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Narrative Preaching

Rev C Bouwman

In a previous article I drew attention to Christological preaching. What makes a sermon Christocentric, we concluded, was not that the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned a certain number of times in a sermon, nor that a sentence or a paragraph or a point is devoted to the events that occurred on the cross of Calvary. Rather, a Christocentric sermon builds on Christ’s work on the cross and now draws out how God the Father as a result of Christ’s work actually goes about with people today.

Having said that, I take the opportunity today to explain and comment on a new form of preaching known as Narrative Preaching. As far as I know, no minister in our midst has ever preached in this narrative style. It has, however, been used in some sister churches overseas. In fact, some of the professors of the Theological University of our Dutch sister churches have prepared and delivered narrative sermons. If this form of preaching is acceptable to the professors, one may expect its usage to grow amongst the students. Please note: with this I am not saying that all sermons (or even a majority) preached in the Dutch sister churches are of Narrative style. They are not. In fact, I have no reason to doubt that solid sermons as we are used to also continue to be preached in the sister churches.

Should what happens in the Netherlands concern us in Australia? Yes, it should. As sister churches we have a duty to "assist, encourage and exhort one another to live as churches of God in this world" – as the Rules for Sister Relations have it. The Rules also stipulate that our pulpits are open to each other’s ministers. More, the various contacts (family included) between Australia and the Netherlands suggest that trends overseas will affect us in some way Down Under in time to come. At the very least, then, we need to be aware of what Narrative Preaching is and what to think of it.

I should add: this form of preaching is not restricted to the Netherlands. It is also becoming increasingly popular among the traditional churches of South Africa, of which so many Disenchanted people are still members. I have not come across this sermon style in the English speaking world.

Definition/Example

We are used to a form of preaching where a passage of Scripture is explained and expounded on the basis of solid exegesis, and then applied to the lives of today’s people. Via this means the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers. Of course, this preaching comes with the authority of God’s "Thus says the Lord."

Narrative preaching would replace the exposition of a passage with a story. That is: the preacher has done the customary exegesis, and then instead of explaining the results to the congregation, he pours the results of his study into a story form, a narrative.

By way of example: I have in my library a ‘sermon’ on Jonah 1 as it was ‘preached’ in church by one of ‘our’ ministers. The chapter relates God’s call to Jonah to preach against Nineveh, Jonah’s flight from the Lord on a ship to Tarshish, the subsequent storm at sea, Jonah being thrown overboard, and the sudden ceasing of the storm. The preacher told this story to the congregation from the perspective of the captain of the boat on which Jonah sought to flee. That is, the now retired captain was recalling an unforgettable tale from years ago, how he was loading a ship for Tarshish when a stressed-out fugitive appeared on the wharf eager to receive passage to wherever the captain was going. Because the fugitive was obviously keen to get on board, the captain charged him double the usual fare…, and as Jonah was about to carry his baggage on board the captain suddenly woke up to the possibility that something might not be right with this man, and so asked he who he was and why he was fleeing. Jonah explained he was fleeing from God…, and the captain thought that was strange but not his business to correct…. But not so long after departure from Joppa’s safety, a storm hit the boat like the captain had never experienced before. Try though he might to find the protection of a harbor, he couldn’t…. The panic of captain and seamen alike is described in detail, and so is their anguish when Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. But when they finally do it and the storm then suddenly ceases, and the skies clear up before you can count to five, and the waters become flat as a mirror in a moment, the captain’s fear and awe for God knows no bounds, and he and his men are sure they’ve experienced a miracle from that God known as Yahweh…. The captain then relates that some time later he was reading the newspaper (!) and his eye caught a caption: Repentance in Nineveh. He scanned the article, and yes, a preacher had come, had preached, the city had repented…. Name of preacher: Jonah…, the very man on his boat…. The captain marveled, and thought: the God whose power he’d tasted at sea was certainly mighty enough to bring his stubborn prophet to Nineveh after all. The conclusion of the sermon: "I read the rest of the article. When I finished, I couldn’t suppress a smile. That God had gotten his prophet to preach after all! Amen."

Cause

We are not used to this sort of preaching, and sense immediately that it departs radically from the form of preaching we are used to. In fact, I know of no period or place in church history where this sort of preaching occurred in churches that esteemed the word of God highly. That raises the question: why does this form of preaching now arise? Why even amongst churches that insist on the inspiration of Scripture? Two factors need to be mentioned.

