All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them (Matt. 13:34; cf. Mark 4:33-34).
The Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — clearly establish that the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was strong on communication by parable, and that our Lord was master of the art of using them. In The Parables of Jesus, George Buttrick (p. xiii) agreed with both Mark and Matthew that this style was Jesus’ “characteristic message.” He went on to say that parables were Jesus’ most rememberable and persuasive method, accomplishing what a prose homily could never do in either retention of ideas or movement of hearers to response.
In fact, neither the supposedly simple nor the learned can properly understand Jesus without examining the richness of the parables. They are far more powerful than abstract essays and sermons, expressing symbolically that which escapes the narrow bounds of literal, direct discourse. Jesus built His own preaching ministry on parables.
It appears, then, that Western culture has strangely overlooked Jesus’ example, as well as the related fact that art is still so superior to argument for preaching purposes. Today’s audiences still remember the stories best, and these also move them most. But the simplicity of this shattering fact misleads the sophisticated theologian. Even the recent interest in narration is given a complicated title: “narrative theology.” Perhaps it is too painful to concede the superiority of “primitive” folk culture’s encouchment of the most profound wisdom in tales. Syllogism will never be able to match symbol in the utterance of the unspeakable riches of the gospel, and one can start no earlier than now to apply this wisdom to the preparation of sermons.
The superiority of tales and the like lies in the fact that people “see” the issue more clearly in pictures and plots. Indeed, they not only grasp ideas better; they also encounter them with their whole personhood, because they identify with the details and personalities and their activities. The truth for which the narrative is told is encountered and experienced vicariously. Thus, the idea is clarified and retained, while the encounter adds the stimulus to growth. So the “bottom line” of love, trust, commitment, and service can be taught and caught by the genres or vehicles of encounter, which in various ways function as a parable.
Here is a partial list of these vehicles of meaning:
– The Narrative
– The Character Sketch
– The Group Study
– The Dialogue
– The Monologue or Testimony
– Metaphors, Similes, and Analogs
– The Stream of Consciousness
All of these literary or folk genres are effective for reasons related to the effectiveness of Jesus’ parables. In every case they amount to something placed “alongside” contemporary life, which relates to the root meaning of the word parable. To the old Hebrew query, “To what shall I liken this?” every one of these genres is used to provide an answer.
The pervasiveness of this cry for parallel insight comes from the fact that these genres plant and water better than other types of spoken communication. They involve the hearer experientially. All preachers would be well advised in the mode of the credit card commercial: “When preaching, don’t be caught without these vehicles.”
Although the ideal sermon might be said to be a one-story or one-figure sermon, in which the end of the sketch or stream is the end of the sermon, most will involve more than one of these genres. Although one-story sermons may well be the art of preaching at its best, few stories from the Bible provide adequate detail for journeyman preachers to construct a tale that consumes twenty minutes. Most of us will do well to use shorter stories as mini-experiences, to illumine and render experiential the points or stages in the sermon. David Buttrick appropriately calls them “moves” (Homiletic, pp. 23-26).
Straying still farther from single-narrative artistry, some preachers are quite effective at using a story simply as a frame on which to hang striking and relevant asides or commentary. Parallels and similarities flow along much like extended similes. Whatever the vehicle chosen, the goal is so to involve the audience that they are moved to sense identity with the biblical character or experience or both, affirming the message in their total being. Our next task, then, is to set definitions and requirements for these vehicles of meaning or genres, describing their use in the planting and watering of faith.
Whatever the genre or genres selected, the first requirement for a sermon in my culture is a biblical text, and I highly commend it to preachers everywhere. This text may be chosen from the pericope where the narrative or other genre is found, or it may be in material about the life of the biblical character sketched. It may be in a verse of a psalm used as a stream of consciousness. In rare cases the text may be found in a biblical setting remote from the story, and still rarer may be the story that is memorable but contains no single sentence for textual purposes. Whatever the case, there ought to be a succinct, positive, biblical verse stating the central, controlling idea to be recorded (God willing) in the hearers’ intuitive tapes for expression in the hearers’ daily living.
This use of biblical texts achieves the goal that hearers of the Word be equipped with a repertoire of quotable gut beliefs: texts by which their very lives are sustained and ordered in the same way exemplified by Jesus. An elaboration of this crucial function of texts can be found in my work Soul Theology (pp. 2-4). Suffice it to say that when the whole person is reached, the whole person is nourished and strengthened. The goal is the wholehearted embrace of a biblical affirmation, to the extent that life is sustained and, in a helping sense, governed by it.
