As comfortable as I am speaking in public (a blessing I do not take for granted!), I’m not as much a student of the art of preaching as I could be. And so, in an effort to expand my horizons, I recently started preaching in a narrative style, aiming to simply retell some of those “good old” stories. This is a little bit of a shift, because I’ve always had the temptation to drive home a big idea with every sermon. Somewhere in the back of my mind lives a little monkey telling me that every sermon has to change people’s lives – but I’d also be the first to tell you that having an epiphany every Sunday morning would be exhausting.
So this was my epiphany: what if I didn’t try to change people’s lives every Sunday with every sermon? What if, instead, I just told the story, and let God do the rest? (Since, after all, I had been trying to do all the work myself!) I decided to test this idea out with narrative preaching, and I began with the story of the Tower of Babel. That was an easy one for me, because I did an in-depth exegesis on it for my undergraduate thesis, which you can read in the previous blog post. I believe that, in my retelling of the story, I provided a lot of places for people to latch on to it and think about it in a new light, but other than the point that “diversity is a blessing from God,” I didn’t really drive home many points.
The reaction that I received was interesting; from what I can tell anecdotally, more critical thinking happened with this kind of sermon than with the others. What I heard was people sharing with me what they had heard in the story – in a sense, retelling the story in their own way. And I hope that this continues – that we find ourselves in the story, and find it easy to keep retelling the story to ourselves and others.
One person put it this way:
Preachers have tended to explain narrative texts by reducing them to objective propositions or abstract principles that are then illustrated and applied to the hearers’ lives. Such practice not only potentially does violence to the text by changing its rhetorical form from one type to another, but also can objectify biblical narratives and turn Christianity into a formulaic faith.
In other words, let go and let God. Because if a preacher can do that, can create a world of words for someone to step into and experience God “firsthand,”
Creating an experience for the listeners from a narrative text invites them to
participate in that world of words. Such a homiletic potentially elevates the role of the audience to that of active participants in the making of meaning.
And isn’t being an “active participant in the making of meaning” just another way of saying that we are active participants in God’s work in our world?
Quotes are from Clint Heacock’s piece, “Exploring the Use of Narratology for Narrative Preaching,” which can be read here.