1 Narrative Theology

Our contemporary unbelieving world denies the existence of a God in heaven. This denial means one needs another explanation about where we come from, and that question has been answered with the theory of Evolution. The same denial means one also needs a new answer to the question of where religion and the Bible come from. The answer to this question has given rise to Narrative Theology.

The answer goes like this. Pre-historic people had experiences with thunderstorms or crop growth or some other impressive event, and so came to think there was a deity. Note: the deity did not really exist; he existed only in the minds of persons who experienced certain things, and in their minds he was real. This ‘believer’ wanted to share his religious experience with others. How he did so? He related own experiences, ie, he told a story. The purpose of his story was to try to get his hearer to crawl into his experiences and so share his feelings – and therefore his conclusions about a deity. The hearer in turn could choose to accept that the god of the story-teller was real and so believe in him himself, or he could choose not to believe. Of course, how convincingly the story-teller told his story would contribute significantly to whether or not his hearer would ‘believe’. All ‘religions’ have such stories passed through the generations, with as purpose that subsequent generations accept the religious conclusions of their ancestors. Some of these stories are narrated orally from generation to generation (as, for example, amongst Australia’s Aborigines), while other religions have their stories in written form (as, for example, the world’s Christians in their Bible). The Bible, then, is not inspired by a God who lives in heaven, but is rather a collection of people’s stories reflecting their experiences with a God. So the Bible does not tell us about God, but tells us instead about people’s experiences of God.

So: is God real? Like President Clinton once said: it depends on what ‘is’ means. Is God really in heaven, Creator and Controller of all? No, He isn’t. Is He real to the mind of the story-teller? Yes, He is. Similarly, did the events related in Bible really happen? If you could turn the film of history back to replay the event, no, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same as the story-teller related it. But, this Narrative Theology insists, it’s not important whether the event happened as recorded. Important is the story-teller’s experience. That is: to his mind the event happened as he described it. It’s because he experienced something in a certain way that the story-teller relates his story as he does, and that’s what makes his story worth hearing. He’s describing how he experienced God, and that’s what he wants to share with you – so that you in turn might share his conclusions about God.

So: Jonah once had certain experiences about God, and shared these experiences with others. These others were themselves touched by Jonah’s story so that his experiences became their own – and they in turn told others again. In the process they may have revised Jonah’s initial story to do more justice to their own experience. And as they seek to move the next set of hearers to share their conclusions about the deity, they may make some alterations again…. So there is growth and development in a story, and each version relates how the teller has experienced God.

Important for the hearer, then, is not whether the facts actually happened as the story-teller relates it, nor even whether the story-teller experienced things as he says. Important is now how you respond to his story, ie, your experiences today are critical. Having heard these stories, what do you think about God?

Readers up-to-date with trends in literature (ie, English lit) will recognize this line of thought in relation to how to read books or poems. Important is not what Shakespeare meant, but what you get out of his plays. So: you make up your own truths.

To come back to the Bible: characteristic of this approach is that there is no authority in the Bible. You have to listen to the story you’re being told, and as you listen you need to listen to your own feelings, to how you experience that story. Your feelings will guide you into what is the right response for you, what is true for you.

This is called Narrative Theology. It is full-blown post-modern thinking, where there is no God except in your own mind, and you make out for yourself what sort of a god this is and what he means for you. Those who have come to embrace Narrative Theology must of necessity give away the traditional style of preaching (explaining and expounding a text with the authority of the-God-who-really-is), and replace their preaching style with narratives, ie, retelling the story received from the fathers in a way that passes on its punch to modern hearers.

2 Form of Communication

There is a second factor that features strongly in the shift to narrative preaching. For centuries communication in western culture has been characterized by ‘listening’. That is: someone speaks, you listen carefully, and so learn. That form of communication leant itself well to the traditional form of preaching.

In the last number of years, this traditional form of communication has been replaced. Mass media, especially television, has produced a shift to a culture of ‘seeing’. People are no longer trained to listen for any length of time, but instead want to see what they are hearing. So salesmen come with pictures, either literally or with such choice of words that the hearer sees in the eye of his mind exactly what the salesman wants to sell.

