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Narrative Preaching 1

TomLong.jpgHow do you define “narrative preaching”? And, alongside that question, another one: How much story do you think appropriate in a sermon? What did you learn in seminary about the appropriateness or frequency of stories in sermons?

Tom Long, whom I heard three or four times last Fall when I was at a conference at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, is one of the best preachers I have ever heard. Now to reveal my ignorance: I had never heard of Tom Long before that conference, and it shows what I know about the techniques and literature and theory of preaching. Tom Long, in 1996, was rated as one of the top twelve preachers in the English-speaking world. After hearing him, I resolved to read some of Tom’s sermons and to read what he had written about preaching. So I bought and am now reading Preaching from Memory to Hope
, and I hope you can read it too.
We can’t equate “narrative preaching” with telling stories or with giving illustrations, and in some ways this expression can get complex, so I will appeal to a few observations of Long’s about narrative preaching:

Here are some ideas gathered under the umbrella — seeing the Bible as a collection of stories that form a grand narrative; using real life stories in preaching; the notion that sermons need to be plotted like a short story instead of outlined into propositions or points; an emphasis on metaphors and images.

What do you think of when you someone says a preacher is an advocate of “narrative preaching”? 
(By the way, from what I’m reading, a major voice in defining narrative preaching is Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority
and Preaching
It seems to me that use of stories is not the point. Instead, the major idea is that the structure of the sermon is less “old homiletic” or “inductive” or “point-by-point” or “propositional” with a “defense,” but instead the sermon is shaped with a plot (character, conflict, resolution — a person who wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it).
Tom Long’s book contains the Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale, but is more than those lectures. In his first chp he sketches the advocates of narrative preaching (Grady Davis, Fred Craddock, Eugene Lowry) and then maps the critics:
Conservatives worry about the lack of didactic information, entertainment, too little doctrine, lacking in ethical appeal and not evangelistic enough.
Moderates contend that narrative worked when folks knew their Bibles and their beliefs but needed to be awakened, and those are not the issues today.
The left side argue that there is too much power and reshaping and ideology at work in the narrative preacher.
Long thanks each of these but doesn’t think their criticisms are fatal, even if well-aimed at times. He thinks sermons need to do what Augustine said: teach, delight and persuade. Narrative can do too much delight and not enough teaching and persuading, but it can’t be abandoned.
In fact, he argues four points:
1. Narrative as dress rehearsal, where the preacher embodies the activity of God in human events.
2. Narrative as congregational canon, where stories being told shape a community.
3. Narrative as means for remembering the lost and silenced.
4. Narrative as process for coming to faith…
And Tom Long is one of the best storytellers of all time, and this book’s got some great stories. Preachers need this book.
For those of you who are either narrative preachers or who do some narrative preaching, who do you think is best at teaching/writing about this?
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posted February 8, 2010 at 7:29 am

I never heard of Tom Long or the term “narrative preaching” but it makes lots of sense to me. After all, Jesus was the prime example of one using stories and metaphors to “teach, delight and persuade.”
I went to Amazon to see if the book was one that lets you look inside and it is so I read those papges. It ends right in the middle of a “story” and I would like to hear the end of it! So, see, it works for me. I think quite a few priests are people who use this type of preaching in their homilies. My local priest told a story about how he came to see that he was unconditionally loved and part of it was having his face pushed into his birthday cake by his aunt! He also talked in a different homily about being rejected by a pretty girl when he asked her to dance. His stories keep your attention and they do lead to a “point.”

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Scot McKnight

posted February 8, 2010 at 7:39 am

JoanieD, he’s got some fantastic stories in this book.

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Paul Sheneman

posted February 8, 2010 at 7:50 am

I learned the craft from the texts of Craddock and Lowry. Since that time, Dan Boone influenced me through “Preaching the Story That Shapes Us”. Boone is an excellent storyteller. Both his sermons and writing styles reflect it.

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posted February 8, 2010 at 8:21 am

Would Eugene Peterson fit this category? If not how would you describe his speaking style?

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posted February 8, 2010 at 8:44 am

One of the best narrative preachers we have is Garrison Keillor with his “News From Lake Wobegon”. Just listen as he starts with “It’s been a quiet week…” and you hear the message.

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posted February 8, 2010 at 9:18 am

I do both… I often ask the question to begin with, “what’s going on in the story?” Share the story, then… “what insights can be drawn from the story that shape our lives in Christ?” I am not sure that is true narrative preaching but I do believe that there is a story that needs to be told for us to get real meaning from the scripture.

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posted February 8, 2010 at 9:28 am

They seemed to promote a narrative style of preaching at Poets, Prophets and Preachers last summer. Bell would seem to fit into this category, though he doesn’t particularly tell stories as much as structure his sermon with the dynamics of narrative.

