Orality, Preaching, and the Gospel

Desmond Soh looks at orality studies and sermon forms to offer possible ways to move beyond didactic, literate and logical preaching forms—how more orality can be injected into sermons and what we can add to sermon forms, especially in narrative preaching.

Desmond Soh teaches homiletics and missions at Singapore Bible College. He served as a tentmaker in Indonesia for nine years with his wife Wendy. They were involved in indigenous church-planting, crisis-relief, and education on a national level. They recently fostered an eight-year-old boy who loves to swim and draw.

Orality, Preaching, and the Gospel

Mission Round Table vol. 11 no. 1 (January 2016): 17-21

Download this edition of Mission Round Table (2.5 MB)

The Corrida de toros fiesta is a bloody affair. Spanish matadors fight 1000-pound bulls in a highly ritualized dance of death. In the end, the bull is slain in the grisly battle between the man and beast. Similarly, a matador may also be mortally wounded. No one really wins. A similar battle is waged today in the pulpit. There are preachers who focus on meaning of the biblical text, but sometimes at the expense of making the text meaningful to listeners. Their sermons are usually didactic and literate containing logical points. On the other side of the arena are “orality matadors”[1] shouting for a departure from a logical and sequential approach consisting of propositional points because they are concerned about audience sovereignty and how to craft sermons to make an impact on the listeners. These preachers often advocate sermons forms that are more “narrative” or the structure mimics that of a story. Proponents often aim for a “multisensory” sermon that pulls out a myriad of props and other creative elements that stimulate sensory perception.[2]

Indeed, the narrative sermon form is gaining traction in the West and increasingly in the Global South. About 60% of the world’s population are oral learners. Success stories on how an oral rather than a literate approach towards sharing the gospel (and preaching) to these people have given birth to orality movements.[3] In addition, missiologists have discovered that oral learners are not the only ones who prefer non-literate communication.[4] Increasingly, Western societies are shifting to a more visual, digital, and interactive approach.[5] In addition, some consider the traditional tools of evangelism (e.g. giving out tracts and Bibles) and propositional preaching as less effective in reaching cultures influenced by postmodernity.

However, the power of the narrative has not disappeared. We are still captivated by a good story well told. Will a different preaching form offer a viable option for missiologists and homileticians to reach secondary oral learners and those who are influenced by postmodernity?[6]

As a homiletics professor, I am concerned that we are producing graduates who will textualize their learning without considering their audiences who may prefer and process, information differently. This difference is not just an issue of pedagogy or learning preferences. As a missionary, I am concerned about the problem of poor receptivity towards preaching, the proclamation of the gospel, and producing disciples who will do likewise. Differences between the literacy levels of the two entities can result in barriers to effective communication of the gospel. How can we remain faithful to the preaching of the Word and yet fail to proclaim to the world? Can it be that the people who are listening to sermons are somehow fundamentally different today and the entire homiletics discipline needs to accommodate this majority? Or as Dave McClellan says, “What would it look like if orality was allowed to permeate the homiletic air?”[7]

To answer these questions, this article will make short excursions into orality studies and sermon forms to offer possible ways forward. I propose we need to add to our repertoire of preaching forms, especially in narrative preaching. In my conclusion I will make some suggestions on how to inject more “orality” into our sermons.

Orality and Preaching

The standard work contrasting oral- and print-oriented communicators is by the Jesuit priest Walter J. Ong.[8] Ong summarizes the invasion of print (typography) and later the invention of electronic communication that displaced an oral culture. The implications of this transition from an oral to a typographic and later to an electronic world are tremendous. In an oral world, the primary medium of communication is sound coming from the speaker’s voice and communication occurs face-to-face. The advent of print heralds a typographic world that resulted in individualism and a shift of authority, where meaning resides in “experts” who interpret and hold the texts, not “elders” who help listeners construct meaning together in an oral world.[9]9

