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Preaching for Formation as Participants in the Mission of God

Author: K. Rex Butts
Published: Winter-Spring 2021

MD 12.1

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

This article is written from the perspective of a Restoration Movement Church of Christ preacher. The central argument developed in this essay is that Churches of Christ need to abandon deductive and expository homiletic practices and instead adopt narrative preaching practices in order more effectively to cultivate disciples who live into the unfolding story of God’s mission. The author’s argument begins by exploring the historical influences and epistemic assumptions of dominant homiletic approaches within his ecclesial tradition through the lens of Alasdair MacIntyre’s social practice paradigm. After a brief apology for a trinitarian and eschatologically-oriented missional ecclesiology, the author outlines key features of a narrative preaching that allows the church to embrace its missional responsibility within the biblical story. Finally, the narrative approaches of Eugene Lowry and John Wright are recommended.

The Sunday sermon is an important means of instruction and faith formation in the local church. This is why pastoral theological education has often included courses in homiletics. Yet, North American churches face significant challenges germane to the practice of preaching. These challenges relate to cultural shifts taking place in our contexts and the struggles of many churches with the question of mission. My own encounter with these challenges has taken place among Churches of Christ. I remain attentive to the history of the Churches of Christ within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement throughout this paper. As a minister who preaches regularly, I wonder how the sermon at Sunday worship gatherings might address these challenges. I am particularly interested in the formation of disciples who, as a local church, participate in the mission of God.

The thesis of this essay is that ministers among the Churches of Christ must adopt a narrative homiletic in order to call the local church to live into the mission of God as followers of Jesus Christ. This essay begins by surveying the history of preaching among Churches of Christ and then identifies assumptions commonly made about preaching as a practice. Next, this essay discusses the practice of preaching in relation to the mission of God in order to propose a homiletical approach for the faith formation of the church. I contend that Churches of Christ need to abandon deductive and expository homiletic practices and instead adopt narrative preaching practices in order to cultivate disciples who live into the unfolding story of God’s mission. My argument is based on the conviction that when preaching calls the church into the narrative of scripture, a new imagination can form regarding how the church faithfully participates in the mission of God. I will also describe my own practice by sharing two different ways of developing a narrative sermon as proposed by Eugene Lowry and John W. Wright.

Preaching among Churches of Christ

Located within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, Churches of Christ are historically a “back to the Bible” people. While the legacies of both Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell are evident, Campbell’s influence had a far greater impact on the Churches of Christ. Shaped by Scottish Common Sense Realism, Campbell believed that an ancient order or pattern of apostolic Christianity was deducible from the New Testament. The hermeneutic of restoring the ancient pattern of the church in the New Testament steered the direction for restoring New Testament Christianity. Slogans such as “no creed but the Bible” and “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” served as key hermeneutical principles that helped maintain the course of restoration and served to reinforce the conclusions formed within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

These principles shaped the way in which the Bible was read, focusing on the New Testament as a flat text of legal writ, eventually resulting in a distinct set of doctrines that came to characterize the Churches of Christ. Among these doctrines was the affirmation of believer’s baptism as immersion in water for the forgiveness of sins, the observance of the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week, and a cappella singing in Christian worship. Such distinctives were communicated widely through preaching and journals, as well as through the well-publicized book Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ by Leroy Brownlow.1 More importantly, these distinctive doctrines became a de facto creed that, although unwritten, was guarded by the editors of various journals acting effectively as bishops.2 Among local congregations, then, the standard homiletic approach was deductive, and its purpose was didactic. Sermons addressed all the topics that were deemed essential to Christian unity and the restoration of New Testament Christianity. The sermon was an appeal to reason that offered logical arguments intended to uphold the unwritten creed.

