Preaching Narrative

I am currently preaching John on Sunday mornings, which marks the first time I’ve ever preached through an entire Gospel. One thing I’ve learned is that a significant part of preaching narrative simply involves telling the story and telling it well. This came to mind the other night when I was reading an interview with one of my favorite authors, historian David McCullough. In the interview, McCullough was asked about his responsibilities as a writer of history, and at one point he said this:


If I can convey how interesting the past really was, how full of life those people really were, what they were up against and how it turned out for them, then my feeling is others will want to read what I’ve written. And there’s no need ever to trick things up, to sugar this or that, or use dramatic devices to make it interesting. You just try as best you can to make it as interesting as it actually was.


This, I realized, is one of my primary goals on Sunday mornings—to tell the story and tell it well, and to do so not by spicing it up with my own cleverness or rhetorical devices, but simply by trying to make it as interesting as it actually was. Not an easy task, but certainly a worthy one, especially when the story is Jesus.

15 responses to this post.

  1. One of the books that I’ve found most helpful when it comes to preaching narrative is by Steve Matthewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. Whether preaching OT or NT narrative, many of the principles he shares have helped me to “tell the story and tell it well” and to move from story to sermon without losing the meaning along the way. Almost without fail do I return to something in his book whenever I start a series through narrative passages.

  2. I enjoyed preaching through Matthew several years ago. Narrative preaching at its best is of course our good friend John MacArthur. Our folks couldn’t wait for next week to hear the “rest of the story.” Cool.

  3. I’m preaching through Mark at the moment which interestingly is also the first time I’ve preached through a gospel. And I find exactly the same thing – the better you tell the story and put people ” there” the better the sermon is received.

  4. Posted by Scott Christensen on December 16, 2008 at 2:29 am

    I have been preaching thru John for over 2 years now. I agree with everything that has been said. What is so difficult about John is that in the midst of the narrative there is so much rich theology. The question of how much emphasis I place on the narrative versus the theology is a difficult one for me. Sometimes I’d rather tell the story (such as the raising of Lazarus) and relegate the theology to the back seat. At other times, I am so focused on the theology that I often forget the story it is found in. How can you best tell the story and allow the theology to shine thru? And if you do this are you short-changing one or the other?

  5. Matt,

    I agree with your correlation between preaching narrative and McCullough’s quotation, despite the fact that in some ways it’s comparing apples and oranges. Writing history well from the accumulation of sources and retelling a narrative text are not the same thing (unless we simply relegate the text to one of the sources from which we gain our knowledge about the story). That said, however, you’re right in pointing out that preaching narrative entails walking your congregation through the text (a type of retelling).

    My only question (concern?) would be this. By retelling a text as a story, do we not tend to make it interesting by supplementing the text, i.e., filling in the gaps that we assume the writer left out?

    Just wanting to get your opinion. Blessings,

  6. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on December 16, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I’m out of the office today, so I’ll need to keep this brief.

    Eric: Thanks for the recommendation; I look forward to checking it out.

    Scott: Great question, and something I’ve wrestled with as well. I may devote part 2 to that very question, or else I may weigh in here in the comment section when I have more time.

    Randy: You’re definitely right about comparing apples and oranges. To clarify your question, do you mean supplementing the text with (a) cultural/historical background not stated explicitly in the text itself, (b) details provided in parallel passages which are note stated in the passage you’re preaching, (c) theology that is not taught in the passage you’re preaching, or (d) simply vivid details that we assume/speculate were part of the story but were not mentioned by the biblical writer (or perhaps a fifth alternative or some combination of the above)?

    Gotta run, but I’ll try to check back later.

    By the way, when Paul gets back from Russia and clears the mountain that formed on his desk while he was gone, I’ll look forward to hearing from him on this. He is, of course, our resident expert on preaching narratives. I’m more like an intern who is just getting his feet wet.

  7. Matt,

    How dare you write about preaching narrative while I’m out of the country. I will weigh in later on this but for now I would sum up my perspective by saying that our task is to preaching the text not the event/story. The two are not always the same.


