Against Practical Preaching; or, Why Stories are Practical
“Our daughter is just like a baby hippo,” my wife says to me as I hang up my coat. up. “After we watched a video of hippos munching whole watermelons, she sat down to her own watermelon lunch. She gobbled them up with those same puffy cheeks and big eyes.” My wife finished telling me the story of the rest of her day full of reviewing Norse myths, math lessons, and dirty diapers.
“But,” I asked, “how does that apply to me?”
We may cringe at this response, but suppose we transpose this story and these characters from the home to the church. My wife is the preacher and I am the congregant. She tells me a story about Jesus or Jehoahaz, Samson or Samuel. Would my response then be wise or practical?
Unfortunately, many contemporary preachers are training their congregations to have precisely that response—a response that serves as an obstacle to achieving the very thing that pastors desire for their congregations: sanctification.
In too many Christian circles, biblical stories or poems have become thin, barely necessary shells for the applications or imperatives contained within. These imperative-hunters are well-meaning. They want God’s word to change people, to be practically beneficial, leaving behind the contemplation of the sages for the commotion of the “real world,” where plot structure, subtle characterizations, or arcane allusions grate against the exigencies of existence.
Well-meaning but off the mark.
Hidden under the virtuous impulses is belief that the fundamental mechanism for transformation is the command. There’s an attractive logic in this belief because people often do change their behavior when given a command. The problem, however, is that God disagrees. And his disagreement is clear in the very form of Scripture.
The foundation of preaching is that the preacher must speak to his people as God has spoken to us. Strangely and surprisingly, commands are relatively rare in the Bible. At least rare in comparison to stories, poetry, and other genres that have highly indicative content.
But let us think more specifically. How much the material in Scripture is commands compared to non-command forms of discourse? And one clarification. There are plenty of commands within narratives and poetry, but we are interested in the frequency of commands for the original recipients of the book in Scripture. We are not looking at the commands given to characters within stories.
Let us start at the beginning. If the first recipients of Genesis were the wilderness generation (a standard Evangelical opinion) how many imperatives were there for them? 0. Many may immediately retort, “But there are many commands and applications. God gave commands like ‘be fruitful and multiply.’” Absolutely, and these are certainly applicable to us. But they are commands that were first given to the characters in the story and as we shall see, we must not omit the critically important step of enter another person's world. We must leave our lives and empathetically imagine the life of another. More on this later.
What about Exodus? 0. Leviticus? 0. Samuel, Judges, or Kings? 0. Kings? What about Matthew? 0.
If most of the Bible is not commands, then either God is not primarily interested in transformation or the command is not the primary means of transformation. Many modern preachers have come to believe that the fundamental mechanism for transformation is the imperative, that is, the command. They believe that sanctification happens by means of commands. But if the very form of the Bible calls that assumption into question, then what is the mechanism of transformation?
The story of David and Bathsheba offers a study in another form of sanctification. After David sins with Bathsheba, Nathan comes to David and strangely does not confront and command him to repent. Instead, he tells him a story. And he tells him a story because Nathan is wise enough to know that commands would have been unable to access David’s soul. Perhaps it was because the the sin was so great, so grave, so deeply embedded in the soil of David’s soul that Nathan needed a more potent means of extirpation. Or perhaps Nathan knows that David is already too self-involved and needs to take his attention off himself in order to be able to see himself properly. Nathan does command David, but only after the story has done its work.
Commands are one of the tools for transformation but when overused they have liabilities. Leaning too heavily on commands allows listeners to continue to think of themselves. Parishioners who have been immersed in years of “practical preaching” expect every verse to be about them, providing lists of things to do or things about which to feel guilty. They may love the sermon and find it encouraging, but the type of self-focus engendered by pragmatic lists often lacks the kind of transporting and transformative power that storytelling creates.
Jeff Meyers, pastor of Providence Church (PCA), said, “Be careful of giving your congregation lists of things to do. People love feeling guilty.” Receiving to-do lists and feeling guilt over failures gives the congregation a sense of accomplishment. There are clear things to be done, I haven’t done them, I repent, and I know what to do. Perhaps there is more homiletical work to be done than to-do lists.
But the importance of spending much time preaching the text and not long lists of applications is important for another deep theological reason. God has chosen to communicate most of the time in indicative forms a particular reason. One of the central theses of the Bible in general and the Apostle Paul in particular is that what Adam and Israel failed to do, Jesus did.
Both Adam and Israel were given a special land and commands and both, in the end, disobeyed and were exiled. And if the Bible is about Jesus is doing what we could not, it is not surprising that how God would choose to relate that would be largely in stories. That is, a form of communication that forces you to focus on someone else’s life. If you want to focus people’s attention on someone else and what they did, then talk about that person and what they did. In a beautiful literary act, God inscribed this theological truth in the very form of revelation.
The story form itself is a training in selflessness. It can draw men and women out of their world and into the worlds of others where they can see people who love different things and wrestle with different demons. There, you must set aside your loves and worries and take on another's. It was by pulling David into another person's world that Nathan was able to show him with powerful and painful clarity his sin. The path to repentance and redemption for David was through another man’s story.
One of the great revolutions in the past 30 years has been the realization (and the concomitant research) that the Bible is highly sophisticated and deep literature. Every word and phrase builds complex plots and persons, unfolding webs of interweaving themes, surprising plotting, and, in the end, a sublime work of moral, aesthetic, and theological beauty. Thus, there is an abundance of writing available to the pastor to help him and his congregation linger over the lives and literature of the Bible.
An architectural conclusion. In the last eight chapters of Ezekiel, God shows the eschatological temple to Ezekiel and tells him to “describe to the house of Israel the temple, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities.” (43:10). Note well, Ezekiel’s sermon, given by God, is to describe architectural plans. This includes the height and depth of the walls, the number of entrances and exits, the floorplan, and much more. This would be considered eminently impractical material by many modern preachers. But apparently the Divine Teacher believes that architectural plans are both important and will lead to shame for “iniquities.” It is by a concentrate study of the impractical, attention to the new and unfamiliar that the familiar contours of our life begin to be formed. And while there is a prima facie impracticality in spending hours on another’s architecture, poetry ,or stories (as there is in any absorption in a great work of beauty - novel, film, or song), that delight in another’s world is the door to transformation.