Although this led to a legalistic and sectarian posture during the twentieth century, towards the latter half of the century changes began to take place among the Churches of Christ. With a more grace-oriented evangelical outlook emerging, many congregations began shedding the status-quo of sectarianism and legalism. Amid these changes, sermons began changing too, moving from a deductive to an inductive approach due in large part to the influence of Fred B. Craddock.3 With this change came an emphasis on expository preaching, though the new preaching remained didactic. Chris Altrock labels such preaching as “bibliocentric,” describing it as preaching “like a lab technician skillfully slicing open the text on the table and explaining each muscle, organ, and tissue.”4

Observing the trend in recent years, there has been a growing interest in narrative preaching among Churches of Christ. With the development of post-liberal theology influenced by Hans Frei and George A. Lindbeck, the direction of biblical interpretation switched. Instead of interpreting the biblical text so that readers may identify with certain stories and apply them to their lives, readers are invited to live within the text and “make the story of the Bible their story.”5 This hermeneutical shift opened new possibilities in the field of homiletics. In both seminary homiletics classes and preaching conferences, I was introduced to books by Charles Campbell, Richard L. Eslinger, Eugene L. Lowry, Thomas G. Long, and Paul Scott Wilson, among others. The interest in narrative preaching was significant enough that for ten years Dave Bland and David Fleer hosted an annual lecture on preaching and published a book for each lecture, which explored the possibilities for narrative preaching from various genres and writings of Scripture.6 One reason for its attraction among many Churches of Christ is that narrative preaching draws the church back to the Bible. Could narrative preaching be more effective in the faith-formation necessary for cultivating disciples who live as participants in the mission of God? Such a question is all the more relevant in a time where it seems that the formation of disciples among churches in North America remains a challenge.

The Modernist Assumptions of Preaching as a Practice Among Churches of Christ

Although preaching is a divine moment in which God is at work, good preaching requires a set of skills and techniques. This makes preaching a practice just as much any other skill such as counseling or teaching. Alasdair MacIntyre defines a practice as “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.”7 In other words, a practice involves the use of skills and techniques for the purpose of achieving any number of outcomes. Both the skills and techniques as well as the outcomes make up the internal and external goods that define the practice. Internal goods are the specific properties that uniquely define the practice itself, while external goods are any number of different possible outcomesthe.8

Building on MacIntyre’s definition of practice, Bryan Stone offers an analysis of evangelism as a practice involving various skills and techniques with internal and external goods.9 Likewise, preaching is a practice with both internal and external goods. The external goods of preaching are typically the anticipated results of the sermon. The internal goods are enigmatic but remain essential in order to engage preaching as a practice. Stone offers an example of a jogger running simply for the goal of losing weight as an activity that lacks an internal good, such as the fulfillment of having jogged. The jogger begins with the external goods, which determines how he or she will jog. The point is that the internal goods of a practice are essential to the essence of practice, so that whatever the practice, it begins with the internal goods rather than the external ends, which then determines the means of undertaking the practice.10

Understanding the nature of practice opens space for examining more carefully the assumptions that underlie deductive and expository preaching. With the prevalence of the unwritten creed mentioned above, preaching in the Churches of Christ was often deductive in form and, to reinforce the creed, didactic in purpose. This homiletic approach was embedded within a cultural paradigm shaped by modernism and Christendom, which were taken for granted as the ethos of Churches of Christ came of age alongside the ethos of the United States. Within this cultural paradigm, reason served as the supreme source of truth so that proper methods would result in knowing what is taught in the Bible.11 Critique of these assumptions is not a denial of the high view of Scripture as inspired by God that Churches of Christ, like other denominations, have historically held. Rather, this critique is an acknowledgment that the sermon was primarily an appeal to human reason. Ergo, in a culture that values individualism, the meaning of Scripture is determined by the “autonomous minds” of those individuals hearing the sermon.12 The reasoning of the individual, a common sense not necessarily formed by the logic of Christ crucified—the wisdom of the gospel —determines the meaning.

While appealing to autonomous minds, preaching speaks with a common language shared between the listeners and Christianity. This assumption of a shared language emanates from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant who locates the human mind at the center of human knowledge and, thus, active in the epistemological process, creating a world of knowledge. This Kantian mind has a rational ability that presumes, according to Stanley Grenz, “that in all essential matters every person everywhere is the same.”13 Believing that everyone is the same in things that matter, the Sunday sermon assumes a shared religious language. For example, as the Churches of Christ have defended a cappella singing in Christian worship, the rationale has typically proceeded from a biblical argument. Beginning with the premise that silence in Scripture is prohibitive, a sermon on worship that includes a defense of a cappella singing appeals to the relevant passages of Scripture while insisting that Christians must “speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where the Bible is silent.” The assumption here is that both the preacher and listeners hear the same thing when speaking of the Bible.14

The assumption of a universal language goes beyond talk about the Bible, as during the course of the sermon, preaching speaks with a shared Christian language that is familiar to the congregation. With such Christian-speak, there is an assumption that conceptual words such as “sin” and “salvation” or the confession “Jesus is Lord” have a universally understood meaning. This Christian language has a specific meaning when talking about God, and it often does so with the assumption that the listeners know God as the Trinity. Consequently, preaching among the local church may give little attention to uncovering the nature of sin, the cosmic effects of sin, and how such doctrine is understood within the mission of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Instead, with an assumed universal language, evangelistic preaching is aimed towards the goal of eliciting a response of repentance and baptism so that individual sinners will have a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ but one that may still remain disembodied from the story told within the Bible.

