The Power of Narrative Preaching (or: The Pastor as Dungeon Master)

By Rev. Samuel Blair
One of the side things I enjoy is playing fantasy roleplaying games with a group of friends online. Destroying giant bees ridden by bow-wielding goblins from the comfort of my office chair is always fun. However they can be very exciting not merely for the fun of fighting but the chance to create stories in imaginary worlds where choices are hard and have consequences.
For example at one point our group was challenged with several different paths: were we going to join forces with a dragon to fight a corrupt ruler, even if it meant burning down the whole city and probably many innocents? Would we join forces with a military insurgent against the rulers, likely having to fight the dragon as well as the ruler’s army? Or would we take advantage of a quick escape plan, letting both sides destroy each other and everyone else? No option was appealing to everyone, but we had little time to act. In the end, several members chose to leave while two chose to stay. Each group seemed surprised at the other’s choices, but as much as we tried to convince each other that our plan was best in the end the group split.

This was surprisingly moving to many of us. We talked afterward of our choices and how hard it was in some cases to do what we did. The story we made took on a significance outside that of just a game. It became a story of the choices people make when faced with doing good in an impossible situation.

This got me thinking about sermons, of all things.

Many sermons I’ve encountered have been largely intellectual and formulaic. Start with an anecdote that illustrates the theme or passage, present a thesis, give three or four fact points that support your thesis, present scriptures that support your points, and conclude. It’s how you write a convincing essay or term paper, which is frankly what seminarians spend a lot of time doing in seminary, and also explains why so many sermons sound like term papers.

The most memorable sermons I think are story-based. They’ve been stories designed to present a truth of scripture in a way that is narrative, meaningful and naturally captivating.  History itself began as an oral tradition designed to pass on truths from one generation to the next. They were myths and legends that presented truth not just as a declarative fact but as a narrative one as a way to reveal the human condition and give us ways to talk about unspeakable things, such as God and the universe. In that way they are relatable in a way that goes beyond their literal truth or falsehood.

Our sermons are based on scripture, and scripture is more often than not presented as narrative: the story of how the world was made, the stories of families in turmoil, the story of the Messiah. I think sometimes in presenting these stories preachers can become stuck on running them through an intellectual thresher, eliminating the overarching narrative in order to focus on individual verses or even words. Doing so though can reduce scripture to mere data to be processed. This not only does a disservice to God’s word, but removes us from its narrative completely.

Good stories, and storytellers, are able to present a narrative but wrap that narrative around us as listeners. Preachers can do the same, as author and preacher Fred Craddock writes, by not just speaking to the congregation but for them:

“We don’t tell them what they want to hear. …But now and then why not tell them what they want to say? The unused treasure of preaching is the experience, the faith, the commitment and love of those people, all of whom have a story to tell but they can’t articulate it. You can speak for them.”

In my own experience, I can say that the sermon bullet-points don’t last as long in my head and heart nearly as long as the testimonies I’ve heard from the pulpit. Those are the stories and messages that have shaped my life and I share them with others hoping that they can shape their life as well.

So what does this have to do with roleplaying games? Lots.

In our game, the story is driven by a narrator who not only guides our actions and encounters but does so by creating a rich and vivid world where those actions and encounters take place. We as players not only listen to the story but bring ourselves into it, shaping it and moving it along. But when we write our character into the story, we write ourselves into it as well. Perhaps our character shares some of our frustrations or hopes in life. Perhaps he’s been hurt by the same things that have hurt us, or maybe she’s who we would really be with our masks off. The story can become something beyond a fun adventure, but can become a way to see something about ourselves or the world.

In a similar way, great sermons allow us to enter the world presented from the pulpit rather than simply being told about it. The Gospel is not data to be digested and regurgitated when necessary. It is a story about God ultimately about us as well.

Rev. Samuel Blair is a hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator in Pittbsurgh, PA. He co-hosts the Church of the Geek podcast with Rev. Brian Bennet, and is the creator of chaplainsreport.com. A form of this post originally appeared there in January 2018 and can be found at here.

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