The use of the term “tapes” in connection with these quotable gut beliefs should perhaps be explained in more detail. Our intuitive responses to various experiences are like tapes played deep down in consciousness. If in early life we formed a habit of believing that the planet was safe, and God was caring for us, that amounts to a tape. In a crisis, we tend to “play” it again and live by that same habit of trust. If a child was mistreated or poorly cared for, that child will have emotional habits or tapes of fear and distrust.
The negative experiences of fear need to be re-recorded or over-recorded with worship experiences of faith. If we are caught up in story-experiences of faith, or sing songs of great faith, we may be able to overcome the negative tape and establish habitual attitudes of positive trust in God.
This suggests the second requirement, which is that the speaker establish a clearly defined goal among the hearers, stated in behavioral terms. My calling it a “controlling idea” hints at a cognitive purpose. And it will of course be necessary to “show” truth or elaborate ideas, but the bottom line is the behavior of the total person, not merely the understanding or assent. If the preacher does not know what God wants hearers to do about their fear or selfishness, how will the hearers ever be moved to go or grow or do? Paul said something about how people need a certain sound on the trumpet (1 Cor. 14:8). Without the pompous pointing of fingers or the overkill of too much admonition (if indeed we use any “we-oughts” or “we-musts”), the goal is to motivate and empower behaviors such as trust and honesty and caring.
When the text and purpose are properly matched, the next requirement is that, regardless of the art form chosen, the material used must be full of living details. These bring the hearer aboard, or into the experiential encounter. This happens, as we have said, because of self-recognition and personal identification born of familiarity. Details bring “living color” to the communication and draw the hearer into the experiential matrix.
This experience is induced best when the preacher has already identified with the material and recounts it in an eyewitness mode. Some of these details come from the biblical record, and many will result from study of commentaries and encyclopedias. This must be coupled with inspired imagination. Often these details were originally condensed out of the Bible accounts, because of the familiarity with detail which was assumed to prevail commonly among the hearers of the oral tradition. Our providing the details is like putting the common substance called water back into the powdered milk. They are not the very same “water” or details that were removed, but they are so similar that the result is a very accurate portrayal. So because the preacher has envisioned the Patmos experience with “eyewitness’ detail, the hearer can also.
Now to the art forms or genres — the vehicles of meaning.
The Narrative
The narrative in the sermon can be defined like any other good story, except that it is told with the purpose of winning souls to Christ, helping them to grow, and motivating them to serve. The standard components of a story are required: setting, cast, plot, conflict, and resolution. The latter is timed carefully for the end, to sustain suspense. Narrative sermons should be at least as engaging or entertaining as other stories, since the opposition is not “education” or “doctrinal” but boring. Ordination is no license to bore audiences. The sermon will not be heard and heeded without the engaging tales and images which make it come alive.
Good narration is required throughout in order to achieve the behavioral purpose, of course with subtlety. This is called focus. It requires that the issue in the text and purpose be the same issue as that of the conflict in the narrative. The protagonist, who takes the principal role in both the conflict and the resolution, also must embody the area of growth on which the sermon is focused. Thus, when the hearer naturally identifies with the story’s main character, he or she vicariously participates in the same conflict, gains the same wisdom, and celebrates the same victory or resolution. This celebration I have called ecstatic reinforcement of the truth portrayed and the growth sought. Like the parables of Jesus, the point and purpose are premeditated.
For artistic purists, this may appear to corrupt the art of narration, to achieve a “utilitarian” purpose. They would argue that art ought to be for art’s sake. This venerable Western shibboleth is found in no other culture of which I know, and it is not even truly practiced among the elitists who espouse it. All powerful literature has a driving motivation behind it; the author is always involved in projecting a message, consciously or unconsciously.
Many years ago, in a graduate seminar on world literature at a state university, a student protested vigorously the requirement that he read a book by Dostoevski. He charged that the school was an arm of the government, and that since the author was “preaching,” it was a breach of the separation of church and state to require such to be read. The professor heard him out patiently and then responded: “Of course Dostoevski was preaching,” he said. “But so was Tolstoy last week, and so was every other author we have read this semester. Your problem is that you generally agreed with the preaching of the others, or just didn’t see what it was. You resent Dostoevski because he is preaching the cross, or redemptive suffering.” Every storytelling preacher needs to know the meaning and purpose of the tales told, and to be sure that the focus is within the will of God for the uses of the gospel.
In other words, the entertaining genre must be carefully employed to be sure that it conveys what is intended, and to avoid accidental espousal of some unknown and undesirable end and impact. The rule of focus is that the issue or impact be the same in the text and purpose, and that the protagonist embody his issue, gaining over it the same victory urged in the text and desired in the hearer. It follows, of course, that the celebration must be about that victory or resolution of conflict.