Such preaching assumes a position of authority, in which the preacher serves as an expository specialist clarifying the meaning of a particular biblical text. Standing on such an authoritative platform, the preacher is positioned as an objective interpreter of Scripture who is able, without bias, through exegetical work and help from the Spirit, to teach correctly what the Bible says and apply it theologically and pastorally, as necessary. Although there are many passages of Scripture where ambiguity remains, for the Churches of Christ the biblical texts that are germane to the restoration of the New Testament Christianity are often regarded as unequivocal. With the Kantian mind at work, preaching from this assumed authority presumes that an objectively correct interpretation of the text is certain if the preacher has done the hard work of exegesis.

However, twentieth-century French philosopher Jacques Derrida, writing as a postmodern deconstructionist, rejected the notion of objective interpretation saying, “There is nothing outside the text.”15 Derrida insisted that interpreters do not stand above a text and read apart from their own experience. Because the interpreter’s position is within the text and therefore interpreting through a particular set of lenses, as opposed to standing objectively above the text, every reading of the text appears as one more step in an ongoing series of steps that require interpretation.16 In this sense, epistemology is an interpretative process in which nothing is knowable with reasonable certainty since what is known is just another possibility in the process. For some, such a claim against objective interpretation, insisting instead that interpreters do not stand above a text and read apart from their own experience, sounds like relativism. However, this misunderstands the intention of Derrida, who is not suggesting that there is nothing left except relativism. Derrida’s point is that “interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world.”17 In other words, the point is not that all knowledge is relative but that all knowledge claims involve interpretation shaped by the lenses through which we ascertain knowledge.

Because all claims of knowledge involve interpretation, preachers should not ground their authority in claims of objectivity. Though preaching remains an effective way of teaching and shaping the imaginations of the church towards the life imagined within Scripture, preaching cannot begin with “the Bible says.” Preaching must undertake a locative shift from the assumed position of authority to a position within the practice of the church, a practice that is coherent with the message that preaching proclaims. Then, with coherence between the message and messenger, the preacher is able to earn the right to be heard. However, this positional shift makes more sense when the church understands its role within the mission of God.

The Missional Hermeneutic of Participating in the Mission of the Triune God

Towards the end of the twentieth century came a renewed interest in the mission of God among North American theologians. While traditionally the mission field was thought of as a foreign place overseas, North America emerged as a mission field, requiring churches to take up the challenge of mission at home.18 Though North American churches have functioned with an assumed pastoral role in their local context, more churches are discovering the need to reimagine what it means to live as a community on mission with God in a context of dechurched and unchurched communities. The challenge in living as a missional church is understanding how the church participates in the mission of God.

The language of participation is critical in apprehending the relationship between the mission of God and church. At the outset, mission is an attribute of God regarded “as a movement from God to the world [and] the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission.”19 Therefore, rather than reducing mission to an activity of the church, the mission of God is the participatory activity of the church. Ecclesiology proceeds from missiology, and so the missio Dei is best understood as God having a church for his mission rather than the church having its own mission. The church must speak of itself as participating in the mission of God rather than undertaking its own mission. Because mission is the activity of God in which the church participates, the church only truly exists as the church “insofar as it is in mission, insofar as it participates in the act of Christ, which is mission.”20 This conception of the church is important, because it is a recognition that participation in the mission of God is as essential to the church’s identity as confession of faith in Christ is. Without confession and participation, a religious community may exist but not the church.

