Listen to almost any sermon nowadays and you will hear it — a story. Pastors especially think it appropriate to place some type of narrative at the beginning of a sermon. They do it to “catch the attention” of the people and to get them ready to hear a sermon supposedly related to the opening narrative. Unfortunately this method falls time and time again. The narratives very often do not highlight the following sermonic material. What happens to many sermonic narratives is that they take on a life and character of their own and separate themselves from the rest of the text.
This article will focus upon the modern sermon as a case study for the misuse of narrative and offer suggestions for correcting such abuses. There are many definitions of narrative, and even more definitional aspects of narrative. For the sake of this study I will define narrative as the use of story to create an understanding of our world and to tell us who we are in that world.1 Narrative not only tells us what our world is like and who we are, but narrative also interprets our realities of existence.2
Vague Narratives
The simplest misuse of narrative is the employment of vague narratives. This abuse is particularly seen at the beginning of a sermon. Many pastors believe the best way to begin their sermon is with a story. They will rack their brains finding a story to introduce their sermon, while at the same time trying to ready the congregation for the sermonic text itself. Unfortunately, this often backfires. Consider the following as such an example:
The man in the shadows waited pretty much until the family got all of its belongings into the car, checked everything, had the car loaded up, and pulled away for their summer’s vacation. The man in the shadows waited until it was dark and then he went to the front door of the house and rang the bell. When there was no answer, this man, seasoned burglar that he was, had no trouble picking the lock and getting inside. As a precaution he called out into the darkness, “Is anybody home?” and he was stunned when he heard a voice reply, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.”
Terrified, the burglar called out, “Who’s there?” And again the voice came back, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.” So the burglar switched on his flashlight toward the direction of the voice and was immediately relieved to see a caged parrot who recited once more, “I see you, and Jesus sees you.” He laughed to himself and then went to the wall and threw on the wall switch. Then he saw it. Beneath the parrot’s cage was a huge Doberman Pinscher. Then the parrot said, “Attack, Jesus, Attack!”3
The main intent of narrative is to establish a reality for us. Now this narrative established many realities. It established the burglar as being seasoned and very cautious in his action of stealthily moving around the shadows before the family left for the vacation. You would think the rest of the sermon would be about a thief or describe Jesus’ Second Coming as a thief in the night or the omniscience of God, but this sermon doesn’t graze upon any of those topics.
This particular sermon was based upon a passage from St. Paul who says, “Rejoice! Have joy!” The only reason for this narrative was the laugh at the end. The preacher could have used any joke to acquire this laugh, but instead chose to use a well established, drawn out narrative that is utterly useless for the rest of the sermon,
Narratives, and especially vibrant, illustrative materials, are remembered more than anything else in a sermon.4 Narratives have an amazing ability to focus the thoughts of a congregation. This is why they should be handled with such care and delicacy. When used improperly, they can completely prohibit understanding of the following sermon.
Directional Confusion
Narratives not only create, but they guide our thinking. This ability to guide our thoughts can be a powerful tool for the preacher. But it is a tool that can also become very detrimental when used improperly. Instead of guiding thoughts toward a given sermon or text a narrative has the ability to lead the congregation down other paths not intended by the preacher. One example of narrative illustration, which has the ability to misdirect our thoughts, results from emotional imagery:
The TV screen holds our attention on the refugee children having their first meal in days, just after the UN trucks have brought them to safety. We watch and begin to feel our stomach knot up. While they devour the soup and bread, we can no longer think of eating a thing.5
This is a powerful narrative image. So, what was the purpose in telling the above narrative? If the writer of this passage intended to have us feel guilty, then he/she has succeeded.
But this was not the case because the following text did not establish philanthropy as a main goal. This narrative has directed the congregation to thoughts of starving children, not toward further involvement in what the preacher is going to say. For the next 30 seconds or so, the congregation will be thinking about starving children with bloated bellies. It would be very difficult to pull this narrative image up from the nosedive of daydreaming. Narrative must always be employed with the knowledge and intent of furthering the remainder of a sermon. Emotional outpourings do pull people in, but the people are pulled into their own thoughts and not the rest of the sermon.
One way of combating vague and misdirected narratives is through the synthetic method. The synthetic method attempts to identify key elements of a sermon or speech, and then create the narrative illustration from those elements.6 This is one reason why many honored homileticians will say the introduction is the last portion of a sermon to write. It is the last portion because you do not know which key elements to use in an introductory narrative until the text has been written.7
Narratives employing the synthetic method are typically tight, short and very clear in their focus and point of direction especially at its conclusion:
There is a modern painting of the crucifixion. When you look at the painting, all you see is darkness, black on black. Then, suddenly, in the center of the picture, carved in pigment, you trace the shape of a scream, a gaping mouth in the dark. The title of the painting: “Eloi, eloi, lama, sabachthani” — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The picture is true to the scripture. It was the ninth hour and Jesus screamed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” See the shape of a scream.8
The above example was an introductory narrative to a sermon based on Mark 15 in which Jesus cried out before He died and released His spirit. The image of a scream in the narrative is very appropriate. The concentration upon the open mouth is complementary to the remainder of the sermon. The rest of this sermon dictated the creation of the narrative and not the other way around.9 The narrative found all of its creation, existence and life from the text it was taken from.
