First Person Narrative Sermons
Taking advantage of the power of drama and the pull of story
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Any preacher worth an honorarium knows the challenge of preaching on Christmas and Easter. How can I add special force to my sermons on these important days and bring some spice to a few other Sunday sermons throughout the year?
I offer one suggestion that has consistently worked for me. At Christmas, Easter, and once or twice during the year, I have my congregation approach the Bible through a first-person expository sermon.
The essential distinctive of a first-person sermon is we tell the story from the vantage-point of one character in the narrative. For example, the biblical story of Ruth was written from a third-person perspective, in which the unnamed narrator stands outside the story as he tells it. To preach Ruth from a first-person perspective you enter into the story and retell it from the vantage point of Boaz, Ruth, Naomi, or any other eyewitness to what transpired.
First-person sermons are highly effective because they combine the personal presence of drama with the power of story. This makes first-person sermons well-suited for communicating the message of Scripture to audiences who may know the TV Guide better than their Bibles.
A first-person sermon gains people's attention and holds it. Nevertheless you as the preacher still need to say something significant based on God's Word. But how? To demonstrate how you might go about preparing a first-person sermon, let me show what I did to prepare my Easter message this year.
A first-person sermon starts with either a character or a text. A Scripture passage may suggest an individual, or your interest in a character may lead you to a text. This year I started with a character. I have long been fascinated by Cleopas, one of the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The story raised questions in my mind: Who was he? Where was Emmaus located? How could Cleopas and his companion spend several hours walking with Jesus without recognizing him? These questions drew me to Luke 24:13–35.
After selecting a text and character, it's time for further study. A survey of several key passages where the character is mentioned may reveal some helpful information about that person. You may consult a Bible handbook, Bible Dictionary, Bible commentary or even books of historical fiction to learn more about your character.
In your study of the text, the main objective is to understand what the passage is talking about, its main idea. In Luke 24:13–35, I found the central idea on the other side of a forest of questions. What kept Cleopas and his companion from recognizing Jesus when he first caught up with them on the road? Since Cleopas and his companion had expected Jesus to redeem Israel, what was Cleopas' understanding of redemption? Why did Jesus disappear when they finally recognized him? What is significant about their recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread?
Determining the central thought of a biblical text is often the hardest work in sermon preparation. Narrative passages can make this work especially challenging because seldom does the narrator state his idea directly. However difficult it may be, it is absolutely essential to determine the focus of the passage. To tell a story without understanding it is just blowing fog. After some study, I was able to clearly state Luke's idea: Cleopas came to see that the suffering and death that he thought had disqualified Jesus as Messiah, in fact uniquely qualified Jesus to be the Messiah.
Once you've grasped what the biblical writer is saying, you are ready to identify your purpose. Why are you preaching this sermon? With a clear purpose in mind, a sermon will have the unmistakable ring of relevance. I wanted my sermon to do three things: First, I wanted non-Christians to see that Jesus' suffered on the cross for their sin. Second, I wanted the congregation to feel the hope of God. Third, I desired for my listeners to have a burning heart experience with Jesus.
Keeping the purpose and idea of the biblical story in mind, it is important to determine the stance of your character in relation to the audience. The character's stance is where he or she stands in time to retell the story. In my Easter sermon, I had to decide whether I would take the audience back to the first century or whether I would bring Cleopas forward to our day.
Determining the character's stance is fundamental to the logic and consistency of your sermon. Where you position a character in time affects what he or she knows about the modern world. If you take the audience back in time, the character speaking in his day would know nothing about our day or many of our contemporary issues.
You may choose to bring the character forward into the present. Given this stance, it seems reasonable that he or she would be at least somewhat aware of the modern world. This stance may make it easier to speak directly to the audience, but be careful. The power of narrative comes in part by its indirect impact. When you tell a story, the audience lets down their guard to listen. If a first-person portrayal is too direct, your listeners may become defensive. What they hear is a thinly veiled sermon.
Whatever stance you choose, be consistent with it. If your character stands in the biblical world, be careful to avoid anachronism. That is, make sure all the references made in the sermon are consistent with what someone in that day would have known. Even if you bring a character forward in time, think through the details. How familiar is this person with our day? Consistency is key.