Recognizing that the church serves as a participant in the mission of God, how then does this participation relate to Trinitarian doctrine, in which the Father sends the Son and Spirit as the fulfillment of God’s mission? The church has understood mission from both christological and pneumatological models. Engaging in mission christologically, the church regards itself as a community founded by Jesus that, therefore, must live “according to the intention of its founder, who has preceded it, established it, and determined its form.”21 At minimum then, the intention of the church is to live in accordance with what Jesus has accomplished through his ministry on earth. This entails living as a community set apart from the world by the Spirit, always looking to Jesus to continue “the kingdom mission” which Jesus has already accomplished the end or future of history.22 The task of mission is proclaiming what Christ has done, which the church does through word and deed. This differs from the pneumatological approach where the church regards itself as a continuance of the incarnation of the Logos either through the indwelling of the Spirit of Jesus within the church or the indwelling of the Spirit among the church as a continuation of the Logos incarnated.23 From this pneumatological approach, the church understands itself as the living expression of what Christ is presently doing in history, not just a living expression of what Christ has already accomplished. What is lacking is any consideration for the future of history that God has already revealed.

This christological model of mission has served as the default approach of the Churches of Christ. Seeking the restoration of New Testament Christianity, the Churches of Christ understand Jesus as the founder of the church and the one who determines its form. Yet as the de facto creed solidified within the Churches of Christ, the emphasis of restoring Christianity shifted toward an emphasis on restoring the church. The result among many Churches of Christ was that the rubrics of classical theology were now understood through the lens of ecclesiology.24 Consequently, the christological paradigm was eclipsed by a ecclisio-centric theology in which form trumped function. A key example is what the Churches of Christ regard as their “Exodus” movement following World War II, in which new congregations were established throughout the industrial north of America.25 In the years prior to the war, the majority of the Churches of Christ existed throughout the southern Bible-belt states, but after returning from the war, many of the veterans and their families moved north to work in steel mills, auto plants, and other Union trades. Bound by sectarianism and church dogma, the only option for these migrant families was to establish a new Church of Christ, since joining a church from a different denomination—even a congregation of the Disciples of Christ or Independent Christian Churches, who are also heirs of the Restoration Movement—was regarded as abandoning the Christian faith. So, the migrants’ new congregations were established according to the presumed pattern of the New Testament church, which resulted in churches that in their praxis looked remarkably like each other and their sister churches in the South. Cultural differences between the southern states and northern states were not considered by these new transplanted congregations.

Now these churches find themselves living among local cultures that have undergone significant philosophical and social changes since the era when the churches were first established. Rather than lamenting the challenges faced in such a missional context, the local church must reconsider how it participates in the mission of God and what practices this participation involves. For many Churches of Christ, this means moving beyond a dogmatic ecclesiology towards a missiology that is deeply rooted in Christ, yet not merely Christ in the past but also Christ who is Lord in the present and future. This involves first understanding the congregation as a local body of Christ, formed by the Spirit to live as an extension of Jesus Christ, who is the head, continuing the work he has already begun. While the role of the Spirit remains essential for such participation, the work of the Spirit also remains subordinated to Christ26 so that the course of the church’s participation in the mission of God is set by Christ. In light of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ to the throne as Lord, the church must also look with an eschatological lens that shapes the course of participation. Since the future of history is already revealed as victory, local churches are free to follow Jesus and live as witnesses of his reign, which is known through the memory of the past and the anticipated hope of the future. Participation in the mission of God involves a proleptic proclamation of what is anticipated based on what has happened, with the church neither representing itself as the goal nor forsaking the gospel for an alternative story.27

A Narrative Homiletic

Knowing the North American context as well as the role that churches must play as participants in the mission of God, the preacher must employ a homiletical method that enables the congregation to engage in missional praxis. Returning to the earlier discussion, a practice is understood as a coherent activity composed of both internal and external goods. As participants on mission with God, the church engages in a variety of activities and must do so beginning with the internal goods rather than with an end in mind. So, in the case of evangelism, the internal good of the praxis is faithfulness to the reign of God in Christ as the end28 rather than looking toward the goals of conversions, baptisms, new church members, and new churches. This is one way that churches live as a proleptic proclamation of Christ through the memory of the past and the hope of the future. Even though conversions, baptisms, and the rest are welcomed and desired, such responses are never the results manufactured by a church through any means—no matter how noble—other than the faithful witness to God’s kingdom.