The Challenge of Focus
If a speaker loses the focus, the attention of an audience, then he has lost everything. A congregation does not have an opportunity to rewind a speaker and grab what was said. This is the main difference between the spoken versus written word. Switching of focus, or creating a battle between the narrative and the rest of the text, is a major problem for all preachers.
Consider the following narrative:
One man is talking to another. “My wife and I,” he exclaims, “got angry last night and we had a fight.”
His friend asked him, “How did it end up?”
“Why she came crawling to me on her hands and knees!”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘Come out from under that bed, you coward!'”
That’s a veteran vaudeville story. If you want an updated version: the wife called her husband deliriously on the phone. She could hardly catch her breath from the excitement. “Harry,” she cried, “I won the lottery! I won the lottery! Pack your clothes!”
“Great!” said Harry. “Summer or winter?”
“All of them,” she said. “I want you out of the house by six!”
Thus anger, hostile and sarcastic — and both different from the anger Jesus displayed in today’s gospel.10
Note for a moment the structure of the above narrative. The preacher began with a short narrative, progressed to another short narrative and then had a change of focus into the body of the sermonic text itself while calling attention to the gospel reading for the day. In less than a minute, there have been four changes of focus for the congregation. “These numerous shifts are precisely the problem.
The intent of narrative is to create a shared reality between preacher and the members of the congregation.11 The problem with this narrative is that it does not create one shared reality for the hearers, but has been laced with four separate narratives. The hearers are never able to have a particular scenario established in their minds; they are moved to embrace four different narrative combinations.
I would propose that external narratives, those stories separate from us, should be employed less often. External narratives tend to focus attention on an external story or image that further removes hearers from the current speech or sermon. A way to counteract this is to employ narra-tives that are created with the audience in mind — an internal narrative.12
This type of internalized narrative isn’t just a reflection of our own thoughts, but it actually allows the hearer to become an active character in the narrative. Internalized narratives will create a memorable introduction and still be focus driven toward the goal of the sermon.13 Consider the following as an example of this type of narrative:
Doesn’t Jerusalem rather often in the scriptures signify the soul, which when she does not want to recognize the Lord’s visitation is surrounded by demons and various temptations? After being besieged, she falls, is cast down to the ground, and no virtue or good work in her is left without being destroyed. She is deprived of all grace and is not restored in some other way because she did not know the time of her visitation.
You precisely. You, I say, are that city, resplendent with many great benefits from God, but you did not acknowledge them but were ungrateful. He created you in His own image. He begot you in the midst of His Church, not among unbelievers. He established you in a prosperous city. He sanctified you with the water of baptism. He nourished you in a religious house. But you chased after your own ideas.14
Notice how the author creates an internal narrative: “You, I say, are that city.” No longer are the narrative and focus ‘out there’ somewhere. The focus has now been internalized because the narrative was developed from within the lives of the hearers while employing elements from the sermon itself.15 This story becomes our own story. By naming the hearers as that person in the narrative, all people are focused upon one thing; they are forced to see them- selves as the agents in the narrative. Since the hearers see themselves in the narrative, they are under greater control and guidance by the preacher. Through every second of the narrative the preacher is holding the hand of our focus and attention as he walks us toward the context of the sermon.
Narratives are powerful. They order the world around us and in fact they create reality as we hear them unraveled before us. However, vague, indirect and unfocused narratives are detrimental to any sermon.
Vital to any successful narrative is the employment of certain tactics as described in the synthetic method and internal narrative. The synthetic method will assist the speaker in creating a narrative that is born from the body of the sermon itself while an internal narrative structure will incorporate parishioners into the message itself. As with everything a speaker says, great care must be taken in the choice of words because, “Spoken style must be instantly intelligible to the hearer. The reader may pause to ponder the meaning of a word used by a particular author. The listener is not given this luxury. He must understand in an instant what is being said by the speaker.”16
1David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987) 10.
2Sonja K. Foss, “Narrative Criticism,” Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration & Practice. (Prospect Heights: Waveland Press Inc., 1996) 399.
3Bausch 32.
4Jerry Vines, A Guide to Effective Sermon Delivery. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986) 86.
5Richard Eislinger, Narrative & Imagination: Preaching the World that Shape Us. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 151.
6Richard Caemmerer, Preaching for the Church. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 71.
7Buttrick 83.
9Fisher 274.
10Bausch 11.
11Fisher 279.
12Leonora Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) 95.
13Vines 86.
14Girolamo Savonarola, Trans. John Donnelly, Prison Meditations on Psalms 51 & 31. Ed. John Donnelly. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1994) 132.
15Fisher 274.
16Vines 86.

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