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How to preach biblical narratives
In the latest installment of the Preaching & Teaching series, Pastor Mark Driscoll answers a reader’s question about how to tackle preaching the longer, narrative books in Scripture.
When preaching God’s Word, how do you approach biblical narratives like Kings or Chronicles? Is expository preaching the best way to approach every single verse of the Bible? Your help is greatly appreciated on this. If possible, I would like to ask you to pray for me. My church is preparing me for ordination soon. I am really excited and nervous at the same time.
Seth, I am praying for your ordination. Congratulations on coming to the end of what was probably a very long process by God’s grace!
Understanding the genres of literature is absolutely crucial for a preacher or teacher. As you have rightly indicated, the variance in literary styles has to affect how we preach various sections of the Bible.
I believe in expository preaching. It has been the meat and potatoes of my ministry at Mars Hill for 17 years now. But we have to make sure our methodology does not turn into “methodolatry.” We can’t take one method and shoehorn everything into it. Perhaps the oddest example I have encountered was a pastor preaching through Genesis who landed on the sin of Onan on Mother’s Day. He talked a lot about whether or not the passage addressed masturbation. Good text. Bad day. He was so committed to expository preaching he would not even take Mother’s Day off to preach from another section of the Bible.
Variance in literary styles has to affect how we preach.
Some books of the Bible do not lend themselves well to expository preaching. Proverbs is the easiest example. To preach Proverbs, you have to collect them into topics or it’s impossible to get anywhere.
Preaching a New Testament letter is also different from preaching an Old Testament narrative. When I have preached through letters written by Paul, such as Ephesians or 1 Corinthians, it’s pretty easy to take a chunk of text and walk through it line by line in each sermon. But if you do that with Genesis or Luke, you will be preaching those books for decades. Also, since narratives are heavy on character development, unfolding plots, and the interrelationships between people and generations, if you do not deal with the book in large chunks people will lose sight of the storyline and interconnectedness of the entire book.
1. Break it down
Break the book into the logical units. How does the story unfold? As you do this, some sections will be quite long.
2. Teach section-by-section
Rather than reading one verse at a time and then teaching on it, as you would in a book like Romans, when you have a long narrative section, read it all at the front of the sermon, then summarize the context and explain how the section fits into the story of the book and how the story of the book fits into the storyline of the whole Bible.
3. Look for the big idea
Pull a big idea, or a few big ideas, from the story and make those the centerpiece of your sermon, where you focus your teaching. This might be a moral example (positive or negative), an explanation of how God worked in the story, an opportunity to talk about the effects of sin in the story, an illustration of redemption or another common principle articulated throughout the Bible, a key statement or phrase in the story worth camping on, etc.
4. Break it up
You can take a very long book, divide it into sections, and preach it in an expository fashion, just not all at once. For example, I just started preaching Acts, which, according to the outline of the book I did, will require 58 sermons. Of course, this total depends on how I feel led by the Holy Spirit to slow down and focus on a few verses. (This just happened in Ephesians: Halfway through a sermon, I decided to make it two sermons, so we added a week to the schedule. It happens. Don’t worry about it.)
Anyway, I do not want to preach Acts for 58 consecutive weeks. But I do want to preach Acts. So I am preaching it over the course of five to seven years. Our big run is from January through Easter. After Easter, we need all of the new people to understand Jesus’ mission and how our church is a part of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world today. The story in Acts fits perfectly for this, so I will preach a chunk of the book for the first eight to 12 weeks after Easter each year until we’re through the book. This year we’re in Acts 1–5. Next year I’ll work through Acts 6–10, etc.
For a long book with units of thought within the book, this system could work well. Rather than preaching all 150 Psalms in a row, for example, working in sections of Psalms over the course of many years could be a good way to go.
Staying makes it easier
These are recommendations and not rules. I hope they are helpful. As someone who has stayed in one place for awhile, I would say the longer you stay the easier it is to work out your preaching and teaching because you have time over many years to cover a lot of Scripture—which is a tremendous blessing and a great joy.
Got a question about preaching and teaching for Pastor Mark? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org