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Stories Are for Adults (part 1)

Equipping preachers to communicate biblical narratives to adult audiences

When we preach, we want those listening to us to learn and apply God's Word to their lives. In order to accomplish this objective with adults, we would be wise to include narrative sermons from the narrative portions of Scripture in our preaching repertoire. How can we preachers ensure that the narrative sermons we preach reach their potential?

The first step in preaching what I call a story-shaping sermon is to interpret a biblical narrative from a literary perspective. Preachers who do not understand the literary dynamics of how the biblical writer fashioned his story will not understand the theological point he was making, nor how to harness the literary power of the original story in their sermons. While scores of books have been written on the literary dynamics of biblical narrative, perhaps the most important factor is the shape of the story. The mono-mythic cycle is a helpful tool that preachers can use to determine a story's shape.

Since conflict is inherently interesting, stories start with an inciting event. Something goes wrong with the summertime perfection we would all prefer. Stories spend most of their time exploring the increasing complications that occur as negative events unfold. As far as the protagonist is concerned, life is getting colder and colder—worse and worse. While a few biblical stories end in winter (these are called tragedies), most don't. The vast majority of biblical narratives enjoy a sudden reversal—a surprising twist in the plot that begins to return life to the bliss of summer. Stories do not have points. They make a single point. This point is revealed in the surprising twist—the moment of "aha" when the solution to the problem is revealed.

The point of a biblical story is always a theological point. We learn something about God and how to live in response to him when we understand a biblical story. The narrative literature of the Bible is concretized theology. The stories of Scripture examine abstract theological truths through the lens of real-life situations. Properly understood, biblical narratives discuss theology in an adult-learner oriented, "case study" approach.

Story-shaping sermons are an attempt to harness the natural advantages of narrative literature for the benefit of the adult listener. As the diagram below indicates, this sermon form shamelessly piggybacks upon the structure of the biblical narrative, while intentionally intertwining the lives of the listeners with the problem faced by the biblical protagonist. If this is done successfully, the problem of the biblical protagonist becomes the problem of the contemporary listener. As a result, the listener looks with interest at the critical choice made by the biblical protagonist to resolve his or her ancient problem—and decides whether to follow the protagonist's example in their contemporary situation.

Story shaping is a homiletical attempt to reshape the story of our listener's lives with the lives of the biblical narratives. Here is how it works, in six phases.

1. Personal identification with the biblical characters

Your sermon begins in the summer of the narrative. Your goal in this portion of your sermon is to help your audience identify with the biblical character. Build bridges between the biblical character and your audience. You want your audience to discover the ways in which their lives are linked to the lives of the biblical character. It may be helpful to ask yourself:

• Who is this person?
• Where do they live?
• What is their background, education level, profession, and social standing?
• In what ways are they like my audience?

2. Awareness that characters in stories can and must make choices

As you relate the "fall" difficulties being faced by the biblical character, show the parallel pressures in the life of your congregation. Biblical characters were real people. You want your congregation to feel the same tension and pressure that the biblical hero felt leading up to her or his decision. Harness this pressure to help your audience recognize that we cannot avoid making choices. The following questions will help clarify your thoughts.

• Is the biblical character a victim or a victimizer? Of whom or what?
• Does the character display a sense of powerlessness?
• Have you (or someone you know) ever felt the same way?

We learn something about God and how to live in response to him when we understand a biblical story.

Take time to go through the biblical story scene by scene and outline the parallels between the protagonist's story and the life story of the listeners. As you do, be sure to preserve the inherent tension of the story. If there is no tension or conflict in your sermon, there will be no interest. If there is no interest, there will be no life change.

This is a two-part article. In part two, Edwards addresses the final four phases of a story-shaping sermon.

Kent Edwards is professor of preaching and leadership, and director of the doctor of ministry program at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and author of Deep Preaching (B&H).

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