Is Storytelling Sermonics Sufficient?

Narrative preaching and inductive preaching have become popular in recent years.  At one level it taps into Jesus' manner of preaching (parables), but preaching inductively is not easy.  Simply standing up and telling a few stories may prove entertaining, but may not get us very far.  Narrative preaching when most effective assumes that the audience has a connection with the biblical story, but unfortunately in most of our mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches there is a lack of knowledge of the biblical story.  I might have issues with the way conservative evangelicals interpret the biblical text, but they do use it.

Now, I must confess that I'm not a good story teller.  I'm much more likely to read non-fiction, theological books, than fiction.  Much of the narratives I connect with come from movies or TV.  I'm also trained as a theologian (focus on historical theology), so I'm probably more comfortable with theology than story.  But, having made the confession, I am concerned that in our rush to experience focused faith, we may leave behind substance.  

My reflections on this topic were stirred by my reading of Susan Hedahl's new book in the Fortress Resources for Preaching -- Proclamation and Celebration: Preaching on Christmas, Easter, and Other Festivals (Fortress Resources for Preaching), (Fortress, 2012).  Hedahl is teaches preaching at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg.  

She offers this critique of Narrative Preaching:

The impact of the last several decades of so-called narrative preaching, usually defined as "storytelling," a mode of sermonic construction, has been particularly troublesome in this regard [lacking doctrinal connectivity].  Doctrine and teachings often receive less attention in this more experientially slanted type of proclamation.  It is a form of preaching that can be effective but is difficult to do well.  Hermeneutical work is more heavily weighted toward what the pew sitter might make of the sermon than what the preacher proclaims. 
This type of preaching frequently reflects lack of congregational instruction in evangelism, the catechumenate, mission, and Christian education.  At its worst, it becomes only a "feel-good" form of proclamation.,  Unfortunately, the impact of such preaching, with its own set of beguilements and assets, has been so widespread that one must ask what new models of proclamation are in process today that might offset its problems.  (p. 16)
Whether you're a preacher or not, I'd like to ask the question -- how do we bring into our discourse as Christians, the doctrinal component in a way that is open, but seriously attentive to the ongoing tradition of the faith.  The Bible is, I would assert, more than a set of stories that we can use to begin our own conversations.  It is the fountain, out of which we have been over the course of time, drawing to fuel our engagement with God.  Doctrine need not be dry and off-putting.  It needn't be tied into propositions, but it does, it seems to me, require that we attend to the substance of what we believe.   What say ye?


Anonymous said…
The absence of a solid base of biblical understanding and the fragile character of theological ideas in many liberal churches is disheartening. I think that preaching can be filled with content (biblical and theological) and still include stories from life and an inductive form. But it is hard to do.
Robert Cornwall said…


There is a serious lack of core biblical/theological understanding, for preachers to tap into. Plus, inductive preachers like Craddock make story-telling look so easy that too many preachers are lulled into believing that telling a few stories is sufficient to care the message.

Craddock does make it look easy, but LeBron James makes dunking a basketball look easy. It's not!
Kate said…
What I know about using stories in sermons I learned from Ira Glass and This American Life. He describes good story telling as telling a narrative, getting the train going, and pausing every once in a while to universalize the experience being talked about in the story. Your sermon of other sheep could have been told with a story from your life about a time you've felt left out, and the generalization could've been talking about the way that the early Church struggled with insider and outsider status, and how in the end, we are all one body of Christ.

Am I misunderstanding what you're talking about when you're saying that stories don't make good sermons? When I think about sermons about Dogma, I think about the homilies I've heard at Catholic churches about birth control and abortion, which are about dogma but ignore lived experience. When I think about theological ideas... they all come from lived experiences, I don't know why they couldn't be illustrated with stories?

I'd much rather hear a story, one that shows us that while we're learning and interpreting the bible, we're also part of a human experience which has, in reality, changed little in the last 4000+ years (to include the old testament).
Robert Cornwall said…

Thanks for the response!!

Ira Glass is an excellent story teller, and stories are valuable carriers of meaning. The question is -- is that sufficient.

Is there a place for theology? That is a different question than should sermons be dogmatic, as you note.

I try to find a balance -- don't always get there!!!
Kate said…
Stories alone are probably not sufficient, but I don't think it needs to be as complicated as induction or parables. I think it its about the human story, and how we can find theological meaning and Christan practice in it.
David said…
I agree. Theology is best exemplified as Jesus did, in novel form. Then, followed by theologically pointing to obvious connections to ancient wisdom. Always, humbly, only hinting at possible relations. It's about feeling connected. It's like feeling our way in near darkness. The truth doesn't always have to be like an elephant. We often feel the same way. When that happens, it's a great sermon story.
Robert Cornwall said…
Kate and David,

Thanks for the replies. My hope in setting this out was to start a conversation, which I did. There are great sermons that are story formed. There are also really bad ones, and I've heard too many of these. But doctrinal sermons can be dull and dead, so as you note Kate, bringing theology into connection with the human story is essential!

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