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Clay Knick

posted February 8, 2010 at 9:58 am

You are 100% correct: Tom Long is one of the best preachers anyone will ever hear. I’ve heard him at two or three Duke Divinity School fall gatherings and there is much to delight, teach, and persuade when I listen to him. He is also a fantastic lecturer. And a big Braves and Buddy Holly fan.
I suppose I’m a mixture of narrative and deductive preaching. I lean towards, heavily at times to be sure, narrative. But I also believe that preaching should have something to say, not only to our hearts, but our minds as well. When I’ve heard Long preach, or Will Willimon, whom one may call a narrative preacher, I hear the mind & heart addressed.

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posted February 8, 2010 at 10:32 am

Without a doubt (IMHO) Fred Craddock, Fred Craddock and Fred Craddock.

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posted February 8, 2010 at 11:08 am

Sounds like If I am understanding this use of narrative preaching, I think there is great potential for it and it really captures my imagination. It seems to me that the wealth of narrative in the OT in particular lends itself to drawing out the experience of a character for a sermon. Greidanus discusses this some in “The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text.” We read some of him (and similar thinking) in hermeneutics. I have tried to do this for various OT stories. It has led me to bring in details that relate to the senses. Jonah, for example: what sort of ships were in use then, what did his escape ship probably look like, what did it smell like, what sorts of gods did the guys pray to, what sort of clothes, what was stored in the hold and in what kind of containers, and on and on for clothes, food, housing, social status, etc.
You could spend forever researching these details but a few of them are necessary to give the character an authentic feel. This is much different than a mere creative imagining off the top of the head. It is use of available materials to make as educated a guess as possible (and conscious careful use of artistic license) to re-create the character’s experience.
At first, I had the feeling that the story itself should be the point. Tell the story and let it live in people’s minds and let it connect to different folks differently. While there is some validity to that, I am thinking more now that many stories give structural clues as to some conclusions the hearer should be drawing, say through repeated words, chiasm, irony, etc. It seems to arise from the text sometimes that the reader should be impressed with some attribute of God, for example. In this case, I have begun to think that the narrative sermon should as naturally as possible emphasize this point in some way. I’m curious to know how others approach the “point” of the story – do you try to lead people to drawing certain conclusions or just try to let the story live – what do you do?

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Jeremy Berg

posted February 8, 2010 at 11:38 am

Great topic! Prior to narrative preaching must come a “narrative-shaped life” or understanding of the Christian faith. One whose entire life has been rearranged by finding themselves part of God’s redemptive drama can’t help but open the scriptures in a similar way — inviting others into the ongoing story of God that confronts all rival metanarratives.
I haven’t read books on narrative preaching per se. But I have been influenced by certain thinkers who articulate the Christian faith in strong narrative terms. They include:
Stanley Hauerwas
William Willimon (also preaches narratively)
John Eldredge – little book “Epic”
George Stroup
N.T. Wright views the Christian life through a 5-act hermeneutic
Rob Bell & Mars Hill have a narrative approach to preaching

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Jeremy Berg

posted February 8, 2010 at 11:58 am

3 favorite quotes about “narrative-shaped faith” worth sharing:
“Even though the Bible is basically a storybook, theology has not bothered to orient itself in that way. It has preferred to play intellectual games and to adopt a rational order for itself, with the result that the story remains in the background as a presupposition that does not call the shots. Theology has been enamored by the rationalist ideal on the (dubious) assumption that people are basically rational beings who need to be appealed to with abstract arguments. This is not only untrue in relation to people, it refuses to take seriously the plain fact that in Christianity truth is in the story” (Pinnock, Tracking the Maze, 182).
“As disciples, we do not so much accept a creed, or come to a clear sense of self-understanding by which we know this or that with utter certitude. We become a part of a journey? The story began without us, as a story of the peculiar way God is redeeming the world, a story that invites us to come forth and be saved by sharing in the work of a new people whom God has created in Israel and Jesus. Such movement saves us by (1) placing us within an adventure that is nothing less than God?s purpose for the whole world, and (2) communally training us to fashion our lives in accordance with what is true rather than what is false” (Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens).
“When Jesus announced the kingdom, the stories he told functioned like dramatic plays in search of actors. His hearers were invited to audition for parts in the kingdom. They had been eager for God?s drama to be staged and were waiting to find out what they would have to do when he did so. Now they were to discover. They were to become kingdom-people themselves. Jesus, following John the Baptist, was calling into being what he believed would be the true, renewed people of God” (N.T. Wright, Challenge of Jesus, 43).

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posted February 8, 2010 at 12:21 pm

A terrific and helpful book on designing a sermon with narrative preaching is The Shape of Preaching (has a blurb by Tom Long on the back!).

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posted February 8, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Don Sunukjian is among the best. See his book, Invitation to Biblical Preaching.

