Preaching up a Story

Years ago, a lifetime and a day ago, I found myself in a world of learning. It was my first Masters degree, a Masters by coursework, and I was studying a class on homiletics. That’s a fancy way of saying preaching. I was all right at public speaking, had been doing it for a few years, but here was a chance to learn some things. To refine my process.

In each class for that subject, we were taught how important inductive preaching is. That’s the kind where you tell the story of the sermon and let the narrative bring it to life. You’d have one Big Idea and learn how to craft a well written tale that doesn’t reveal itself too soon. It ropes the reader in. Entices them to keep listening. Coaxes them into the plot like Hansel and Gretel to the witch’s house. All because they don’t yet know what the end is and they want to know. It’s not yet revealed …

Every lesson were were told how important this method is. We watched videos about it, examples of it and were told to purchase two textbooks about it. So I did. I devoured it.

And yet, in every lesson were also given an alternative method, the method we were required to be taught. The didactic, expositional method. It’s propositional preaching and it can be quite powerful. You make a statement (proposition) and then proceed to prove how that statement is true.

When the assessment came, I found myself in a quandary. Every week I had been told the superior method, the storytelling method, the one that didn’t treat people like ignoramuses. But at the end, I was assessed on my handling of the opposite method. Propositional, expositional, three point sermons.

I wrote my sermon. I practised it. I had someone come up in tears telling me how perfect that message was. And I was assessed by a different lecturer.

He was expositional and propositional all the way and apparently my message was inadequate and insufficient; well, at least it wasn’t insurrectionist. Although you might have thought so by the response.

Learning is, to be sure, a complicated process. I think we complicate it more than it needs to be. We feel that our preferred method is the best method for everyone and that everyone would best be served by following our method. The syllabus of my preaching class seemed designed by someone who valued one form of preaching while the teacher delivering the content preferred another. He taught and assessed the method required by the syllabus but somewhat unfairly to the students (or at least to me) he made it abundantly clear that he valued a different method. If I were assessed by him, I like to think I would have gotten a better mark.

The other teacher, though, preferred his own method and I was marked down, in my eyes, because he chose not to see the value in my sermon. He saw only check boxes and three point messages. Must have been a Baptist.

I hope that teachers the world over assess their material and decide what they want to communicate to the students. The asessment needs to be valid, which is to say that it should assess what it’s suppose to assess. In my case, for the assessment to be valid, it would need to assess the content we were taught. We were taught two methods of preaching, clearly communicated that one was preferred, but were assessed only on the non-preferred method.

I agree with my primary lecturer that inductive, storytelling speaking is a powerful way to communicate knowledge. I also agree with an expositional method, being trained and working in the sciences. I don’t see why it has to be one and not the other. Why so binary? The human body and mind are not binary but organic, synthetic, chaotic and emergent. They need order but they grow in the midst of chaos. They order the chaos by categorising everything, only to find abundant exceptions to every category, and thriving not on organising information in a systematic fashion, but in a way that attirbutes meaning to information. And the most potent form of meaning is story — whether the story of our memories and experiences or the story of fiction that we connect so potently with. To be organised in thought is to create meaningful associations.

I hope that we can master the arts (yes, that’s plural!) of telling the stories of our souls; the stories of our data; the stories of our lives in ways that people can latch on to and in ways that are clear … and unclear. If only because the story’s end hasn’t yet been revealed.