This shift to a visually oriented form of communication also has consequences for preaching. The preacher competes with entertainers and slick salesmen, and so is tempted to shorten his sermons or add anecdotes (stories) to illustrate his point. Especially the last point provides fertile ground for Narrative Preaching – be it with adaptations.

Adaptations

Those embracing the underlying presuppositions of Narrative Theology (specifically that there is no God except in the mind of people) will use Narrative preaching in a full-blown way. But if you believe in the existence of God in the traditional and Biblical sense of the term, and therefore accept also the inspiration of the Bible, you obviously cannot use this full narrative preaching.

Yet the shift in communication forms calls for a more visual preaching. If a preacher can somehow make his sermon visual, he will contribute to overcoming the barriers raised by modern communication techniques. Narrative preaching passes on theology through a story, and a well-told story is by definition visual. So the temptation is there to borrow pages from the school of Narrative Theology, and use these techniques to pass on the truth of the gospel in our contemporary culture.

It should be understood, then: not all those who applaud narrative preaching adopt narrative theology.

Characteristics

The question now is whether narrative preaching can safely be used to pass on to today’s (western) hearers the truth of the gospel. As the church-going public becomes increasingly infected by new communication trends, the temptation will increase to answer this question in the affirmative – and so give space for narrative preaching on our pulpits. To answer this question, we shall need to list some characteristics of narrative preaching.

For narrative preaching, the person of the preacher is critically important. Instead of explaining and expounding a given passage of Scripture, the preacher of a narrative sermon has to crawl into the skin of a (real or imagined) person, and give voice to the (real or supposed) thoughts and experiences of this person. The degree to which the preacher succeeds in getting into the shoes of another, and giving accurate voice to the (real or supposed) thoughts of this person, determines the degree to which the congregation will accept what this figure has experienced about God.

Narrative preaching makes for very interesting sermons, at least for those who know the Bible. That is: the hearer gets to hear old words in very new forms, and so will listen better. Narrative preaching provides suspense, if only because hearer wonders how the preacher is going to get this together. Besides, a well-told story is always interesting, no matter how often you’ve already heard it

Though one can still insist on careful exegesis, the emphasis in narrative preaching is invariably on narrating the story in such a way as to awaken the desired response in your audience. This may require the addition of some extra details not in the Bible. That is, you invariably give room for fantasy in your effort to make a complete and compelling story.

True narrative preaching cannot include a moral lesson or spell out a right or wrong way to live. That is because the preacher relates an event as another person experienced it, and therefore not as a word from God. All it can do is pass on certain experiences, and then the hearer has to make up own mind.

Narrative preaching loses the bigger picture of God’s whole revelation. For example, the captain of Jonah’s ship could in no way know God’s bigger picture in wanting a prophet to preach against Nineveh, ie, Israel’s role in the world (be a blessing to the nations, Gen 12). So the preacher cannot put this concept on the captain’s lips. This is even truer of fulfillment material. In no way could the captain ever get to know (and therefore relate) that Jesus’ mission was intended to benefit even the offspring of the Ninevehites.

Analysis

On the basis of these characteristics (and more could be mentioned) we can come to some analysis of narrative preaching. In my analysis I follow the five characteristics mentioned above.

The person of the preacher is elevated much too highly. It is true that a preacher always has central role in bringing God’s word to the congregation. But he may not let the word pass through himself as through a filter so that his person and the way he experiences things determine what he passes on to the congregation. His mandate is to open the text and let the text itself speak to the congregation without it first having gone through the filter of his imagination and/or experiences. When the congregation leaves church, the congregation must be convinced that they heard not the word of man but the word of God. A central term using in the New Testament for preaching is literally "to herald". A herald in no way may draw attention to himself; he must pass on truly and completely and only the message given him by his sender.

In connection with this point it should be noted that redemptive-historical preaching in the pre-Liberation years (before 1944) was (in part) a reaction to psychologizing in the preaching. That is: preachers sought to understand the thoughts and emotions of Bible figures and lift them up for us to follow (or not), instead of trying to understand what the Lord was doing in a given portion of holy writ. This trend was rightly rejected as not doing justice to the Bible as God’s word.

That a preacher needs to use his gifts as best he can to deliver his sermon in an interesting and captivating manner will certainly be true. Nevertheless (see point 2 above), you cannot make interest and emotional response the criteria for successful preaching, simply because the human heart is sinful, more, is by nature dead in sin – and therefore there will be no worthwhile positive response to any preaching unless the Holy Spirit works it. It is noteworthy that the apostle Paul "did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God" (1 Cor 2:1ff). "I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom." Paul instead preached Christ and Him crucified. This is certainly different than narrating how a (heathen) sea-captain experienced Jonah and his storm – the sort of account, by the way, you never find anywhere in Paul’s writings.