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posted February 8, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Interesting topic and good questions.
While agree with the fact that we are part of a great narrative where God is the author, I struggle with those who teach “narrative preaching.” Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me they are preaching about experience and putting it within a narrative framework. It allows for preaching that is not grounded by Scripture but uses Scripture as a friend that might help my experience. It can lead to things the Bible is not teaching. I believe preaching can use story and narrative as long as it is coming out of a biblical framework where story is used to help us understand how we apply the text or are formed by it. Preaching has to have Scripture as its foundation. If it does not than it is just a person’s opinion.

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Jeremy Berg

posted February 8, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Deryk –
You may be confusing the kind of fluffy preaching that uses personal stories as mere illustrations with the kind of narrative preaching that has as it’s very foundation the narrative-shaped world of the biblical text. The question isn’t whether our foundation is scripture or experience/stories. The point of many narrative thinkers is that the scripture itself IS story-shaped (i.e., telling the ongoing epic of redemption from Gen-Rev) and human beings best understand and apprehend the truths of scripture when told in story form and inviting participation within the story where we find our role improvising and living out the fifth Act, to borrow from Wright.
Again, Pinnock: “Even though the Bible is basically a storybook, theology has not bothered to orient itself in that way. It has preferred to play intellectual games and to adopt a rational order for itself, with the result that the story remains in the background as a presupposition that does not call the shots. Theology has been enamored by the rationalist ideal on the (dubious) assumption that people are basically rational beings who need to be appealed to with abstract arguments. This is not only untrue in relation to people, it refuses to take seriously the plain fact that in Christianity truth is in the story” (Pinnock, Tracking the Maze, 182).

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Matt Dabbs

posted February 8, 2010 at 2:55 pm

here is audio of Craddock at his best, his sermon “When the Roll is Called Down Here” on Romans 16 –
In that archive are also sermons by Tom Long and many others – In that archive are also sermons by Tom Long and many others –“>“>

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chad m

posted February 8, 2010 at 4:40 pm

i know it’s not preaching, but a lot of my “story-telling” techniques i’ve learned from listening to This American Life on NPR. love the variety of stories they tell!
i’ve also heard Rob Bell give some interesting talks on how he collects information and stories from day to day life…good stuff!
thanks for posting this Scot!

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posted February 8, 2010 at 4:48 pm

He is arguing for a mythical structure.. the “hero’s journey” and I think he is right. Esp after reading James K.A. Smith recently, preaching which aims primarily at cognition is not going to persuade anyone.

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sam tsang

posted February 8, 2010 at 7:04 pm

I have a mixed feeling towards the narrative fad. I suppose it really boils down to HOW you define narrative preaching. I teach my students to have a narrative element as part of the sermon instead of having this or that format (narrative vs. propositional). I advocate preaching according to the structure and genre of the passage. Narrative elements naturally make itself known, even with the narrative world behind the letters.

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posted February 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm

what do you guys think are the best books on how to prepare and deliver a sermon?

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posted February 8, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Two of the better books on preaching I’ve read are The Witness of Preaching (Tom Long) and The Preaching Life (Barbara Brown Taylor–the best preacher in North America)
Good post Scot.

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Jerry Sather

posted February 9, 2010 at 8:49 am

I would agree with those who said Cox.
I would also add that narrative preaching goes hand in hand with narrative theology.
For a Wesleyan perspective, see The Story of God by Michael Lodahl.
Many of Robert Webber’s works emphasize narrative theology.

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Jim Martin

posted February 9, 2010 at 9:04 am

I have enjoyed Long for quite sometime. Years ago, had the privilege of taking a summer seminar that Long, Fred Craddock, and Barbara Brown Taylor taught. It was an outstanding experience. One of the best moments of the seminar was an afternoon that each teacher spent with the attendees who had been divided into small groups. I was in a group of five that was facilitated by Long. That afternoon, he listened to a recording of an attendees sermon which each person had brought to the seminar. THe afternoon was spent listening to these sermons and hearing his comments on each one. It was extremely helpful.
I read The Witness of Preaching some years ago and found it particular helpful in some very practical ways. I look forward to reading Preaching from Memory to Hope.

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posted February 9, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I would say Fred Craddock. Mentioned above where two of Craddock’s books. He also has one entitled “Overhearing the Gospel.”

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Matt Larsen

posted March 1, 2010 at 11:26 pm

I am surprised no one has mentioned Eugene Lowry’s ‘The Homiletical Plot’. His whole point is to define narrative preaching and demonstrate how to create a narrative sermon.
I preach several times a week in different churches. About two years ago, I read through the book in about a day and a half and it immediately changed the way I preach. I still go back to it about once a month for a refresher. Fabulous little book! Highly commended!

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Dr. James McReynolds

posted June 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm

John Killinger is the best wordsmith I have ever known.
His illustrations are priceless. His voice sounds strong
and vital. His sermons often have a twist to them that
causes one to think.

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