One of the leading practical theologians that has shaped my preaching and pastoral ministry is my non-theologically trained mother, Kay R. Parks. My mother’s keen perspective comes from the pew as a Christian, parishioner, pastors wife and mother of two budding preachers. She has spent a lot of time among preachers and desiring the best for her own two sons. One day while she was transporting me to school, she said, “Junior, people can remember a story when they can’t remember anything else. It ties everything together.” That has stuck with me since I was a boy preacher being dropped off at high school (total bummer).
Preaching is indeed an oral event. No matter how well-crafted the manuscript, it is not preaching until words are spoken. The Bible is a book of stories that are a part of God’s larger narrative, which communicates God’s desires for our lives. We must take a focused interest in the possible roadblocks that hinder effective narrative preaching and take note where narratives fail. I submit three areas where communicating the narrative could be compromised. If these areas are seriously engaged, they can be the very tools that can assist the narrative to come alive for the hearer.
The first area we must focus on to ensure communicating the narrative is never compromised is correlation. Connecting the listener to the story—especially the protagonist of the narrative—is often neglected. Too often, the listener becomes a bystander in our efforts because the preacher’s mind becomes stuck in the wonderful land of the text and finds residence in a hermeneutical condominium, failing to connect with the listener. The audience we communicate with and our narrating of the Bible must be forever in our mind. If not, our presentation can fall flat. The congregant must see, in their very existence, the flippant personality of Peter, the initial indifference of Esther, and the availability of the unnamed lad with whom Jesus used his modest lunch to open up a bakery shop and fish market on the backside of the dessert. The women in our congregations must feel the anxiety of Mary when she discovers her pregnancy and marks time, not by counting down to her wedding, but by her expanding waistline. The congregant has to feel the humiliation of Samson when he’s pressing out mill because of his inability to harness ambition and desire. The preacher must think of ways where his congregant can identify with the story that is being shared. When we preach we should make two covenants: one with God and the space we are communicating in.
The second area we must focus is colorful language. We have often aborted the rich language that should be used in preaching. We must always be mindful that preaching is both science and art. Language to the preacher is like a paint brush to Michelangelo. Listen, word choice is critical. The preacher must abandon lazy clichés and passive verbs. In the words of pastor and journalist John S. Dickerson, “The preacher must use language that captivates the ever decreasing attention span and assist people to see the big picture of the text and redemption with the words we share.” When preaching narratively, we should retell the story with eloquence and contemporary flare. Though we live in a text, tweet, Instagram, and limited vocabulary driven culture, the preacher must never allow this to weaken his communication edge. Language should be colorful, dramatic, and intense. There is nothing more underwhelming than telling a story about life with dead words or speaking of joy with somber words and tone. A weighted word can be just as penetrating as a demonstrative act or gesture in the pulpit.
Finally, one of the greatest challenges to effective narrative preaching is the lack of internalization. The preacher must live in the text. No, really live in the text! Get in the slave camp with the Israelites and carry the emotional and physical burden and bruises of slave life. Walk into Samson’s cell and sit next to him. The thoughtful proclaimer will reach out to feel the mucus in the belly of the great fish that swallowed Jonah and tap into the Syrophencian’s woman’s panicked, possibly blood shot, eyes and disheveled hair from worry when she discovered her daughter was demon-possessed. When you recount the event of the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea, let the people feel the temperature of the day, the pain in their ankles, and the surprise on their faces when God intervened. Serious consecrated internalization can result in eye contact and inclined tone of voice, but, most importantly, a sincerity of spirit that will resonate with the hearer. In every story there is pulse, emotion, and blood. Let the blood of chaotic circumstances, culture, and our Savior’s cross fall from your lips and ooze from your shoes to the pews and up to the souls of the people you proclaim the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to.
George L Parks, Jr. is the Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in North Little Rock and Conway, Arkansas.