots more than arguments, look at images more than evaluate words, and feel emotions more than debate major and minor premises. First person narrative sermons meet some of these exigencies better than traditional propositional sermons do.
As Sidney Greidanus states: “The narrative form…enables hearers to be involved more holistically not merely logically but also intuitively, not only intellectually but also emotionally.”3 “Craddock adds with typical flair: When a preacher begins to ask why the Gospel should always be impaled upon the frame of Aristotelian logic, when… muscles twitch and…nerves jingle to mount the pulpit not with three points but with the Gospel as narrative or parable or poem or myth or song…then the preacher stands at the threshold of a new pulpit power..”4
The following chart contrasts narrative sermons with traditional sermons and shows that first person sermons offer a means of presenting biblical truth in a way which can be understood and felt by today’s audiences:5
Sermonic form is a means of communication, a means of producing desired effects. It should be flexible, responding to the needs of the audience.
ELEMENTS NARRATIVE SERMON TRADITIONAL SERMON
Style Narration Argument
Focus Events Ideas
Arrangement Plot Outline
Goal Participation Agreement
In this sense, form is a means of loving one’s neighbor. The first reason why we should “bother” with dramatic monologues is that this form helps preachers serve their listeners.
The second reason is that this form can also be a servant of the text. Preachers should herald God’s Word. This heralding includes proclaiming more than ideas. Preachers should also communicate a text’s affective qualities. Many of those qualities are linked to the text’s genre. How a text communicates, not only what it communicates, influences how a person responds; therefore, how a text communicates should be studied as part of exegesis, and the findings should influence the sermon’s form.
A text’s form is a means of establishing and maintaining a relationship with an audience. It is not merely embellishment or packaging for content.
As Alan Culpepper states:
Rather than vehicles conveying meanings to the reader, narrative texts should be viewed as strategies for evoking certain responses from the reader. This is particularly true of ancient heroic and epic texts that elicit wonder, loyalty, reverence, praise, and virtue from their readers. For too long we have concentrated on the cognitive aspects of biblical texts…and neglected their affective qualities.6
One of the ways that narrative form affects listeners is through plot. If the story is not familiar to us, then we experience suspense. Everyone loves a mystery. Or if the audience is already familiar with the outcome of the story, then the plot grips us by arousing and fulfilling expectations. The classic story David and Goliath does not grip us by means of suspense, but it does grip us. Audiences get caught up in the tension and release of the plot. In this sense, a classic story is similar to a well-loved piece of music. Just as we love to listen to the music over and over again, so do we enjoy hearing the same stories more than once. The stories arouse in us a need for closure, and when that closure comes, we experience the same satisfaction as when the music sounds its final note. So narratives grip us by means of plot.
They also foster identification with the story’s characters. We walk with Abraham up the mountain. We stoop to pick up five smooth stones. Stories engage the imagination. They evoke emotions as the audience connects with the characters.
Narratives also engage our imaginations by placing their characters and action in a setting. Sensitive readers see Abraham and Isaac walking up Moriah to the place of sacrifice. They hear the brook as David gathers his stones. They jostle with the crowd around Zaccheus’s home as he stands to declare his repentance.
This is how biblical narratives communicate — through plot, characters, and setting; through participation, identification, and imagination. To faithfully proclaim a biblical narrative, preachers should try to regenerate the impact of the text, not just its ideas. Dramatic monologues help us do so. When preachers become story-tellers, they use some of the same tools of communication that the text uses.
So the answer to the question, “Why bother preaching first person narrative sermons” is twofold: to adapt to our audience, and to exposit more of the text — its form and power, not just its ideas.
How Do You Study For A First Person Sermon?
I find that preachers who preach first person narrative sermons often shortchange exegesis. All the “normal” areas of study such as history, culture, and word studies must still be pursued when preaching dramatic monologues. Additionally, preachers should study their texts as literature, trying to get inside the characters, identifying the conflict and climax of the plot, and imagining the setting. As Mitchell states, preparing for narrative sermons “is no shortcut to good preaching, bypassing exegetical research and intensive preparation. Living stories demand hours of searching for good detail, and then days of living one’s way into the roles.”7
Faithful study will guard against two extremes: On the one hand, some preachers believe that first person narrative preaching gives them license to do eisegesis. In flights of fancy, they import anything that helps them tell a ripping story. The text plays second fiddle in such a sermon. Imagination is invaluable, but it must engage the text. Careful study of the literary features of the text, including point of view, setting, plot, and word choices, give exegetes plenty of fuel to fire the imagination. Flights of fancy are not needed.