Narrative preaching gives much place for fantasy. But: fantasy is not God’s Word, not even if it’s fantasy about a character in the Bible. In His wisdom the Lord God refrained from telling us how Jonah’s captain experienced Jonah and the storm, or how the widow of Nain felt about the death and resurrection of her son. What God did cause to be recorded, though, was "written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (Jn 20:30f; cf 2 Tim 3:16f). We should not be wiser than God, and proclaim in God’s name what He did not consider necessary for our salvation. Besides, fantasy originates from the human mind, and that mind is sinful, depraved. For that reason you can never say of such fantasy: "Thus says Lord." Yet of everything a preacher says from the pulpit he must be able to say: "Thus says Lord"; why else should congregation listen!!

Narrative preaching gives no room for authoritative proclamation, as in: this is what God demands of you. Yet that is precisely what all preaching must do, be it in outlining the riches of gospel and therefore demanding belief or in outlining the judgments of God and therefore demanding repentance. Preaching may never be suggestive, a story you can take or leave; preaching has to be authoritative.

Narrative preaching has no room for the wider picture of God’s saving work. Since the captain could not know why God would be interested in Nineveh, the preacher who ‘preaches’ Jonah 1 from the perspective of the captain cannot mention it. Yet God’s interest in Nineveh is central to why the Lord sent Jonah there in the first place, let alone why God included this book in the Bible He gave His people. The result of restrictions as these is that the golden thread of redemption running through Scripture is lost. Jesus Christ came not to save Jews only, but to break down the wall of division between Jews and Gentiles.

Lessons

The reader will understand that I find no place for this new style of preaching. It is true that preachers cannot ignore recent changes in communication forms, but lifting a page from the products of Narrative Theology is too dangerous and does not do justice to the Bible as God’s Word. The Lord is the living God, and He is pleased to have His Word come to His people today through the living preaching of that Word – as the church has rightly summarized the instruction of God in Lord’s Day 35. Preachers need to continue to explain that word, and expound its riches to the congregations of today. That is because that age-old Word is a lamp for the paths of contemporary people.

At the same time we need to recognize that there is definitely place for good story-telling in the preaching, specifically when the text involves a story, eg, a parable – or even the account of Jonah. But the story the preacher retells must stay completely truthful to the text, without addition or fantasy. More, the story he tells must serve the preaching of the gospel, not replace the preaching of the gospel. In fact, it seems to me that good preaching must paint pictures in the minds of the hearers, even if the text used isn’t a story. It strikes me that time and again Paul (just to mention him) uses colorful words and so puts images in the minds of his hearers/readers – even without telling stories. I think, for example, of 1 Cor 4:9: "we have been made a spectacle to the world," literally, a theatre. How graphic! Or 1 Thess 4: 15, about "the coming of the Lord," where Paul uses a word referring to the victory procession of a victorious general. It’s graphic, visual preaching, an example we do well follow.

Finally, our culture attaches more value to feelings and experiences than was the case in the past. I will not exalt the past, but will caution us against elevating emotion. Our feelings, including the way we experience things, are twisted by the fall into sin, and therefore can never be the basis upon which to build. Preaching, be it in style or content, may not take its cue from the tastes of the pew. Preaching itself is one-way traffic, from God to man, and so must speak with God’s authority and with God’s clarity. Neither preacher nor congregation may forget that – even if that reality rubs modern sensitivities in the wrong way. Here the terms used in the Canons of Dort to describe biblical preaching are telling. Chapter III/IV, Art 17: "grace is conferred through admonitions…." Chapter V, Art 14: "As it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so He maintains, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation upon it, by its exhortations, threatenings, and promises, and by the use of the sacraments." Notice that preaching is here described as "exhortations, threatenings, and promises" – in that order!! That does not speak of a comfortable pew! But it does do justice to human nature, inclined as it is to sin and unwilling to hear of its inherent evil.

Let preachers proclaim God’s Word, with the authority of God and the clarity of God. The Spirit will use that proclamation to work and strengthen faith in all those called to life eternal.