This demanding but fruitful rule of focus will apply to a less rigorous extent to the other genres, with exceptions. When Jesus is the protagonist, it is not realistic to expect hearers literally to identify. Nobody will seriously expect to calm the sea or raise the dead, as did Jesus. These stories beget faith born of admiration and trust rather than identification.
In the John 8 story of the woman taken in adultery, the Pharisees are one set of possible learners, but, again, the audience will not identify with persons so negatively portrayed. Unlike the prodigal son, there is no angle by which they can be described sympathetically as perhaps merely fallible, like us. So the hearer must celebrate Jesus’ grace and wisdom under fire, and, it is hoped, internalize also the lesson of not throwing stones and not being judgmental in the bargain.
One other word must be said here; there is a sense in which personal testimony may be thought of as narrative. No doubt autobiographical stories are a form of narration, but they are so distinctive a story type as to justify a separate genre. One could wish that all stories were told with the same power. Personal testimony may well set the standard for all narratives, in the vividness of detail and the familiarity and identification of the speaker with the action. But there are other criteria, so testimony will be treated later as a separate genre.
The Character Sketch
Akin to the narrative is the character sketch, focused on a biblical personality, with details drawn from a wider scriptural base. (One may also do sketches of religiously significant personalities not found in the Bible.) In the biblical personality category, Paul provides a good example. He admonished thankfulness in all things in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. In Romans 8:28 he wrote a classical affirmation of the doctrine of Providence. In either case, with almost no material in the Bible context for developing the sermon, one could do a sketch of Paul’s life. It would feature examples of how his life clearly exemplified such a startling rule or principle as being thankful all the time. One could time the impact of the sketch to move to a celebrative conclusion, all the while helping the congregation to identify with Paul, and following the rules of focus.
The lives of Abraham, David, Sarah, Peter, Priscilla, and many others offer great possibilities for fascinating biblical life sketches that are both effectively purposeful and powerfully timed and engaging.
The Group Study
The genre called group study is parallel to the individual case study or character sketch above. It can deal with a whole people such as Israel, or a single congregation, such as the First Church of Corinth. Paul’s letters reveal many interesting, folksy, and familiar issues there. Like the character sketch, in which the preacher should appear veritably to have grown up with the subject, the group study requires the preacher to seem to speak from the familiarity of a former member. In both cases, the point is that this conveys both the speaker’s intimacy with details and personal identification with the action.
The rules of focus apply in this case to a group’s behavior, but the individuals find self-recognition in the group. Congregations in stress will be far better served by group studies with details, for instance, from 2 Corinthians, than by the negative fussing from the pulpit which is all too well known in churches with tensions. And whole families caught in a bind between a majority culture and a minority culture can take heart from a study of the family in which Timothy grew up.
The Dialogue
Now to the dialogue, which often occurs within sermons to great effect. The biblical accounts may appear at times to be close to verbatim, but in real life they were probably much longer. Most often one will have to enlarge on them by means of hard study and inspired, creative imagination. To achieve a credible length, one has to enlarge upon Jesus’ talk with Zacchaeus at dinner (Luke 19:1-10), or Paul’s words to the suicidal jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:26-28).
Whether the dialogue is sermon length or, as is more likely, shorter, the rules of focus apply in general. That is, one has to know with which of the speakers the hearer is to identify, and how that hearer is to grow after listening to the account of the encounter. Full sermon length, or used within other story material, the dialogue is one of the easiest and best ways to brighten up a sermon and increase attention. Good conversation is always engaging, and provides for ease of identification and substantive growth toward the new person in Christ.
The Monologue or Testimony
Two kinds of monologue offer powerful ways of making the gospel come to life in the mind and soul of the hearer: the well-known personal testimony and the relatively new monologue in which the speaker impersonates a biblical character, with or without costume. A preacher announces, “My name is Mary of Magdala. You folks call me Mary Magdalene,” or “My name is Hosea.”
The message then pours forth as a testimony from inside the mind and soul of the character indicated. It may be a life history or an account of the crucifixion from the perspective of one of the onlookers. Whoever is impersonated, the sermon comes with the vividness and feelings of a witness who bridges time and culture to bring the Bible to life here and now.
The personal testimony is perhaps the most powerful story one will ever tell, especially if it is about one’s conversion. It has been mentioned already that personal testimony is a model in many ways: It offers visual clarity and vividness of detail and feeling, and audiences easily identify with it. But it requires some serious disciplines.
Many preachers shun personal testimonies because they have heard so many conversion stories over-worked manipulatively. A first rule, then, is to use conversion testimonies and other personal material sparingly. We preach Christ, not ourselves.