Unfortunately, some preachers assume that anybody could understand literate outlines of the passages they used to present the gospel because they operate from a literate, typographic epistemology. Social, linguistic, and anthropological research reveal that this is a misconception.[10] Ong notes that primary and secondary oral communicators may not understand the text when it is presented to them by means of expository outlines, principles, precepts, steps, and logically developed discourses.[11] Mark M. Overstreet similarly warns, Evangelical institutions train ministers who prepare to communicate using literate methods including linear, logical, or other analytical methodologies. In a world deeply influenced by non-literate communications, it is estimated that 90% of Christian workers using these logocentric methods to communicate fail to cross the ditch connecting to the audience, whether on the frontier mission field or in the local church pulpit. With over 4 billion learners challenged with the burden of hearing and understanding these methods of comprehending the preached word of God, it is time for consideration to be given to introducing primary and secondary orality and its effects on the field and in the classroom.[12]

This mismatched communication between literate preachers and oral learners results in a collision between what is being heard and what oral learners understand as the gospel. Even if they do understand, they may be unable to recall and reproduce what they heard. Oral communicators use different means of constructing, internalizing, recalling, and reproducing information and beliefs than do literate.[13]

Unfortunately, some preachers have tended to gravitate toward the “what” to preach rather than the “how” to preach. When the study and preaching of Scripture becomes dominated by literacy, there may be unfortunate consequences, especially when those forces meet cultures still conditioned to think first orally. Therefore, preachers have to seriously consider their listeners when crafting sermons to account for the different ways of hearing, learning, and understanding the gospel message. This is where sermon forms are important in our discussion and this is where we turn next.

Between Two Forms— Narrative and Propositional Sermons

John Stott points out that the preacher’s task is to bridge the gulf between the biblical world and the contemporary world.[14] Bridging the gulf requires faithfulness to the text of the Bible and sensitivity to the culture of the hearers. Failure to understand the listeners’ communication preference is not just an oversight but suggests a deep disconnect between the parish and the preacher who claims to care for them.

But preaching is not just an exercise of ecclesiastical rhetoric. We are also the people of the “Book.” Propositional, objective truths cannot be replaced with narrative perspectivism alone. Whether through choices of language or sermon forms, preachers can either alienate or attract their listeners. One of the goals preachers have is to attract and maintain people’s attention while remaining faithful to the preaching of God’s Word. Yet preachers often preach in a way that presumes one standard form fits all. To effectively reach listeners with culturally relevant sermons, one key area we need to look at is sermon forms. For the sake of our discussion, I will posit two general categories of sermon forms: narrative and propositional sermons.[15]

A narrative sermon does not simply use stories (real or imagined) to illustrate and apply the biblical text nor is it just preaching a certain genre of the Bible. Neither is a narrative sermon devoid of theology. Narrative sermons come in two types:

  1. Sermons that contain stories:  It is important to note that while the narrative sermons include stories, narrative preaching does not purely employ stories. These stories can be real or imagined. Neither is it merely a contextualized story in modern setting. And these stories may contain biblical narratives.
  2. Sermons that are shaped like a story: What distinguishes this narrative sermon from sermons that contain stories is its structure, with discernible plot, characterization, setting, and points of view. This type of sermon does notcontainstories but is a story in its structure. The sermon is designed to move the listeners in the same way as stories, or plots, rather than points.[16] This means that a narrative sermon, rather than being made up of stories, is a story plot from the start to the end.

A propositional sermon is usually didactic and tends towards deduction in its form, where the preacher proceeds from general to particular thought. It follows a logical and sequential approach consisting of points. The sermon’s goal is directed toward teaching the meaning of the biblical text from which the main points are abstracted. The sermon dissects the text and places premium on rational argument of a central thesis. The sermon unfolds like a discourse, not a story, and tends to be directive.

With these two sermon form choices, preachers have an unenviable task as they prepare to preach. They have to wrestle with being faithful to the text while winning the ear of their listeners. We will now deliberate on the theological and rhetorical reasons for employing narrative preaching. Reflecting the Apostle Paul’s concern about his preaching the gospel, are narrative sermons “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3–4)?