On the other hand, some preachers are so afraid of using imagination in the service of the text that their sermons sound like commentaries which happen to be written in the first person, not stories narrated by an eye witness. While their devotion to the Word is praiseworthy, this second kind of preacher needs to free his or her imagination to respond to the story. As Wiersbe states in Preaching and Teaching with Imagination:
Blessed is that Bible student who comes to God’s Word with an open mind, a loving heart, a submissive will, and a sensitive imagination. I agree with A. J. Gossip: “Of all possessions, few are more serviceable to the preacher than a wise and schooled imagination.” And Henry Ward Beecher told the preachers at Yale that “the first element on which your preaching will largely depend for power and success…is Imagination, which I regard as the most important of all the elements that go to make the preacher.”8
If interpreters do not imagine the people, places, and events presented, they have not responded to the text. Such interpreters may not do eisegesis, but to coin a word, they do “aegesis.” They fail to “lead out” and respond to the author’s creation. Neither the first or second type of preacher skillfully handles the Word of truth.
Does This Kind Of Sermon Need A Theme, A Central Idea?
Yes. First person narrative sermons, like other sermons, should seek to communicate a single idea. Preachers must aim at something. From the days of Plato to the present, communication theorists have insisted that messages are most effective when they drive home a single theme. Sermons have a greater chance of being effective if, as Spurgeon said, they offer listeners a loaf of bread, not a wheat field. With a different figure Spurgeon states, “One ten penny nail driven home and clenched will be more useful than a score of tin-tacks loosely fixed to be pulled out again in an hour.”9
However, communicating one central thought is harder to do with the dramatic monologue than with a traditional sermon form. Should the preacher explicitly state the “moral of the story”? This may seem like explaining the punch line of a joke. Or should preachers use an indirect strategy, prompting the listeners to infer the main idea, but not stating it directly? This strategy, of course, runs the risk of listeners missing the point entirely.
How can preachers decide which strategy to use — the direct or indirect? There is no easy answer to this, but Haddon Robinson’s advice summarizes the issue. Make the decision based on three factors:10
(1) The skill of the preacher. Most preachers find the indirect method more difficult. It is easier to state an idea explicitly than to prompt an audience to infer it.
(2) The purpose of the sermon. The more didactic the preacher’s intentions, the more direct he or she should be. While it is possible to teach content with oblique stories, the indirect method seems better suited to changing beliefs and attitudes. In other words, the central idea should probably be stated explicitly if the goal is to teach. It may not need to be stated explicitly if the goal is to persuade.
(3) The awareness of the audience. Audiences who know that first person sermons are not “mere entertainment” may not need the central idea to be stated explicitly. They will probably be looking for it themselves. Less mature audiences may benefit from a more direct approach.
If the preacher chooses to be explicit with the central idea, the following four suggestions may help:
(1) Use an introduction and/or conclusion. That is, before stepping into character, present a traditional introduction to the message and state the central idea.
(2) Let the narrator state the central idea. For example, a sermon with the goal of arousing pastors to give attention to their families may begin with David saying, “My kids just about ruined my ministry. I couldn’t control them. Spend time with your kids. Don’t make the mistake I did. One of my kids in particular, Absalom….”
(3) Let a character in the story state the central idea. For example, in a sermon from 2 Kings 5 with Gehazi as narrator, the preacher could state, “I didn’t know Elijah had seen me. He frowned, and with a sad shake of his head, he said to me, ‘What you have done in secret will be shown in public.'”
(4) The central idea can be communicated explicitly by writing, not speaking. For example, it could be placed in the printed order of service. One of my students used the overhead projector to show her central idea. She revealed the statement, gave the audience time to read it, and turned off the machine without saying a word. She then told a gripping story and repeated the procedure at the end, exiting the platform without further comment.
