Chapter 1 Gone Fishing

I thought I was taking a day off. Little did I know that I was about to learn more about preaching, on the Pecos River than I did in the Seminary classroom. My fishing partner that day was one of my editors, Ed Rowell, who was in transition between working as an editor at Leadership Journal to become the Managing editor of Growing Churches Magazine and Proclaim!, a preaching journal. On the drive from Albuquerque to my favorite spot on the Pecos, Ed told me about some of the plans he had for the magazines, then we started talking about one of his favorite subjects: preaching.

Ed told me about Narrative Preaching. At first I misunderstood what he was saying and discounted it as just telling a bunch of stories instead of really "preaching the Word." But he wasn't talking about skyscraper preaching putting one story on top of another. Narrative preaching, as Ed explained it, was restructuring the content of a sermon to follow a plot line that builds suspense until the point of the sermon emerges, relieves the tension and illuminates the truth. Instead of "telling them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them," narrative preachers guide their listeners through a series of plot movements. It doesn't change the content of the sermon; it just restructures it.

He recommended that I read The Homiletical Plot by Eugene Lowry. I bought the book a couple days later and read it several times, trying to understand the concept, but I was having a hard time moving from being a 3-point propositional preacher to becoming a narrative preacher. The book explained the concept well, but it didn't give me any examples of how to write the sermons. Luckily, Ed was willing to coach me. I'd write a sermon, email it to him and he'd give me some feedback. Finally, I knew I was catching on when he asked me if he could publish one of the sermons I'd sent him in Proclaim!.

I found that understanding the movements of a plot was one thing, writing plot-driven sermons was another. Throughout the process, I wished I had some examples to study. That is why I am writing this ebook, to provide you with the basics of plot development, and to give you some examples of sermons that harness the power of the plot. Before we get to the sermons though, I'd like to briefly explain the elements of the plot using the letter "W."

Plot Movements

The sermon begins with a state of normality but the preacher quickly introduces a problem or obstacle for the listener to overcome. This stage of the sermon upsets the audience's equilibrium and creates a need for them to participate in the sermon. It raises the question or introduces conflict.

The second movement of the plot releases some of the tension created by the first movement. It is an attempt to answer the question or resolve the conflict, but it fails to give the ultimate answer or resolution.

The third movement increases the tension or "thickens the plot" it introduces reasons why the second movement did not answer the question or resolve the conflict by introducing new information or showing why the first attempt to answer the question was inadequate.

The final movement of the plot releases the tension, resolves the conflict, makes the point of the sermon, and gives the practical application. It is where grace is applied to the human condition and a redemptive purpose is illumined.

The peak created by the second and third movement can be replicated several times in the same sermon. The sermon can go from first movement to a series of 2nd & 3rd movements before introducing the final movement. In other words, I don't mean to suggest that a plot only moves 4 times. There are many twists and turns in most plots resulting in a series of mountain peaks and valleys between the introduction of the tension in the first movement and the ultimate resolution of the tension in the final movement.

These peaks and valleys are the key to sustaining interest in the sermon. There is an art to maintaining and releasing tension, much like there is an art to landing a big fish with a fly rod. Whenever I get a small fish on the line, I usually just "horse" it in, reeling the line in as fast as I can, get the hook out of its mouth and either release the fish back into the stream or put it in my creel to take home. But it is different when a large fish hooks up. I immediately raise my eight-foot fly rod into the air and allow the fiberglass rod to maintain a tight line. If the fish wants to run, I let it take line, but I keep the drag adjusted on the reel to always keep the line tight. The bowed rod keeps a certain amount of tension on the fish, the drag regulates the speed it can take line while maintaining the tension, because I know that the minute I let the line go slack, the fish will spit out the hook and get away. When the fish tires of running, I reel in more line, when it starts running again, I let it take more line, because I know that eventually, the fish will tire and I can reel it in without resistance. I use the rod to direct the fish where I want it to go, even when it is running. I try to keep it away from any brush or rocks where it could break the leader and get free. The fish is running, but it is a controlled run.

The reeling and running processes are similar to the 2nd and 3rd movements of the narrative sermon—creating and releasing tension. This is the part of fishing that takes the greatest skill and has the highest probability of failure. Every fisherman has a story of the "big one that got away" and so does every preacher. Oh, most people won't get up and walk out of a service, but their eyes will glaze over and their mind will wander elsewhere. Wouldn't it be great to see people literally sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for what you are going to say next? That can only happen if there is an element of mystery to the sermon and if they cannot anticipate what you are going to say next.

About the same time as my fishing trip with Ed, I walked into the auditorium early one Sunday morning and saw one of my members filling in the fill-in-the-blank outline I put in the bulletin each Sunday. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Church hasn't even started and you're already filling in the blanks?" "Oh, I love these inserts you put into the bulletin each week," she said. "I usually fill in the blanks before you preach." "Do you usually get them right?" I asked. "Yeah, most of the time." She replied. "It might not be the same word you use, but I'm usually pretty close." Am I that predictable? I thought. Yeah, I guess I am. But I'm not alone, I'd say so are most preachers. Not only are we not saying anything that a seasoned church member doesn't already know, but also we are saying it in such a way that they can finish most of our sentences for us. Unfortunately, we've become cliché.

That doesn't happen with Narrative sermons. Last year I digitized a year's worth of sermons and burned them on a CD for members of our congregation to have. I was forced to listen to the sermons as I digitized them, to my surprise, I didn't even know what I was going to say next. The twists and turns of the plot kept me from even being able to anticipate myself.

Back to the fishing analogy, if the 2nd & 3rd movements of the sermon are reeling and running, the 1st movement in the sermon is presenting the bait and setting the hook, the last movement is netting the fish and releasing it back into the stream or putting it into the creel.

Movement 1 — Presenting the bait & setting the hook
Movement 2 — Reeling
Movement 3 — Running
Movement 4 — Netting

Since I learned the power of the plot, I've developed five different types of Narrative sermons. They are:

  1. Biblical Narrative—This is the easiest type of narrative sermon to write, telling a Bible Story and making the application at the end. You probably already have some sermons like this in your sermon file.
  2. Weaver's Sermon—This is one of the most difficult to write, but most rewarding to listen to. It weaves a Biblical narrative with a personal story, alternating between the two and resolves with a common message at the end.
  3. Punch–Line Preaching—Like a Comedian who tells a long story to set up a punch line, with this type of sermon, the preacher uses a long illustration to shine a bright spotlight on a text.
  4. Who Done It?—Like a good mystery book, this type of sermon gives clues to possible resolutions of a problem or answers to a question and by a process of elimination reveals the truth at the end. This type of sermon has a lot of 2nd and 3rd movements in it.
  5. Serial Preaching— differs from Series preaching because each sermon ends with a cliffhanger that will be answered next week. In effect, it ends on movement 1, not movement 4.

The pages that follow explain how to write five different types of narrative sermons and gives three examples of each type. On the left column is a commentary on the sermon's plot development, on the right is the sermon itself. I've divided the movements by alternating between no shading and shading in the boxes to make it easier to distinguish when there is a change.

Jesus said, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Matthew 4:19 NASB) I doubt if he had a sermon structure in mind when he gave His call to these disciples, but his words remind me of the day I spent in the Pecos River with a friend, catching fish and learning how to catch men.

—How to Write Narrative Sermons