Recently, I read a book by Eugene Lowry called The Homiletical Plot: the Sermon as Narrative Art Form. It was a paradigm-shifting book as it suggests that sermons or messages should be more like stories than like a lecture presenting material in a structured and outlined manner. When Jesus was asked about who a 'neighbour' is, he didn't launch into a three point sermon with an introduction and conclusion. He told a story – a powerful one with the punch line right at the end. Jesus was a brilliant story-teller. In fact, he never spoke without using a story (often called 'parables'). Maybe there is more to learn from Jesus than just the 'content' of our message. He can teach us a lot about best the 'form' for effective communication.
Lowry encourages a new image for the sermon – see it as a sacred story, a homiletical plot, and a narrative art form. The best preaching feels like you are listening to a story in that you are guided along with interest and a sense of movement.
Great stories begin with tension and then gradually move towards resolution. In the same way, great sermons begin with an issue or a problem (the 'itch') and then move towards a solution (the 'scratch'), which is the 'good news'.
I experimented with this a little in a recent message I gave from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught about the discipline of secrecy (Matt.6:1-18). Rather than start with this teaching or solution (the 'scratch') I thought about what issue this teaching was helping us with (the 'itch'). I realised that Jesus was giving some advice to disciples who struggled with what we could call 'approval addition' – a need and desire to be seen. I began with this reality – our deep need for approval – then looked at the different ways we seek to meet that need, all of which are dead ends. I then moved to reminding everyone that in Christ, we have the approval we long for from our heavenly Father. However, even as disciples, we often fall back into approval-seeking behaviours and impression management. Jesus taught his disciples the discipline of secrecy as a spiritual practice to free us from the need to be seen or applauded by people.
It was an enjoyable way to present a message and felt more like taking people on a journey of discovery rather than presenting a neatly packaged lecture with a subject announced up front and three points before a conclusion. Maybe there is more to learn from Jesus and his Hebrew culture than from our Greek-influenced Western thinking patterns. Maybe that's why novels, stories, and movies are so popular. People love a story and when it addresses a real human need and offers hope – it inspires us all. Maybe sermons should be more like that.
The more you learn the more you realise how little you know …