If preachers chose to leave their central ideas unstated, the following two suggestions can help ensure that communication of that idea will still take place.
(1) Craft the end of the sermon as a benediction that implies the central idea. For example, a sermon on the sovereignty of God from the Joseph cycle of stories could end with: “May the Sovereign God rule in your hearts just as he rules in the hearts of kings, the affairs of nations, and the problems of men and women. Unto the Sovereign Lord God be glory.”
(2) Use irony. Through irony, communicators prompt the audience to reconstruct their intended meaning, even when they do not state that meaning. Sometimes they even state the opposite of what they intend. For example, Donald Sunukjian preaching the entire story of Esther employs irony to communicate his central idea. To prompt the audience to comprehend God’s sovereignty, the narrator (a pagan Persian) states: “Hmmm, those Jews sure are lucky.” Of course, perceptive audience members think: “Lucky? No! This is God at work. He is sovereign.”
Whether the preacher chooses the direct or indirect method, the details of the story should be woven together in such a way that they lead audiences to feel and think what the preacher (and text) intends. Rabbit trails and sub-plots are not permitted.
Can You Step In And Out Of Character To Explain Material?
No. The preacher does not need to play Jekyll and Hyde with the audience in order to explain exegetical material or apply principles. The preacher/ storyteller needs only to interrupt the flow of the story (briefly!), and ask the audience if they understand the historical event or cultural practice in question. For example, as Boaz relates the details of the sandal ceremony in Ruth 4, he could ask the audience, “What are these blank looks? You do wear shoes, don’t you? And you do exchange them during legal transactions don’t you? Oh…well, we do. The sandal or shoe is a symbol of authority, so if I hand you my sandal before witnesses I proclaim that I am giving up my rights. You don’t do this? What a strange culture.”
Interruptions of the story should be brief and few. The plot must progress because plot creates much of the power of the sermon. As Culpepper states, “Illustrations, asides, and background information need to be handled briefly so that attention can be focused throughout on the story line of the text.”11 The next question and answer expands that thought.
How Do You Organize A First Person Narrative Sermon? Do You Outline?
Yes and no. The first person narrative sermon should be organized, but according to plot, not argument and proof. It should be organized according to events, not ideas (although ideas are certainly derived from events). The sermon should not be “three points and a poem” masquerading as first person narration.
First person narrative sermons should lead the audience through the five stages of a typical plot: Background, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution.
The next paragraphs offer suggestions for developing each of the five stages of the sermon’s plot.
Background. Keep the first stage, background, as short as possible. Jesus’ parables provide an excellent example. Supply only what is necessary for the audience to understand what follows. The interesting part of a story is conflict and resolution, not background. A hypothetical example: “I am King Harold. My queen and I ruled a happy land, and we loved each other deeply.” (The audience thinks, OK…keep going). “But then the queen got sick and died.” (Now the audience sits up to take notice. A problem has been introduced). “I was grief stricken.” (Of course you were! We identify with you). “I abandoned my throne to search for happiness.” (From this point onward, the affective power of the plot grips the audience. We want to know how it all turns out because we identify with the king). Keep the background short. Get on with something that will hook the audience — the conflict.
Conflict. The conflict should be stated succinctly and unambiguously. The audience must know what the story is about. For example, if the exegete determines that the plot of Gene- sis 37 (Joseph sold into slavery) is man vs. men (Joseph vs. brothers), then he or she could introduce the conflict with the clear statement: “They hated me. And I hated them. As I lay in the bottom of that cistern, bruised and shocked, I began to plot my revenge.”
Typical conflicts are person vs. person (David and Goliath), person vs. society (Jesus and the pharisees), person vs. God or supernatural being (Jacob wrestles with an angel), person vs. self (Jesus in the Garden), and person vs. nature (the disciples on the stormy sea). Of course, we must never forget that the conflict underlying all biblical stories is good vs. evil, or God vs. evil. God is the protagonist of all biblical stories.
