Web Wonders – October 2009
Poverty and Justice Bible

The Sermon as Story


Recently, I read a book by Eugene Lowry called The Homiletical Plot: the Sermon as Narrative Art Form. It was a paradigm-shifting book as it suggests that sermons or messages should be more like stories than like a lecture presenting material in a structured and outlined manner. When Jesus was asked about who a 'neighbour' is, he didn't launch into a three point sermon with an introduction and conclusion. He told a story - a powerful one with the punch line right at the end. Jesus was a brilliant story-teller. In fact, he never spoke without using a story (often called 'parables'). Maybe there is more to learn from Jesus than just the 'content' of our message. He can teach us a lot about best the 'form' for effective communication.

Lowry encourages a new image for the sermon - see it as a sacred story, a homiletical plot, and a narrative art form. The best preaching feels like you are listening to a story in that you are guided along with interest and a sense of movement.

Great stories begin with tension and then gradually move towards resolution. In the same way, great sermons begin with an issue or a problem (the 'itch') and then move towards a solution (the 'scratch'), which is the 'good news'.

I experimented with this a little in a recent message I gave from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught about the discipline of secrecy (Matt.6:1-18). Rather than start with this teaching or solution (the 'scratch') I thought about what issue this teaching was helping us with (the 'itch'). I realised that Jesus was giving some advice to disciples who struggled with what we could call 'approval addition' - a need and desire to be seen. I began with this reality - our deep need for approval - then looked at the different ways we seek to meet that need, all of which are dead ends. I then moved to reminding everyone that in Christ, we have the approval we long for from our heavenly Father. However, even as disciples, we often fall back into approval-seeking behaviours and impression management. Jesus taught his disciples the discipline of secrecy as a spiritual practice to free us from the need to be seen or applauded by people.

It was an enjoyable way to present a message and felt more like taking people on a journey of discovery rather than presenting a neatly packaged lecture with a subject announced up front and three points before a conclusion. Maybe there is more to learn from Jesus and his Hebrew culture than from our Greek-influenced Western thinking patterns. Maybe that's why novels, stories, and movies are so popular. People love a story and when it addresses a real human need and offers hope - it inspires us all. Maybe sermons should be more like that.

The more you learn the more you realise how little you know ...


Hi Mark, are there also implcations for communicating in other contexts in the life of a church. eg with new peoples classes or with emerging leaders. I believe it would be better to tell stories about the life of the church to communicate vision, core values etc rather than just pure teaching.To communicate to people stories of how those core values etc have developed or are being lived out. To take people on a journey of discovery! To help them to not only know them, but to also feel and own the value. Just a thought!

You already know my position on a lot of this.

Story telling is indeed powerful- why else would Jesus have used it? He also like to annoy people with parables so they would have to THINK, ruminate and ponder in prayer.

We however sit everyone in rows, dish everything up with our neat projectors and 5 points. Do all the thinking and work for people so they essentially learn nothing. Then people walk out the door and forget it. How about do a survey next week and see how many remember what was preacherd? How about ask how many made a change in their life as a result of? How many discussed the implications with a friend? How about 5 to share what a difference it made in their life? How about 5 minutes where everyone as to share this with someone near-bye who they don't know? How about an online survey to plot the impact and growth in key areas of the congregation?

I think Jesus was far more provocative than we give him credit for. How else would he awaken curiosity, provoke reflection and awaken the sleeping masses.

Look I think there are a lot of good teaching practices that could be incorporated into any modern church with only a bit extra foresight, thought and effort. I am happy to say that I have seen a bit of movement in this area at Citylife....

Keep it coming!

How about it?

A couple of decades ago I read a book titled Inductive Preaching by Lewis & Lewis. Ever since then I have tried to follow Jesus' pattern. When you try you discover how utterly fantastic our Lord is as a teacher. Through Bailey's book Poet and Peasant/Through Peasant Eyes Jesus' greatness is even more clearly seen. Makes me want to follow Him!

A wise preacher does not take them on a journey of discovery, but points them in that direction, so that they would be encouraged to get on board the journey to go and discover for themselves all that God has planned for them and serve God out of His love.

Jesus' 'pattern' example is the only one worth following. He's is our only solid foundation. Everything we need to live life right is right there in the Bible. God made the way simple for us, it's man who complicated things. Stories are fine as long as they point to Jesus and God's Kingdom, just as Jesus always did.

The dynamics of the number of people you are speaking to affects various aspects of communication. I love interaction, as well as question & answer time. This works well in a small group and can even work in certain instances in a larger group of even 100s of people. However, once you get above 1000 people in a room, it's a bit more impractical.

When Jesus spoke to 1000s of people (and the apostles as recorded in the Book of Acts), he was doing the talking and they were listening. However, he shaped his messages in interesting and impacting ways. At other times, in smaller situations, he asked a lot of questions and got others involved.

I think these principles are relevant for today too. That's why the balance of large and small group meetings are important in church life. Interestingly, this is the only 'program' or schedule of meetings mentioned in the entire book of Acts (small groups in homes and large gatherings in public places).

Mark, I listened on the sermon via the podcast while walking my dog. The message definitely ministered to me big time. God's timing is, as usual, perfect. I was down and disillusioned but I knew that God's comfort was coming through the sermon. I praise God for His goodness and for using you to minister.

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