John Casto holds a poster while Songkram, a lay leader of the Nong Chang church in Thailand, presents the gospel to attentive listeners. East Asia’s Millions (Nov 1974): 108.


Is Preaching Narrative Sermons Biblical?

The Bible is both literary and rhetorical. It is literary because it contains various genres ranging from historical narrative in the Pentateuch and Gospels to the didactic Pauline Epistles to apocalyptic literature found in many Prophetic books and Revelation. It is rhetorical because the Word of God persuades and influences listeners. For the preacher, appreciating these two dimensions of the literary and rhetorical functions of the Bible is crucial in sermon preparation. Yet sermon design and form is not just about making an impression or creating an experience. It involves theology. An investigation of the styles of preaching portrayed in Scripture allows us to see that we can remain faithful to the text while assuming a variety of presentational

styles. Moreover, the option of a variety of apparently legitimate styles should make us wonder whether there is not a continuum between textuality and orality rather than an either/or. Three important biblical premises undergird why preaching narrative sermons is biblical.[17]

Firstly, narrative sermons mirror closely the narrative portions of the Bible, and narrative sermons effectively contextualize the Bible for a narrative-rich culture influenced by orality. Narrative is the dominant literary genre in the Bible. Sidney Greidanus describes the narrative portions of the Bible as the “central, foundational, and all-encompassing genre of the Bible.”[18] Ultimately, this story is narrated and personified in Jesus Christ when “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Christ’s incarnation as a sinless man is an unparalleled form of contextualization. He intentionally chose to come in the form of a man (Rom 5:15), of the Jewish race (Mat 1:1–17), and he spoke a language of the people of his time—Aramaic (Matt 27:46). Contextualization is important as it serves as a means from which God proclaims, in different ways, his unchanging truth. Good preachers not only exegete the Bible, but also serve audiences through sermons styles that mirror closely the form of the text of their exegetical discoveries.

Secondly, biblical characters preach with variety, using both narrative and other sermon forms. Narrative preaching was the popular sermonic form used by biblical authors, with Jesus Christ, who is not just the “story” but also the Master storyteller. It is important to see how he placed a premium on stories, especially parables, and how the stories in turn fulfill his teaching and preaching purposes. N. T. Wright argues that Jesus intended the parables to challenge the existing Jewish worldview and to provide an alternative picture of reality that Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” He says,

Stories are, actually, peculiarly good at modifying or subverting other stories and their worldviews. Where head-on attack would certainly fail, the parable hides the wisdom of the serpent behind the innocence of the dove, gaining entrance and favour which can then be used to change assumptions which the hearer would otherwise keep hidden away for safety.[19]

Jesus was not the only one who employed narrative preaching. Other biblical characters, especially the prophets, used a variety of “preaching forms” to warn the people of God of their impending judgment from God. Hosea married a prostitute. Ezekiel cooked food over excrement (Ezek 4:9–12). Isaiah walked around naked for three years (Isa 20:2–3). Jeremiah smashed a pot (Jer 19:10–11). And Nathan told a story to David (2 Sam 12).