  8. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on December 17, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    Randy: In terms of the four possible supplements I listed above, a quick answer for now: (a) is an absolute necessity if you’re going to set forth the meaning of the text and “tell the story” well; (b) is very tempting, and yet too often preachers fill in details that were not included in the passage they are preaching and thereby take the sermon in direction that is different than the point of the biblical writer in the text being proclaimed; (c) is appropriate at times, particularly when Jesus or the Gospel writer is explicitly building upon (and/or alluding to) what Kaiser refers to as “antecedent theology,” and yet oftentimes this is abused in how preachers import into the passage theology that is not taught there and/or has not yet been established in the progress of revelation (e.g., in his comments on Matthew 25:37, Lenski claims that “the entire doctrine of justification by faith through the atoning merits of Christ is contained in [the words ‘the righteous’]”); and (d) can be helpful at times, when done reasonably, as long as those details are rooted in reality and not the preacher’s imagination, and as long as those details don’t take the sermon in a direction that is different than the point of the biblical writer. I could qualify each of these further, but that gives you at least somewhat of an idea of how I would approach them. Would you approach them in a similar way?

  9. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on December 17, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Paul: Looking forward to hearing more from you on this when the dust settles. How is your book coming along?

  10. Matt: To be honest, the one I feel most comfortable implementing is (c) [theology not taught in the passage you’re teaching]. Here’s my quick run-down on the 4:
    (a) Without opening a can of worms that is far beyond your post, I think this can be misleading on two fronts: in choosing the elements that I will implement and in causing my congregation to doubt their ability to interpret Scripture properly for themselves. I have other things to say about this, but Paul’s comment about preaching the text versus the event goes toward my understanding of its importance. Again, this is probably for another day(s).
    (b) This approach may help in solving a potential problem, but more times than not, it is unnecessary (unless the writer assumes you have knowledge of the other text – e.g. the writer of Chronicles may assume you have Kings). I would tend to think that the individual writer is trying to express his understanding quite apart from the other and has gone his own way (an example may be how Isaiah construes the narratives in 36-39 over against the Kings’ account). In the Gospels, could it be that perhaps the writer left details out on purpose and to replace them may take away from his teaching? Just a thought.
    (c) Pretty important, in my opinion. For example, in interpreting the Gospels, aren’t we who believe in a literal hermeneutic that emphasizes the original context of the writing inconsistent if we fail to remember that these are documents written for the church? I say this point is important because we’re dealing with theological documents, not a collection of stories that we have to recreate from a variety of sources. The events they describe may have occurred before the foundation of the church, but the text was written within the context of and to the church, right?
    (d) In my opinion, this is highly abused. I cringe when I hear preachers (including myself) say stuff off the cuff like, “Can you imagine how [insert character] felt?” “How do you think Joseph felt when he was in the pit? What was running through his mind?” But to be honest, the role of “absences” in interpretation of the text is an intriguing thing to me. Meir Sternberg speaks of it in his book (Poetics of Biblical Narrative), but I think we need to be careful in applying this to freely.

  11. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on December 17, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Good stuff, Randy. I think that we are in basic agreement regarding most of what you’ve written and that we share many of the same concerns, although it is difficult to know for sure without concrete examples. I think we may be furthest apart on (a) (although I agree with your suggestion of leaving that for another day) and closest to one another on (b). In fact, I think your explanation of (b) captures very well my own thinking on this issue. To illustrate my concern, if you are preaching a passage from one of the Synoptic Gospels and you blend into your sermon all the information found in the parallel passages in the other two Synoptics, I fear that the end result will be the flattening out of all three accounts so that each of them is made to say exactly the same thing as the other two. In doing so, I fear that you miss out on the distinct point that each Gospel writer is trying to make in the context of his own Gospel. This may be what Paul means when he says that we are called to preach the text and not the event, and if so, I agree completely.

  12. Posted by Ben Lewis on July 20, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    ” . . . causing my congregation to doubt their ability to interpret Scripture properly for themselves,”

    Lots of very good points, Randy, but this one seems (to me) to need a little qualification. I am in favor of members of the congregation reading scripture and doing their best to interpret it properly. At the same time, I’m fairly convinced I need to bring data to bear on a given text that may result in the congregation concluding that they would not have seen that in the text. In fact, every time I read someone like N.T. Wright, my own ability to properly interpret the text for myself comes into doubt.

    Take the gospels, for example. Neither my congregation nor I are first-century Jews. The more we can recreate the framework of first-century Judaism, the more likely we are to get at the intended meaning of a gospel writer or speaker. N.T. Wright and other specialists are better at this than I am, and I am better at it than nearly any member of the congregation. To the extent that this specialized knowledge enables any of us to more “properly” interpet scriture, to the same extent might that specialized knowledge result in creating some inevitable but healthy doubt in others’ ability to “properly” interpret scripture. In the case of my congregation as well as the case of myself, what is needed is not misplaced confidence in our own ability, but more study at the feet of those who’ve already done their homework.

  13. Posted by Tieddeact on August 29, 2010 at 6:18 am

    Many thanks.

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