For Churches of Christ, the responsibility of faithfulness to God’s reign in Christ requires a new lens for reading Scripture. As already seen, what shapes the Churches of Christ is a de facto creed that understands the purpose of the church as the restoration (and now maintenance) of the New Testament Church. This is a hermeneutical issue29 and any talk of a new missional praxis requires a hermeneutic that invites the readers of the Bible into the unfolding drama of the creative-redemptive work of God. In this way, the church would still read Scripture as the word of God having authority and bearing witness to God’s work within redemptive history, but space is also opened for reading Scripture as the script by which the church improvises in a consistent yet innovative manner so that it remains coherent with the biblical story.30 The potential is freedom from an ecclesiology that impedes an identity proceeding from the mission of God in which the church participates. Instead, the church, reading from a missional hermeneutic, receives an ecclesiology formed by the mission of God so that the church may live as a proclamation of what God’s reign in Christ looks like within the local context.

In this regard, preaching in the Christian assembly is understood as a practice undertaken within a community of disciples seeking to live a demonstration of God’s creative-redemptive work. This is why it is necessary to embrace a narrative homiletic structure. As a practice, the sermon is related to the faith formation of disciples. Embracing a narrative homiletic involves internal goods that are coherent with discipleship. Just as discipleship involves following Jesus as participants in the mission of God, narrative preaching reimagines what it means for disciples to live within the biblical narrative so that the church lives on mission with God. Therefore, neither the preacher nor the church is co-opting the text for what David Fleer calls “our therapeutic culture” or even for pragmatism and utilitarianism. Instead, the development of a narrative sermon begins by allowing a particular text of scripture to provide the “parameters and hints for preaching.”31

Following Jesus always begins with repentance, a letting go of the way people think and act so that they may receive the kingdom of God and thereby participate in the mission of God. Narrative preaching relays the call of repentance because the sermon embraces the directional switch of biblical interpretation that developed with post-liberal theology. Instead of demonstrating the relevance of the biblical text for the lives of the hearers as expository preaching often aims to do,32 the sermon invites and/or challenges hearers to live within the life the text imagines. If that life is not relevant or even in keeping with conventional wisdom, repentance is the response of the hearing church. Such response is an interpretation in which the church comes to see itself in the context of the kingdom of God and therefore from the perspective of God, so that the church may begin to catch “glimpses of what human life is and means in the context of God’s eternal reign that has come among us in Jesus Christ.”33

Although narrative preaching still requires exegesis and theological understanding, it is also craftsmanship that thoughtfully and wisely opens redemptive space. The sermon is an art form, a construction of words shaped by the biblical text that calls the church into the redemptive future made present by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the church community.34 Since this future is revealed and made possible in Christ, preaching the biblical narrative as God’s word to the church is always christologically centered and eschatologically oriented. A helpful metaphor for understanding the homiletical burden is found in Ephesians 2:10, where the church is described as poiēma, “God’s work of art” (NJB). In imagining God’s creative-redemptive work as a painting in progress, those who observe it—the local and even catholic church—should begin to see a portrait of God’s redemptive work. Though the portrait has yet to be completed, the embodied witness of the church is revealing the gospel of Christ and his kingdom so that the church’s neighbors can begin to imagine what the finished artwork will look like.

The need for a narrative homiletic that calls the church into the biblical narrative makes even more sense knowing that every person is already living a story. For preaching, the question is whether the story the listeners are living is the story told within the biblical narrative or some other story. Too often, the latter seems the case, and, too often, preaching enables this by translating the text to make sense within other stories. This is the result of preaching that orients itself towards an external good according to which what matters is some measurable result rather than faithfulness to the biblical narrative. For example, I once heard a Christmas message preached from the Bible offering the church tips for managing the stress of the Christmas season that comes from buying gifts, attending Christmas parties, and so on. Instead of inviting the church to surrender whatever keeps them from truly worshiping this newborn child who is the Christ, the sermon adapted the Scriptures to the consumer values of American life that makes the Christmas season more stressful. Conversely, when preaching is faithful to the biblical narrative, the proclamation calls the church to enter into and adapt to the life imagined within Scripture rather than adapting Scripture to other stories that Christians are prone to live.

A narrative homiletic may offer an encouraging word that exhorts the church toward the redemptive goal of the gospel, or it may offer a prophetic word that calls the church to repentance with the intent of embracing the redemptive goal of the gospel. The latter is more challenging, while the former is more inviting, and so the preacher must discern if the word proclaimed is to be invitational or confrontational. Preaching, then, may invite or challenge the church into the biblical narrative through a particular text so that the church may more faithfully embody the gospel as followers of Jesus participating in the mission of God.