Third, we find biblical support for narrative preaching in the Apostle Paul. While one might argue that his letters in the New Testament are mainly didactic and propositional, it is important to note that Paul taught in terms of an overarching story (cf. Eph 1:9–10). Although Paul’s writings, especially in his Epistles, are Hellenistic, with Aristotelian logic and quite distinctly different from a narrative (e.g. Romans and Galatians), this is not necessarily contradictory. For one, Paul was sensitive to culture, for in 1 Corinthians 9, he made a culturally sensitive statement that fits into his approach towards winning both Jews and Gentiles for Christ. He was willing to be “all things to all men, that (he) may by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22b). And secondly, even though Pauline speeches seem to suggest a very literate style of homily, as evidenced in his speeches in the Book of Acts, Heald and Arthurs argue that “Biblical speeches are always set within a narrative context, so the exegete must examine carefully the situations that called them forth.”[20] In addition, N. T. Wright proposes that Paul’s teachings are nothing more than extensions of the Old Testament stories that he had in mind as he wrote his letters to the churches and  to the leaders of the early churches.[21] Interestingly, Richard Hays’s reference to “intertextual echo” in  Pauline letters is akin to Wright’s proposal. Hays analyzed Paul’s subtle use of Scripture, claiming that “the most significant elements of intertextual correspondence between old context and new can be implicit rather than voiced, perceptible only within the silent space framed by the juncture of two texts.”[22] Similarly, Sylvia Keesmaat demonstrates that Paul uses the story of the exodus tradition in his exegesis in Galatians and Romans 8 and the exodus story in Paul’s writings is “not limited to his verbatim quotations, but is activated by all sorts of allusions and echoes.”[23]

To summarize, the predominant genre of the Bible is narrative and biblical examples show how individuals such as Paul and the prophets in the Old Testament employed these narrative sermonic forms to embody their message of redemption. Jesus is the ultimate example of this contextualized methodology of carefully selecting and crafting of stories in the form of parables that are biblically faithful and culturally relevant to his listeners.

Rhetorical Impact of Narrative Preaching

One obvious benefit of narrative preaching is that it is the closest to the biblical narrative form. The form of the text should affect the form of the sermon. A derivative benefit from being form-sensitive is the experiencing of the rhetorical impact of narratives. Brian Wicker says, “We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.”[24] Our lives are full of stories; they are of the essence of being alive. The listener of a narrative sermon is able to find a sense of identity through the narrative process. Stories naturally communicate more holistically involving emotions, intuitions, and imaginations as well as cognition. This helps engage the listeners’ mind, will, and emotions. The preacher takes the listener on a gripping journey through the story filled with conflict, suspense, and eventual resolution, making the experience memorable. In contrast, the propositional sermon usually targets the cognition, and often misses out the full spectrum of emotion and excitement a story offers.

Moreover, narrative sermons match and maintain and mold our identity through vicarious identification with biblical characters, from the tragedy of Samson’s folly to the triumph of Stephen’s martyrdom. Michael Williams spotlights this identity- forming characteristic when he describes the narrative form of stories as “sacred encounters that tell us who we are, whose we are, and where we belong.”[25]

Furthermore, narrative preaching is also less predictable and direct, qualities that benefit the preacher when the target audience is defensive. The withholding of propositional statements serves a postmodern audience well because they are inclined to be suspicious of anyone who claims to hold objective truth. Narrative preaching is primarily inductive and is built around the delay of the preacher’s meaning. This form of preaching is appealing, because it is both non-threatening and inviting. The ultimate rhetorical impact of narrative preaching lies in its proximity to the listeners. In cultures dominated by relativism, experiencing stories becomes the standard from which to distinguish and evaluate “truth.” Narrative preaching lends itself easily to this shifting culture since stories have universal appeal.

Injecting “Orality” into Sermons: Some Practical Considerations

Here are several suggestions in the light of what we have covered so far:

  1. Consider employing narrative preaching as one of the tools to communicate God’s truths. Narrative sermons are appropriate on special occasions such as Christmas, Youth Sundays, and Easter.
  2. Pathos, or emotional appeal, is just as important as logos, or logic and reason.[26]Consider adding culturally appropriate gestures and pauses, and avoid wordiness. Involve your audience when preaching by using first and second person pronouns such as “I,” “you,” and “we.”
  3. Have one central, main idea in your sermon. All other points, if any, serve the main idea. This idea should be clear, concise, compelling, and creative.
  4. Make use of restatement and repetition in your oral communication. Use the principle of redundancy and focus because your audiences cannot review what you preach, unlike reading a manuscript.
  5. Preach with variety. Use multi-sensory approaches with props, music, drama, PowerPoints, and moreifthese approaches support and not distract your audiences from your sermon.