All this talk about stance may sound like much ado about nothing, but many first-person sermons unravel at this point. Poor attention to stance will either confuse your listeners or frustrate their imagination. Clarity and consistency of stance will significantly affect the believability and ultimately the impact of your message. For the stance of my sermon, I decided to bring Cleopas to the modern world to tell his story.
Now you are ready to state the homiletical or preaching idea. This involves stating the idea of the passage in a way that is relevant to your audience. Here's the homiletical statement for my Easter sermon: That Easter, when I finally saw who Jesus was, I discovered that it really had been a "Good" Friday after all. Although this idea is stated from the perspective of Cleopas, I tried to keep my audience in mind with references to Easter and Good Friday.
Now it's time to bring structure to your sermon. There are at least three ways to organize a first-person message. You may choose either a chronological, dramatic, or psychological structure. Chronological structure follows a sequence of time. You retell the events in the story in the order they happened.
A psychological structure begins the story at a point in time but interrupts the chronological continuity of the story to recount earlier episodes in the character's life. These episodes are not necessarily retold in the order they occurred but in the way they stand out in the character's mind. The episodes within the narrative skip around in time. A psychological structure may prove helpful in tightening the climactic strings of a story.
It may be more helpful to think of the structure of the sermon like the scenes of a play. The Book of Ruth is organized by scenes. The opening scene tells us Naomi's dire situation. The next two scenes, in chapters two and three, complicate the situation. Then the final chapter and closing scene resolves the action.
To look at these three structures another way, first-person sermons may be organized either by unfolding events, by psychological episodes, or by scenes. I chose to develop my Easter sermon psychologically.
Once the sermon is structured, you are ready to write a sermon manuscript. A manuscript strengthens a sermon in three ways. First, a sermon manuscript helps to polish wording. Words are powerful. Choosing words well can make a good sermon great. Second, writing the sermon helps make sure that important details in the story are included. Finally, the process of writing forces you to think through the sermon. When you stand up to tell the story, you already know where you're going.
Once you have planned what you want to say, you are ready to think about how you will present it. There are three aspects to the presentation of a first person sermon: physical movement, delivery, and costuming.
In any kind of sermon—traditional or first-person—our movements communicate. Whether they communicate what we want them to say is determined to some degree by our understanding of movement. As you read through your sermon manuscript, decide where you will position yourself in each scene. Make sure your placement on the stage supports what you are saying.
We must deliver a first-person sermon without notes. Notes get in the way of an authentic presentation. But preaching without notes does not require that you memorize your manuscript. Word-for-word memorizing also hinders an authentic presentation. Rather, try to experience the story as you tell it through the character's eyes. Eye contact, movement, and gestures will all be more natural if you relive the story in your imagination rather than recite a memorized script. Let your vocal and physical response come from within and be appropriate to the character you are presenting.
If you are going to be intentional in your movement and confident in your delivery, then some rehearsal is essential. I try to set my manuscript aside and talk through the entire sermon at least once before I preach. Think through the structure of the sermon. In doing so, it can be beneficial to position yourself on the platform as you picture each scene, episode, or event. If that is not possible, then picture the stage in your mind and imagine where you will position yourself as you talk through the sermon.
Costumes, make-up, and props all deserve consideration as you plan your presentation of a first-person sermon. While a costume is not essential to the success of a first-person sermon, a well designed costume may enhance your presentation. I own several costumes that have been made for me over the years. In most cities you can rent quality costumes from costume shops. You can use props along with a costume or sometimes in place of a costume, but props can also get in the way.
You may want to consider using make-up if it can be applied effectively and if it enhances your costume. In my portrayal of Cleopas I made use of a beard. I have found that, used wisely, costumes, make-up, and props have the potential to make a memorable sermon unforgettable. At the same time, I can say from hard experience, "If in doubt, do without."
Next Easter, or Christmas, or maybe next month, why not climb into a story and tell it from a first-person perspective. It may just make an average Sunday special or a special Sunday great!
Torrey Robinson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Tarrytown, New York, and coauthor of It's All in How You Tell It (Baker, 2003).
This article appears in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, a comprehensive encyclopedia of preaching. Click here to purchase a copy of this book to have this invaluable resource on hand as you preach the Word!