When Christian workers plant church in oral contexts, we frequently start with Bible storying and discussion. As people come to faith in Christ and meet as a group, they learn the practices of a healthy church. One of those practices is receiving instruction from the Scriptures. Cross-cultural workers often need to coach the young church about the practice. of preaching just as they do with other elements of worship and functions of the church. It is important to focus on biblical principles and practices and to minimize importing unbiblical approaches to preaching that are cultural rather than Scriptural.
When it comes to coaching oral learners to preach, we should help them learn a set of communication practices that start simply and gradually build toward a simple devotion, then a simple sermon, then a more complex and lengthier sermon. This could easily take several weeks or many months, depending on how often they preach and how quickly they learn. Quick learners who see this modeled well in a culturally-appropriate manner, however, could learn to do much of it in a few weeks.
- Tell a single short Bible story accurately and naturally.
- Tell a single medium-length Bible story accurately and naturally. Tell what you learned from it.
- Tell a single medium-length Bible story accurately and naturally. Tell what you learned from it, and how you have obeyed it in your life.
- Tell a single longer Bible story accurately and naturally. Tell what you learned from it, and how you have obeyed it in your life. Tell what happened as a result of your obedience.
- Give a sermonic introduction to the story (using any of the accepted approaches to introducing a sermon), then do as in #4.
- Do #5, adding examples of what has happened when other people have obeyed the teaching of the story.
- Do as in #6, but add elements of exhortation (encouragement, warning, correction, and challenge) consistent with the main point of the story. These naturally occur near the end of the message and can lead to a formal sermon conclusion.
- Do #7, narrating 2 or 3 biblical stories instead of just one, making sure that the stories have a natural thematic and hermeneutical coherence, like the three parables of lost and found in Luke 15.
- Do #7, narrating a long biblical story that may include several episodes in the life of the main character, interspersing comments about the significance of the story and its application to life between the episodes and at the end of the message.
- As the preacher and the congregation grow in their biblical knowledge and spiritual maturity, the preacher can preach more complicated sermons drawn from non-narrative texts. Transitioning to that type of sermon is another discussion for another time.
Why go about teaching preaching this way? Here are some reasons that George Patterson gives in his book, Obedience-Based Discipleship, and some of my own observations as well.
- It’s important to teach a form of preaching built on the strengths that the preacher already has as an oral communicator and to develop them incrementally. The first four steps above should be mastered as part of any Bible storying group, and step six is simply reporting what others in the storying group have said.
- This approach keeps preaching culturally-connected (hence understandable to his community) and inhibits the introduction of foreign communication styles with preaching.
- The story-plus-testimony type of sermon encourages a humble, non-authoritarian style of preaching that is much better for new preachers. Patterson says he frequently saw young pastors ruined by their eager adoption of a loud, haranguing style of preaching that alienated the congregation. It is ruinous to give an inexperienced preacher free rein to tongue-lash a congregation in the name of Jesus.
- The recommended approach keeps the sermon closely-connected to a single text, or two or three closely-related texts. This practice is consistent with Bible storying’s focus on one passage, so it will seem natural to people who have a storying background. Keeping focused on one passage is a great discipline, and it discourages preachers from cobbling together a hodge-podge of proof texts ripped from their contexts. It’s a distinguishing characteristic of expository preaching: derive your message from your text. Stay close to the Scriptures. This contributes to developing better hermeneutics in the preacher and the congregation alike. It can help rein in the preacher’s temptation to give his opinions at length. Sticking close to one biblical story or passage also exposes the congregation to a wider variety of subject matter over time.
It is crucial that we expose preachers-in-training to good models for these storytelling skills and for preaching generally. After teaching preaching for many years, I am convinced that the examples aspiring preachers see are the single most important determinant of how they will preach. That is even more true for people in oral cultures, who are unlikely to read about preaching or take notes during lectures on preaching. Learning by observation and imitation are deeply characteristic of oral cultures.
We should not, however, be fatalistic about the influence of examples. Many preachers have been able to overcome the influence of poor examples in preaching. Good instruction can provide a corrective. Exposure to better models can lift their standards and inspire preachers toward better practices. It is to preachers’ advantage, however, to have seen good preaching on a consistent basis.
Instructors in preaching also have to take into consideration whether there are existing churches. Existing churches usually have a tradition of what constitutes good preaching. Part of being viewed as a true, legitimate church is to have preaching that fulfills the local expectations of what “real” preaching is. If we teach preachers to do something in the pulpit that is dramatically out of step with the local preaching tradition, the alternative will need to be widely embraced as being biblical and beneficial. I have written separately about ways to shift gradually to more narrative approaches to preaching while still meeting most of the conventional expectations about what “real” preaching is.