Concluding Thoughts on Narrative Preaching

The Bible has an immense trove of narrative and we need to turn to it afresh and consider using this form in capturing the attention of our audiences. Biblical narratives are not just historical stories, but are literarily artistic and far too sophisticated to be handled homiletically in simple three-point propositions. Therefore, narrative preaching, while not indispensable, is useful when employed discerningly to an audience influenced by postmodernity and those who are part of an oral culture.

Let me conclude with a word from personal experience. When I was performing my doctoral research, I conducted a comparative study on the effectiveness of both sermon forms. After spending almost a decade preaching to them as a missionary, I wanted to know which sermon form best reached Indonesian Chinese teenagers. A total of 1000 different students participated in my study. Five sermons in different forms (narrative and propositional) of the same passages were preached and their ability to recall the “Big Idea” was taken twenty-four hours and three days later. Interestingly, I found that both sermon forms are almost equally effective in helping students recall the central thesis of the sermon. I have a confession to make. When I started  my study, I was quite confident that narrative sermons would win hands down against propositional sermons. In the end, based on unbiased data, I had to admit that it is not a “one or the other” conclusion, but a “both/and”! This forced me to conclude my thesis as follows.

In Asia, rice serves as both a daily staple food and a gastronomical art form. From Japanese sushi, to Indonesian nasi goring, to Singaporean rice dumplings, to Cantonese porridge, rice fills hungry stomachs and fulfills culinary cravings. My concluding verdict, without denying the many merits of narrative preaching, protests against narrativist imperialism. Like good rice, narrative sermons are wonderful but not everything. But when served with prudent skills and passion, narrative preaching can be a useful, if not necessary tool for the preacher.[27]

In the small town of Kota Baru near Bukittinggi, West Sumatera, bullfights are commonplace among the Minang Kebau people. Every Tuesday and Saturdays, punters will gather around two water buffaloes to place their bets, albeit illegally. Starved and seething, these bulls stare-down each other as people goad them to fight. Unlike their Spanish counterparts however, no blood will be shed in a fight that typically lasts for less than ten minutes. There are no fighting swords, no red muleta flags, fancy matadors, nor fanatical audiences screaming for blood. The buffaloes lock horns, but sometimes one walks away before the fight even begins. The only loss is the one who placed his bets on the wrong animal. Perhaps in the fight between narrative (oral approach) and propositional (textual approach) advocates, blood should not be shed unnecessarily. Perhaps we should instead consider both sermon forms as part of a continuum between textuality and orality and that both are profitable tools in the preacher’s toolbox.

[1] According to Charles Madinger, oralityis “a complex of how oral cultures best receive, process, remember and replicate (pass on) news, important information, and truths.” Madinger, “A Literate’s Guide to the Oral Galaxy,” Orality Journal 2.2 (2013): 16. Orality is a learned framework for interpreting the world around us. Texuality, on the other hand, is an orientation and a preference towards printed words. Orality and textuality should not be considered antitheses but function as a continuum. I will not replicate existing scholarship on orality and literacy but highlight some of its implications on preaching (and missions) in this article.

[2] These sermons are variously called an inductive movement, a story, an act of overhearing and imagination, and a conversation. The latter is often used by emergent churches to attract postmoderns.

[3] One example of this movement is the International Orality Network. See their website for a history of how the movement developed, http://www.orality.net/how_we_began (accessed 28 Nov 2015).

[4] One example is the postmoderns. See for example Mark Snowden, “Bible Storying in America, Part 2: The Details,” http://www.lausanneworldpulse.com/perspectives.php/1362/01-2011?pg=all (accessed 20 Nov 2015).

[5] James B. Slack, “The Realities of Orality and Literacy in This Century,” Adjunct Reading 1 in Oral Bible Forum (Albuquerque, New Mexico: 10–12 July 2003): 1. This move is consistent with cultures influenced by postmodernism.