In my own preaching, there are two narrative approaches I find helpful. The first is from Eugene Lowry. I use Lowry’s method in order to create an invitational narrative that moves from naming the problem or discrepancy toward an “unknown resolution” or a “known conclusion.”35 This involves an inductive sequence of five movements that leads the church to hear what God is doing. Hearing becomes an invitation that opens the imagination for how the church may join in this work of God. Such preaching is not for the purpose of evoking guilt; rather, it is intended to encourage, by way of an invitational word, the embodiment of the gospel. 36

The second narrative homiletic strategy is from John Wright. I have found Wright’s method more helpful when the sermon needs to challenge the church. The homiletic movement in this approach is done with a “tragic hermeneutical moment” in which there is “the opportunity for a genuine shift in the horizon of the congregation—a shift of allegiances from those of the society at large to those of the church in submission to Christ. The tragic moment unseals the congregation so that they might find their lives in the biblical narrative, rather than absorbing the biblical narrative into theirs. The consistent in-breaking of the Word in proclamation can re-form a congregation into an alternative community, Christianly distinct from the world around them, a particular people whose witness lies in the Scriptural horizon of their communal life.”37 Arriving at this turning point requires the development of a narrative sermon sequence that begins with the non-biblical stories the church may be living within but is able to identify the limitations of those stories. Doing so opens the church to enter into the biblical story. The key here is what Wright calls a “homiletic of turning,” which in the sermon script involves a paragraph that begins by stating the limitations of the non-biblical story and then points the way forward by announcing the different way that is found within the biblical text taken as a window to the biblical story.38

However, in order to understand and articulate the non-biblical story(s) in a way that goes deeper than the superficial level, the preacher must locate him or herself pastorally within the church community. Preaching, as a practice oriented towards internal goods, must take place within the community from a position of humble service. This is consistent with the logic of the gospel. Only as a servant among the community is the preacher able to listen as a pastor and know the community of believers, their struggles, and the stories that shape their lives. Beyond this, as a servant among the community, the preacher is offering a living demonstration, imperfect as it is, of the very life imagined in the biblical story. This creates a context that provides meaning to the words that the preacher will proclaim and the language spoken so that the preacher is preaching to the church rather than beyond the church. In doing so, the preacher is able to speak with a “Christian language that presents the church as a visible manifestation of the redemptive presence of God.”39

Listening to the church and its needs is only part of the process. Knowing God and, particularly, knowing what God is saying in the Bible remains imperative. If the sermon is to announce the way forward, the way of life imagined within the biblical narrative, then having a reasonable idea of what the text says is important. An exegetical and theological understanding of the text allows the preacher to clarify what the text is attempting to do and then work that into the development of the sermon. In my own practice, I still believe a sermon is better when there is a clear focus and function statement.40 While a narrative homiletic structure has an intrinsic function, writing out a focus and function allows the preacher to clarify such qualitative differences as correcting, rebuking, and encouragement (cf. 2 Tim 4:2).

Finally, just as the church no longer has a position of authority within society, neither does the preacher. This lack of authority may appear difficult. However, since preaching is a practice of the church as it participates in the mission of God, the credibility of preaching is located in the coherency between the message proclaimed and the message lived by the church—preacher included. Consequently, the church bears the responsibility for living as a demonstration of God’s reign as imagined within the biblical narrative. Granting the church does not give this life away to an external goal, the local church will at times attract others (and at times will not) as God’s invitation to become a disciple of Jesus and live this very life. Preaching also articulates this invitation. Yet, without automatic authority, the credibility of the message is established by the coherency between that message and the life of the church and the preacher. Thus, by preaching out of this narrative homiletic, the church is able to embrace its missional responsibility and live as faithful yet improvisational actors within the biblical story,41 establishing credibility so that the church and its message may be given a hearing by society.


A dictum attributed to Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and the apostle Paul said, “Living is Christ, dying is gain” (Phil 1:21). For Christians, the life worth living is that revealed as the gospel by Christ and lived as disciples of Christ. The church encounters this gospel disclosed in the Bible as a participatory story among a world where other stories attempt to absorb and appropriate the gospel. The practice of preaching seeks to proclaim the gospel of Christ as a counter-narrative to other stories that are embedded within the lives of the hearers. The development of a sermon, then, must do more than just proclaim the gospel of Jesus and articulate what a particular passage of Scripture means. With courage and creativity, theological and cultural insight, and pastoral wisdom, the sermon must be an event that, first, opens space for the hearers to examine their lives in light of the gospel by means of the biblical text. The same sermon must also cultivate a new imagination so that its hearers might coherently embody the gospel within the narrative arc of Scripture.

