People in the pew don’t need much time to develop a sense of what a “proper” sermon “should” look like. What people have seen from the pulpit in the past often shapes their expectations in the present. Many churches come equipped with self-appointed volunteers eager to inform pastors who happen to “preach outside the lines” of their ecclesiastical traditions. New pastors quickly discover what length, tone, and form of sermon address is expected by their new flock.
In light of this widespread resistance to homiletical change, why would any preacher with a mortgage want to introduce first-person sermons? If new sermon forms have the potential to cause pastoral unrest, why bother? Why not play it safe and be satisfied with preaching your father’s sermon? Why not just rerun Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon? Why preach first-person sermons? Why read the rest of this book? Because this homiletical form will enable your ministry in the pulpit to reach new levels of effectiveness. I am convinced that for cultural, educational, theological, and emotional reasons it is in your best interest to invest the time to read on—and discover how to preach effective first-person sermons.
A first-person sermon communicates the idea of a biblical passage through a character with personal knowledge of the events in the passage. Preachers take on the personality of this character and reexperience the events of the biblical text in order to recommunicate what the original author communicated to the first recipients of the biblical narrative.
Cultural Reasons for First-Person Sermons
Plan on curling up with a good book tonight? If so, you are a rarity. People are increasingly choosing to reach for their remotes and spend their nights in the glow of a silver screen. We love our television sets, movie theaters, and DVDs.
When introduced in 1946, only a few thousand viewers bothered to watch television. In the 1951–1952 season, however, two new shows were introduced: I Love Lucy
. The popularity of these shows was so overwhelming that the sales of TV sets skyrocketed. By 1954, over half of all the households in the nation were watching television.1
Almost fifty years later, the influence of television is stronger than ever.2
By the time they reach eighteen, children have watched an average of seven years of television. According to the New York Academy of Medicine, “children spend more time in front of the television than in school, and nearly as much time as they spend sleeping.” And children are not the only ones glued to the tube. Television viewing is now the #1 adult leisure activity in America. And what happens when “nothing’s on”? We often catch a movie on the big screen or slip a DVD into our home theater system.
According to the Motion Picture Association of America, business is booming. Box office receipts in the U.S. increased from $7 billion in 1998 to $9.5 billion in 2002. In 2002 alone, movie attendance increased by 10 percent. While people enjoy going to see first-run movies, they don’t seem to mind recycled movies either. The video rental business is booming.
Sixty-four percent of the U.S. population lives within a ten-minute drive of a Blockbuster store. Forty-eight million of those people have a Blockbuster account. Over three million people a day drop by their local Blockbuster for a movie. No wonder this company enjoyed worldwide revenues of $5.5 billion in 2002.
Why are we drawn to all of these screens? Why do we spend so much of our time under their influence? It’s not because of the popcorn—it’s because of the stories. Television sells stories. Look at the top-rated shows. Virtually all of them are narratives. Hollywood also hawks stories. Bigger screens just mean bigger budget stories. And Blockbuster makes its billions peddling its slightly used plots on the street corner. We live in a story-saturated society.
Narrative has triumphed, and all of this drama has left its mark on the American mind. “This extraordinary chunk of time Americans spend under the influence of narrative . . . has left its imprint.”3
It has changed the way people prefer to communicate. Today’s gentlemen (and ladies) prefer stories—even when they go to church. Wise preachers recognize the preference of their parishioners and capitalize on it in their preaching. They don’t restrict their preaching to Paul’s letters.
Most of us learned to preach the New Testament epistles while we were in seminary, and only the epistles. Today we feel comfortable creating mechanical outlines from Romans 5, but we are unsure of what to do with other genres. It’s time to grow. We need to learn how to preach the whole counsel of God. Our homiletical horizons have to expand until they include the narratives of Scripture.
The best way to communicate to a story-loving society is with stories. The best way to preach to this society is by utilizing the stories of Scripture. It’s a good thing God uses so many of them. Narratives are the dominant genre in the Bible. In order to be faithful to the Word and effective to our culture, we need to learn to preach the stories of Scripture. First-person sermons are an excellent way to communicate narrative literature to our narrative society.
If you want to be heard and understood, you must speak in the way that people can best hear you. If the world switches from FM to satellite radio, so must we. It would be tragic to broadcast a critical message on a frequency that many people are no longer using. We squander opportunities for influence when we preach to bygone generations. We must communicate Scripture the way that people listen.
If we are to be as effective as Luther and Spurgeon were in their generations, we must be as contemporary as they were. To make maximum impact on our society we must communicate the Scripture the way that people can best hear and respond.
Educational Reasons for First-Person Sermons
One of the major goals of a biblical sermon should be instruction. And for good reason: The New Testament frequently relates biblical knowledge with spiritual maturity.
The apostle Paul told the Colossian Christians that the reason “we proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, [is] so that we may present everyone perfect [or mature] in Christ” (Col. 1:28). It seems that understanding factual information about the person of Jesus Christ is essential for those who aspire to spiritual maturity.
Likewise, the writer of the book of Hebrews encourages his readers to “leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Heb. 6:1–2). It seems that Christians who are content with an elementary understanding of Scripture are permanently stuck in a juvenile spiritual state.
Paul urges Timothy, a young aspiring preacher, not to forget “how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15–17). Like our first-century predecessor, we dare not forget how important our growth in Bible knowledge has been to our own spiritual development and how critical it is in the spiritual development of others.
Some preachers are understandably critical regarding first-person sermons. They ask:
Will this type of sermon actually teach my congregation?
It seems like entertainment! Is this another Neil Postman example4
of contemporary society amusing itself to intellectual death?
I know that people enjoy this type of sermon, but will they grow from it?
Hosea said that “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children” (Hos. 4:6). Will I be guilty of injuring my flock by feeding them first-person sermons?
These legitimate questions and educational concerns are best addressed within the context of education theory. Almost all educational theorists understand that different individuals have different preferred learning styles. One of the most articulate spokespeople in this field is Howard Gardner.5
He argues that there is not one type of intelligence. People process information in eight distinct ways.
—the ability to understand the underlying principles of some kind of a causal system, the way a scientist or a logician does; or to manipulate numbers, quantities, and operations, the way a mathematician does.
—the capacity to use language to express what’s on your mind and to understand other people (poets, orators, lawyers).
—the ability to represent the spatial world in one’s mind, the way a sailor or airplane pilot navigates the large spatial world, or the way a chess player or sculptor represent a more circumscribed spatial world. The spatially intelligent are often employed as painters, sculptors, and architects or in sciences such as anatomy or topology.
Bodily kinesthetic intelligence
—the aptitude to use one’s body (or part of the body) to solve a problem, make something, or put on some kind of production. Examples include athletics and performing arts such as dance or acting.
—the endowment to think in music, to be able to hear patterns, recognize them, remember them, and manipulate them.