[6] James B. Slack has described five levels of literacy to be considered in presenting the gospel in “The Way People Learn: Exploring the Implications of Orality, Literacy and Chronological Bible Storying Concerning Global Evangelization,” http://media1.imbresources.org/ files/83/8361/8361-46134.pdf (accessed 24 Nov 2015). Slack notes that many people in developed countries are secondary oral learners even though they can read and write. Secondary oral learners choose to form their beliefs and organize their worldview through oral learning and are more influenced by music, movies, television, and other sensory experiences than by texts.

[7] Dave McClellan, “Recovering A Sense of Orality in Homiletics,” Evangelical Homiletics Society (2006): 11.

[8] Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 1991), 78.

[9] Jeffrey D. Arthurs and Ben Jackson, Preaching in the Electronic Age,” Evangelical Homiletics Society (2001): 3.

[10] See David Claydon, A New Vision, A New Heart, A Renewed Call (Vol. 3): Lausanne Occasional Papers from the 2004 Forum for World Evangelism (Pasadena: William Carey, 2005), 15–21.

[11] Ong, Orality and Literacy, 8–9, 39– 42, and 123. Ong introduced the term “secondary orality” to indicate a new age brought about by electronic media which moves the culture away from literacy.

[12] Mark M. Overstreet, “The End of the Gutenberg Galaxy: Exploring the Divide between Evangelical Preparation and Proclamation and Its Impact on Community,” Evangelical Homiletics Society (2009): 4.

[13] Slack, “The Way People Learn,” 2–5.

[14] John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching  Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994),137–50.

[15] For a discussion of this subject, see Dennis Cahill, The Shape of Preaching: Theory and Practice in Sermon Design (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 25–44.

[16] Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form, Expanded ed(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 13–14.

[17] By saying that narrative sermons are “biblical,” I do not mean that propositional sermons are not. Rather, I am arguing that preaching various sermon forms and preaching with variety have biblical support.

[18] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 188.

[19] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 40.

[20] Arica A. Heald and Jeffrey D. Arthurs, “Public Address in the Bible and the Secularized West: Genre-Sensitive and Culture-Sensitive Sermons from Biblical Speeches,” Evangelical Homiletics Society (2007): 6. Acts contains three examples of Paul’s preaching: the sermon at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:16–41), the speech at Lystra (Acts 14:15–17), and the speech at Athens (Acts 17:22–31). As an example of the “narrative-ness” of Paul’s speeches in Acts, he gave his testimony three times and he did so for evangelistic and forensic purposes.

[21] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 79.

[22] Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University, 1989), 155.

[23] Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Paul and his Story: (Re)Interpreting the Exodus Tradition, JSNTSup 181 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 228. Keesimaat says that Paul relies on the familiarity of the exodus story to frame his particular arguments. Paul  does not only invite his readers to remember a particular text but to remember a particular story.

[24] Brian Wicker, The Story-Shaped World: Fiction and Metaphysics: Some Variations on a Theme (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University, 1975), quoted in David L. Larsen, Telling the Old, Old Story: The Art of Narrative Preaching, ed. David L. Larsen (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995), 30.

[25] Michael E.  Williams, “Preaching as Storytelling,” in Journeys Toward Narrative Preaching, ed. Wayne Bradley Robinson (New York: Pilgrim, 1990), 115. Sidney Greidanus, calls the identity-forming effect of narrative sermons an “automatic” advantage because the narrative sermon moves structurally in tandem with the story. Griedanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 151.

[26] Similarly, Timothy Keller says “the duties of preachers included not only probare, to instruct and prove, but also delectare, to rivet and  delight, and flectere, to stir and move people to action,” in Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 13.

[27] Desmond Soh, Help Me Remember This Sermon – Effective Sermon Forms To Help Indonesian Chinese Teenagers Recall the Big Idea (Unpublished Dissertation, 2013), 134-5.

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