7 Hacks for Preaching Narrative Texts
Everyone loves a good story, and every story in the Bible is good. I mean, like, better-than-Hollywood good. Not only do stories, by their very nature, keep the listener’s engaged, but they also allow for our God-given imaginations to run wild. Preaching narrative texts are by far my favorite passages to preach. Since over 70% of the Bible is written in narrative form, that’s a good thing.
Enjoying a good story and preaching one in front of a congregation, however, are very different. It’s a great feeling when you are ready to preach a narrative text. It can be a sinking feeling, though, when you are wondering “Where in the world do I start?” Narrative passages can be a blast to preach but nightmares to prepare. One of my preaching professors at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Argile Smith, taught me how to prepare a sermon from a narrative text. Combined with things I have learned over the years, here are seven hacks to help you when preparing to preach a story from the Bible.
1. Read the Story in Several Translations.
Pick three to five different translations of the Bible and read the story in each. You will be amazed at how different words or phrases jump out at you that lead you to explore further. I highly recommend The Message or The New Living Translation (NLT) to be at least one of your choices. These versions of the Bible add flavor and insight to spur your imagination.
2. Cast the Characters.
As if you were writing a script for a play, use a blank sheet of paper or a white board and list all of the characters listed in the story. List every character mentioned as if they would have a role to play if the Bible passage were being acted out. When you list out names and people, you will begin to ask questions like, “How has this person been used by God in the past?” Or, “How did these people come about?” Or, “Why is this person here in this story?”
Whether He is mentioned or not, ALWAYS start with God. He is always there and always at work. I encourage you to write the word “HERO” in parenthesis next to “God” to remind you of the true hero of every story in the Bible.
3. Navigate the Setting.
Every Bible story happened in a real, historical place during a real, historical time. On your piece of paper or white board, write down every place and geographical reference you see. Is a river mentioned? Right it down. Is a desert mentioned? Write it. Does the Bible say a tree is part of the setting? Mark that. Again, you will be amazed at what listing these places uncovers for your study. I remember one time I was preaching through the book of Acts. When I got to chapter 8, preparing to preach on the familiar passage of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, I noticed that the angel sent Philip on a desert road (Acts 8:26). Yet, once the eunuch is converted, he notices there is water (Acts 8:36)! Where did the water come from if it is a desert place? Only God can do that kind of thing! I would have never noticed this had I not stopped and noted the setting and terrain of the story.
4. Plot the Story with Scenes.
As with the characters, the next hack is to give the story scenes. Divide the story into different “Acts” if you will. As if you were producing a play where the curtain opens and closes to begin and end each scene, plot out the story in chunks of verses. Doing this helps you see how the biblical author presented the story. It lets you see and examine what is going on and how the story is told. It gives the story just a bit more clarity as you go through the preparation process.
5. Look for Laughs.
Honestly, this is my favorite part and one big reason why I love narrative texts. Preaching stories from the Bible allows the preacher to take liberty with the text without missing the point(s) of the passage. It’s what helps keep an audience engaged and involved in the story/sermon. For instance, I have always imagined Jonah in Jonah 4 sitting by the beach when the vine grows to cover his head, sipping a diet coke, eating fresh fruit, and listening to Jimmy Buffet as he awaits the wrath of God on the Ninevites. I have always imagined Deborah in Judges 4, judging under a palm tree, sipping a virgin pina colada out of a coconut while eating fresh pineapple. The stories in the Bible allow for imaginations to run wild, causing the audience to laugh, lean in, and stay engaged. Look for ways you can “stretch” your imagination. Look for key words and components in the story that bring it to life for your people. My assumption is you will be surprised how easy it is and how better engaged the congregation will be.
6. Pay Attention to the Tension.
I am 98% sure I stole this line from Andy Stanley. I am not sure what context he said it in, but it makes sense when putting together a sermon from a narrative passage of Scripture. After you have cast the characters and marked the setting and identified the scenes, you will have noticed a tension going on in the text. Someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do (Jonah), or someone doesn’t have a witness to share with them (Ethiopian eunuch), or Peter hasn’t dealt with his denials (John 21), or a fear-filled man is referred to as a warrior (Gideon). In every story, there is at least one area of tension. Pay attention to that. The tension in every story is—more than likely—the bread and butter for the sermon.
7. Resolve and Redeem.
Once you have identified the tension, ask, “How does God resolve this?” Or, “What does God do to fix this?” Sometimes it will be obvious. Other times, you will need to continue reading. Still other times the only resolution is found at the cross of Christ. Be careful here, though. Do NOT take your pre-conceived ideas to the text. Let the text show you how God works. God’s ways are not our ways. So often, even when we are reading and studying the Bible, we tell the Bible what we think should be happening. Please do not do that! Let the Bible tell you what God does and how He does it and preach it to your people!
Here is an example of what a whiteboard of Judges 6 looks like.
Here is a sermon I preached from Judges 4.
What are some hacks you use to help prepare a sermon from the great stories of the Bible?