For this reason, ministers among the Churches of Christ must adopt a narrative homiletic in order to call the local church to live into the mission of God as followers of Jesus Christ. The narrative homiletic structure takes preaching beyond topical and didactic purposes, adopting an approach that is consistent with the missional hermeneutic in which the church lives within the biblical story as participants in the mission of God. Although I have mentioned two narrative approaches for sermon development, preaching should employ whatever narrative homiletic form with which the preacher is comfortable. Preaching is always proclamation through the medium of the one preaching. For the sermon to invite and challenge the church to live the gospel story, the preacher must be among the hearers as part of the community. Simply put, sermon preparation involves spending time with people as much as it involves spending time in Scripture. In this way the sermon has the capability of forming the gathered church as disciples who live as participants in the mission of God.

K. Rex Butts serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura, and together they have three children.

1 Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ (Fort Worth, TX: The Brownlow Corporation, 1973), 176. Brownlow illustrates the connection between the hermeneutical principles and doctrine when he writes, “‘Speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.’ A strict adherence to this basic principle is the reason for the omission of instrumental music in the worship of the churches of Christ.” His book was used as curriculum for Bible classes in local congregations and often given to people after their baptism. My copy is the sixty-first printing in 2013, which speaks to the longevity and popularity of the book. The three distinctives regarding baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and singing were reaffirmed as part of an article signed by multiple leaders within the Churches of Christ that encouraged a continuation of the “clear teachings of Scripture and practices of the early church, commonly acknowledged and respected by all Christian traditions.” See “A Christian Affirmation 2005,” The Christian Chronicle, May 2005.

2 Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 10. Hughes observes that by the middle of the eighteenth century, the doctrinal emphasis of the movement had already crystalized into an informal creed (58).

3 See Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority, rev. ed. (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001).

4 Chris Altrock, Preaching to Pluralists: How to Proclaim Christ in a Postmodern Age (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 63. Altrock adds, “Listeners walk away with a richer and fuller understanding of the text’s meaning.”

5 George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), 118.

6 Dave Bland and David Fleer, eds., Preaching Character: Reclaiming Wisdom’s Paradigmatic Imagination for Transformation (Abilene: ACU Press, 2010); idem, Reclaiming the Imagination: The Exodus as Paradigmatic Narrative for Preaching (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2009); idem, Preaching John’s Gospel: The Word It Imagines (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008); idem, Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007); idem, Preaching Mark’s Unsettling Messiah (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006); idem, Performing the Psalms: With Essays and Sermons by Walter Brueggemann, J. Clinton McCann Jr., Paul Scott Wilson, and Others (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2005); idem, Preaching the Eighth Century Prophets (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2004); idem, Preaching Hebrews (Abilene: ACU Press, 2003); idem, Preaching Romans (Abilene: ACU Press, 2002); idem, Preaching Autobiography: Connecting the Word of the Preacher and the World of the Text (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2001); idem, Preaching From Luke/Acts (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2000).

7 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 187.

8 Ibid., 188–89. MacIntyre uses chess as his example in explaining that “there are the goods internal to the practice of chess which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess or some other game of that specific kind. We call them internal for two reasons: first, as I have already suggested, because we can only specify them in terms of chess or some other game of that specific kind and by means of examples from such games . . . and secondly because they can only be identified and recognized by the experience of participating in the practice in question.”

9 Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 31.

10 Ibid, 34. So while the internal goods of a practice are not always self-evident, they are not unattainable. Stone writes, “The task of determining the nature of the goods internal to a practice requires that we take into account (a) the living community, or tradition, in which the question about the proper aim of a practice is embodied and extended through time, (b) the narrative that renders our actions intelligible . . . , and (c) the acquired qualities of character (virtues) that are required for pursuit of those goods.”

11 Stanley E. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 70. In other words, reason was the new epistemological foundation where, “because the universe was both orderly and knowable, the use of the proper methods could lead to true knowledge.”