Rising Action. This is the longest portion of most stories. It intensifies the conflict toward the breaking point. For example, the conflict and rising action of the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) could be presented as follows:
I (Martha) was boiling mad. My sister was such a dreamer. No help at all. (The basic conflict is presented). One day the Lord and his followers came to my house unexpectedly. I needed help. (The action rises). I searched for Mary, and where did I find her? Sitting with the men! Doing nothing! (The conflict is intensified). Well, I had had enough. I marched up to Jesus, explained how Mary was no help to me, folded my arms, and waited for the rebuke. (The conflict can’t go on much longer; a breaking point is near). The rebuke came, all right. But not as I expected. The Lord rebuked me! He said…(Jesus’ words are the climax of the story).
The important issue for rising action is to keep the story unencumbered. The sermon should develop one conflict through a series of complications. The simplicity of this rule — one conflict only — will aid in clear communication of the central idea. Narrative sermons must not be running commentaries on the text. Such sermons lack unity.
Climax. Climax is the fourth stage of the plot. It is the turning point for the protagonist. It is also the point of highest involvement for listeners. The climax should be delivered concisely with careful wording.
Resolution. Like the first stage of plot development, the last stage should be kept short. After the climax has arrived, the rhetorical power of the story dissipates, so preachers should not drag out the conclusion. Fairy tales present a model of succinct resolutions: “And they lived happily ever after.”
How Much Should I “Get Into It”? Do I Need To Act?
Not necessarily, but what do you mean by “act”? If “acting” means being melodramatic and artificial, no. If “acting” means genuinely feeling what the narrator would feel and speaking in such a way that the audience can tell what the narrator feels, yes. Like it or not, sermons are performances. This does not mean they are “play acting”; it means that oral communicators communicate not only through what they way, but also how they say it. The first person narrative sermon calls for a lively voice and body because non-verbal channels such as tone, rate, facial expression, movement, gestures, and posture do communicate.
Careful (and imaginative) study should equip the preacher to enter the world of the narrator. Then, once the preacher has “connected” with the narrator, he or she should speak as would the narrator, with natural emotion and appropriate word choices. In the first person narrative sermon, the personality of the preacher is subordinate to the personality of the narrator so that, at their best, dramatic monologues are present psychological portraits.
What About Costuming?
My general preference is to stay away from them. A costume may be appropriate for some occasions (perhaps an Easter service of music and drama), but costumes tend to communicate to the audience that the message is more entertainment than edification. When it comes to costuming, less is often more. That is, the more that audience members use their imaginations, the more they will participate in the sermon.
A compromise between no costume and full costume is to do an introduction in “normal” attire, then slip on a coat, shawl, or other garment to suggest character. As always preachers should be guided by the constraints of the occasion and their own skill level.
Few hard and fast rules exist for preaching first person narrative sermons. But principles do exist. Some of them are to study well, entering the world of the text intellectually, imaginatively, and emotionally; center the sermon on one main idea or theme and tell the story highlighting that theme; let this theme emerge in the natural flow of the plot; and deliver the monologue with energy and creativity. When these guidelines are put into practice, the first person narrative sermon can be a powerful vehicle for standing between the two worlds of the text and the audience. Give it a try!
1Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (U of Toronto P, 1962), and Understanding Media (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964); Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1967); Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977); Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1985); Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985); Os Guinness, fit Bodies, Fat Minds (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).
2Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death 27.
3Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 151
4Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971) 45.
5This chart is a modification of one offered by Clyde E. Fant, Preaching For Today (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987) 197.
6R. Alan Culpepper, “A Literary Model” in Hermeneutics for Preaching: Approaches to Contemporary Interpretation of Scripture, Raymond Bailey, ed. (Nashville: Broadman, 1992) 78.
7Henry H. Mitchell, “Preaching on the Patriarchs,” in James W. Cox, ed. Biblical Preaching: An Expositor’s Treasury (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983) 43.
8Warren W. Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Ministry (Wheaton: Victor, 1994) 29.
9C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1875, rpt. 1978) 80.
10Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Sermons (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980) 125.
11Culpepper, “A Literary Model” 90.
Perform (vb.)–to enact, accomplish; to bring to completion; to carry out (a command or promise).