Narrative and Memorization: What Role Does Memorization Play in Storytelling

 |  September 26, 2018

Everyone loves a good story, and Scripture is filled with them! Noah and the flood, Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, Ruth, and Jonah come to mind. Much of the Bible is written in narrative genre. All narratives have certain things in common: setting, characters, plot, rising tension, climax, resolution/conclusion—all framed in a chronological matrix. The art of storytelling is to tell the story well. The biblical writers have done this masterfully.

To preach narratives well requires a certain amount of memorization. I’m not talking about rote memorization of every single word or phrase you intend you use in preaching any biblical narrative—though there are occasions when that should be done! But preaching the narrative text does require a carefully thought-through plan of what you will say.

Sermon introductions should be memorized so they can be presented with clarity, fluidity, and generate maximum interest up front. I once began a sermon on Solomon with this opening:

“Across the thick, lush, grass of the palace lawn fall the shadows of trees transplanted from distant forests. Fishpools, fed by artificial streams, are perpetually ruffled with golden scales darting from water cave to water cave. In the royal gardens, beautiful flowers spangle their rainbow colors everywhere. Peacocks strut the walkways and deer stalk the parkways. In the royal stable I hear the neighing of four thousand horses, standing in blankets of Tyrian purple and chewing their bits over troughs of gold. In the royal garage are housed 1400 chariots, awaiting the visit of dignitary to be brought out on parade…”

My introduction continued painting a visual picture of Solomon’s grandeur, all derived from what the Bible says about Solomon. To be effective, this kind of introduction has to be memorized and delivered with care and finesse.

Preaching narrative texts require fewer illustrations because the story itself, in one sense, is one big illustration. For example, the Abraham/Isaac narrative in Genesis 22 is one of the most gripping stories in the Bible. From beginning to end, from the reading of the text to the delivery of the sermon, and on to the conclusion, the story must be told well. Most narratives contain textual clues to help you preach them. Notice how the author of Genesis 22 creates the rising tension by the staccato use of Hebrew verbs leading to the climactic moment: Abraham “built” an altar and “placed” the wood and “bound” Isaac and “laid” him on the altar, and “raised” his hand and “took” the knife…. This should be reflected in your preaching. Tell it well!

Narrative texts like this should be memorized as much as possible so that in the preaching event, the account can be preached with maximum eye contact with the audience. When illustrations are employed, they should be memorized and rehearsed so that they flow during the sermon.

Memorize your transition sentences throughout the sermon. Craft these with clarity. You want the people to make the journey with you and not fall out of the vehicle along the way!

Finally, the conclusion of the story (and the conclusion of the sermon) is no place to be fumbling around with notes are disparate thoughts clumsily expressed. Think it through ahead of time and get it into your mind.

Stay away from notes as much as possible when preaching narrative texts. In fact, stay away from notes as much as possible period in your preaching! The more you have in your mind, the easier the flow during delivery and the greater the impact on the audience.

When it comes to preaching the stories of the Bible, whatever you do, tell it well. And that will require a certain amount of memorization!

David L. Allen is the Dean of the School of Preaching, Distinguished Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching, and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Preaching Source.

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