A second rule would be that personal examples, even when used infrequently, should never lend glory to the speaker. Personally recalled stories in which we do not figure prominently need not be restricted, provided, of course, the action is far enough away in space and time to avoid breaches of confidence and privacy. Yet all one preaches, and especially the celebration, must be projected as from the very soul of the preacher. All of the gospel offered must be the obviously personal conviction of the speaker.
Metaphors, Similes, and Analogs
Jesus used a great many types of figures of speech in his preaching and teaching. The Parable of the Soils is a pure figure, with no plot or conflict (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23; cf. similar passages in Mark 4 and Luke 8). It was effective because it was simply a familiar, striking parallel to experiences common in an agrarian society.
Figures clarify and illuminate; they also motivate by providing identification. The writer of Hebrews includes all three (12:1-2) — clarification, illumination, and motivation — in a passage which lends itself handily for a sermon by using the figure of a foot race: (1) Lay aside every weight; (2) run with patience; (3) look to Jesus, just as a good track runner must always look straight ahead; and (4) celebrate the joy!
I once preached a whole figure sermon on patience and longsuffering. Its text was Galatians 5:22, and it was built on parallels to the cooling system of an automobile. The sermon was preached on a Laymen’s Sunday. Each aspect of an adequate cooling system was given a spiritual parallel. Hose clamps and normal maintenance were like regular prayer and disciplined devotional life. Thermostats, when worn out, misread conditions and caused cars to boil, as do overly sensitive (even paranoid) people. Foreign substances like dirt in the radiator were like selfishness clogging the human spirit. But not to worry. The Holy Spirit would overhaul your spiritual cooling system and give you patience. The effect of such details as freeze plugs and head gaskets was electrifying. These auto parts provided an all-too-rare means of male identification within the message. Well-chosen figures are vitally important.
Again, Jesus used many similes frequently introduced with words such as “the kingdom of heaven is like ….” Some of these employed figures, such as yeast or a seed, and some involved full-fledged narratives such as the one about the prodigal son. The Bible refers to all of them as parables. Suffice it to say that they enhance understanding of old ideas and free up new ideas, while also having great affective impact, by emotional identification and experiential encounter. And all of this is ultimately for the purpose of being used to move hearers closer to the new person in Jesus Christ.
The Stream of Consciousness
Perhaps the least-known genre with high potential is what I call stream of consciousness. It amounts to getting inside the flow of thought of a person and identifying with her or his struggle for insight or peace or whatever. Most of the psalms lend themselves to this kind of sermon. Jesus Himself is recorded as having worked His way through from despair to victorious faith by plugging, as it were, into the flow of a psalmist (Psalm 22), even as He hung from the cross. He started with “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and, without the strength necessary to be heard, must have sung His way in His mind to the end, where the psalmist affirms the righteousness of God.
In the 139th Psalm, the writer moves through a marvelously honest array of moods to a final yielding cry: “And lead me in the way everlasting.” Great mystics like Howard Thurman have used this genre with compelling power, but any sensitive and disciplined preacher can launch a congregation on a healing flow of consciousness. Some psalms hardly require more than a prayerful reading aloud. Indeed, it takes little more than a bit of poetry and some careful focus to make of many sermons as well as prayers an impressive stream leading to a truly experiental encounter with God and the Word.
It should perhaps be noted in passing that the monologue sermon, mentioned above, overlaps this category in many ways. Although the psalms were sung, in many cases they were essentially monologues put to music.
All these vehicles and others combine to give to the preacher a rich variety of approaches, both within a single sermon and, over a period of time, in many sermons. Just as it need never be said that the richness of the Bible has been exhausted, for it is limitless, neither need any preacher ever think that the possibilities for experiential encounter with God and the Word have been worked through. The task of the preacher is to become familiar and comfortable with the various styles or genres for addressing the intuitive, without which the totality of persons in the modern audience cannot be reached.
A word of warning before the topic of genre is concluded. There is no absolute need to find a name for the genre used, except in the classroom when samples of each are assigned. The issue is not naming the vehicle but using it to help the Word come alive — to be used of God to help it form in human consciousness. Some of a given preacher’s best moves may defy classification, partaking of the characteristics of several of the genre. You may be sure, however, that no abstract principle or doctrine ever comes to real life among the hearers without some concrete vehicle to bring it within reach and make it visible and felt or experienced.
From Celebration and Experience in Preaching by Henry H. Mitchell. Copyright (c) 1990 by Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission. Can be purchased from Cokesbury 1-800- 672-1789. ISBN #0-687-04744-7 at $11.95.

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