By Doug Oss
Have you ever stayed up late because you could not put down a book? What was it about the book that kept you reading? Odds are that the author succeeded in creating suspense through his or her skillful use of complication, and you had to see what was about to happen next. Compare this novel with a nonfiction textbook that contains good information, but can put you to sleep in the middle of the day, even after three cups of coffee. Have you ever wished that textbooks would read more like suspenseful novels while retaining the same level of instruction? Now put yourself in the shoes of a listener in a Sunday morning worship service.
Creating a more interesting, even suspenseful, communicator-listener dynamic in preaching is possible. It is easier to create suspense when preaching from narrative texts because the author has built suspense into the story. But it is possible, using basic plot structure, to craft sermons from any genre of Scripture that will interest your listeners.
Stepping Outside the Box With Sermon Structure
Pastors need to consider image rather than illustration when attempting to make a message memorable. In fact, the traditional view of illustrations probably has outlived its usefulness in our culture. It is much easier for a listener to recall an image (photograph, movie clip, song, story) other kinds of illustrative material. An image linking a key analogy to the central biblical principle of a sermon helps plant that principle firmly in the right — not just in the left — hemisphere of one’s brain. It is easier to recall pictures than verbal illustrations. Doug Green has even suggested using cinematic methods to transform sermons into movies in the minds of listeners.1 The information in a sermon, he argues, becomes more deeply imbedded by the movie the speaker creates with his structure and rhetoric.
Consider structuring sermons around a plot, instead of a traditional analytical outline. These sermons will build to a conclusion in a manner different from the more familiar analytical and deductive structures. You will not sacrifice substance, and you might even find that this structure helps you build interest more effectively. The more interested and imaged the listener, the more deeply embedded the truth claims of Scripture in his mind.
Finally, in regard to sermon structure, the plot structure is more amenable to a one-point sermon than a multiple-point sermon. There are advantages to this structure. Given retention rates among the average listeners in today’s culture, if people remember only the central proposition of the message, the speaker has had enormous success.
There is no reason to clutter the minds of listeners with an overload of main points (true even when using traditional structures). So, driving home the one, central truth of the passage using plot structure maximizes the retention rate among listeners and, therefore, the probability they will implement the life-change goal of the sermon.
Applying Plot Structure in the Crafting of One Idea, Expositional Sermons
Yes, expositional sermons. In fact, it is more difficult to try this when approaching the Bible from a topical perspective. Preaching through one passage allows your plot to follow the inherent flow of thought in the passage itself. If you are preaching from a narrative text, the plot structure will be inherent in the passage.2 If the text is from a non-narrative genre, a contemporary story can be woven into the message to capture the suspense element for your listeners.
When selecting a contemporary story, keep three things in mind. First, choose a story with a riveting analogy to the central proposition (one idea) of your biblical text. This story becomes the primary medium for communicating the imaged biblical principle to your audience.
Second, choose a story that you can develop in rhythm with the flow of thought in your passage. The story needs to develop at the same pace as the biblical text.
Third, picture your sermon structure as a series of panels that progress from left to right, rather than a traditional outline format. This allows for the development of plot as the structure for the flow of thought in your message. Think of text and story as warp and woof.
As a starting point, use the following four-panel plot structure. It is straightforward, easy to use, and will help you identify pre-existing plot structure if you are preaching from a narrative text.
Exposition. The first panel of the story sets forth the status quo. This panel needs to answer the question: What should one normally expect in the light of the central proposition of this passage? Or, What challenge will the central proposition of this message bring to the normal expectation in this dimension of life? Begin the story by carefully laying out normal, so events can disrupt it as the story progresses.
Complication. This panel builds suspense through a series of disruptions of the status quo, or normal life. These disruptions inherently lead the listener to explore possible resolutions. Interest holds, and the listener begins to discern the blossoming connection between text and story. While events disrupt the lives of the people in the story, events also disrupt the central proposition of the biblical text as the awareness of the listener grows.
Climax. In this panel, you reveal the resolution of the contemporary story and the one idea that has served as the organizing center for your message. This central proposition becomes the resolving principle for each listener. Listeners begin to reflect on what it means to live in the light of this particular biblical truth claim.
Denouement. In literary usage, this signifies the return to what is normal, or the status quo. Except that, normal takes on a new definition. Some elements carry over, but there is always change.
The story concludes here, by describing the changes in the lives of the central cast of characters and what now lies ahead for them. The biblical challenge also occurs in this panel. How do your listeners now live in the light of this biblical principle? How will it shape their everyday lives? What is the challenge of the life-change goal of your sermon? What result from the biblical text do you want in the lives of your listeners?
Narrative — one-idea preaching — appears to be one of the more effective methods of preaching in today’s culture. It captures and keeps people’s interest, and in particular, helps to make sermons memorable in life-changing ways. When supported by the media resources available through today’s technology, this approach can even more profoundly imprint biblical truth.
A student and friend of mine from India preached a sermon about the power of speech from one of the speech proverbs. As he explained the effects of harmful speech, he wove a story of his experience with a rampaging elephant that came through the village where he was visiting. At a key moment, he clicked to a PowerPoint image of an elephant destroying a vehicle during a rampage. I have not forgotten the destructive force of the elephant, or the destructive force of speech when used unwisely.
Consider turning some of your sermons into narratives that your listeners can watch, not just hear — appealing to their imagination and thoughtfulness throughout your message. It will help you imprint the primary biblical principle from your text in the minds, hearts, and lives of your listeners.
1. See Doug Green, “Cinematic Preaching”(D.Min. project, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2005).
2. For further reading, see Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987). Also,Jerome Walsh, Style and Structure in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2001).