12 See David E. Fitch, The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 133, who is describing how the culture of evangelical preaching is speaking to the individualistic mind isolated in a pew from the communal discernment of the church.

13 Grenz, 79.

14 For the Churches of Christ, when it comes to the question of Christian worship, the authoritative Scripture is that which is positively stated in the New Testament, such as “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19, NRSV; cf. Col 3:16). However, for the listeners who belong to other denominations, the Psalms are authoritative and therefore have a lot to say regarding the worship of God. The issue of disagreement is not a disregard for Biblical authority but a difference in language and interpretation, among other differences, and how these differences work with the reasoning of the human mind.

15 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), 158.

16 See Grenz, 79; see also Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 82, who write with a very polemical tone.

17 James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 38.

18 Darrell L Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 2, who writes, “Rather than occupying a central and influential place, North American Christian churches are increasingly marginalized, so much so that in our urban areas they represent a minority movement. It is by now a truism to speak of North America as a mission field. Our concern is the way that the Christian churches are responding to this challenge.”

19 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 390; Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 62, who also observes, “The mission of God is the prior reality out of which flows any mission that we get involved in. Or, as has been nicely put, it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission—God’s mission.”

20 Vincent J. Donavan, Christianity Rediscovered: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003), 77.

21 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, trans. Margaret Kohl (New York: Harper & Row, 1977; reprint, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 70.

22 Michael W. Goheen, “As The Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You,” International Review of Mission 91, no. 362 (July 2002): 359.

23 Moltmann, 73, who regards either option as a weakness.

24 See M. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible: A History of Disciples Biblical Interpretation in North America (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 279, who explains the reason for the Churches of Christ running theology through ecclesiology: “Orthodox ecclesiology became the crucial topic in Churches of Christ theology, which could not tolerate a view that made the church only penultimate in God’s plan. To relativize the doctrine of the church was to bring the raison d’être of the whole group into question.”

25 This movement, led by Dwain Evans, called for people to move into regions of the United States where there were few, if any, established congregations of the Churches of Christ, see Hughes, 334.

26 Moltmann, 73.

27 Ibid, 75.

28 Stone, 223, “Evangelism does not necessarily produce anything, nor is it a means to some other end; rather, faithfulness in witnessing to God’s peaceable reign is its end, even if that witness is rejected.”

29 Boring, 3. The author elsewhere recognizes the hermeneutical problems among restoration churches saying, “Disciples need a way to stop ‘looking up’ things in the Bible as though it were a religious dictionary or ‘resource book,’ a way that will help us recover our grasp on the Bible as a whole, a way of coming to terms with the biblical doctrine(s) of revelation (the word of God), God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, eschatology” (441).

30 N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 140. Wright suggests that we read Scripture as a five-act play, a narrative which we have a part within. Our role in the play requires both “innovation” and “consistency,” so that we are able to improvise while remaining on script (coherency) rather than repeating the past over and over. See also Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 25–27, who rely on the work of Wright but present the narrative in six acts.

31 David Fleer, “Preaching as Conformity to Scripture’s Language: The Case of the Elder Brother and the Party,” Restoration Quarterly 43, no. 4 (2001): 255.

32 Ian Hussey, “Preaching For The Whole Life,” The Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 20, no. 1 (2020): 66–67.

33 David R. Schmitt, “The Tapestry of Preaching,” Concordia Journal 37, no. 2 (2011): 119.

34 Stone, 226.

35 Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 22–23. By unknown resolution, Lowry means a resolution to the discrepancy that is “unknown in advance.” Opposite of the unknown resolution is the known conclusion, in which the listeners know the end but are engaged in wondering how the end or known conclusion will come about.

36 Ibid., 86, “The preached Word makes possible the redemption into new life by its announcement of what God has done and is doing. Sermonically, this means the central issue is the proclamation of that good news.”

37 John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 44.

38 Ibid., 87, 98–99.

39 Ibid, 136.

40 Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 86. This citation is to the original edition but two subsequent editions have been published. See Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

41 The idea of faithful yet improvisational actors is used by N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 121–27; idem, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 139–43. The idea is to imagine the church as actors within a play in which the particular scene the local church is to act out is missing. Because the particular scene is missing, the church improvises what the scene should be, but it must do so in a manner that is coherent with the story plotline and location of the scene. This coherent acting within the plotline and location is faithful improvisation.

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