Chapter 34

Self-Disclosure That Glorifies Christ

Transparent preaching aims to reveal the light, not the window

Observing college students and their reactions to various preachers has been an education for me. Students want to know if the preacher is a fellow struggler or someone who lives on a different planet.

They can quickly sense a "Bible bureaucrat" or someone speaking from a pedestal of perceived perfection, and their hearts shut down. But let them see the reality of a preacher's pilgrimage, and they willingly follow.

But self-disclosure is tricky. Some kinds of confessional preaching erode respect. If in any way self-disclosure lessens our congregation's confidence and respect, we should work on those issues privately. Indiscriminate revelation may diminish our greatest ministry, that of cutting a godly wake by the example of our lives.

Paul's counsel to Timothy helps chart the course for keeping our transparency constructive. In 1 Timothy 4:12, he urges Timothy to live a life that is an example. Paul is quick to indicate that he is not asking Timothy to live a perfect life, but rather that he is to work hard so that his "progress" may be evident to all.

An example, or an excuse?

Preachers quick to admit their own faults publicly may, if they are not careful, give the impression that they are stuck in sinful habits and patterns. Wanting not to appear perfect is important—but not if it costs the demonstration of progress in our walk with Christ.

One danger of transparency is that we cease to be examples to the flock and become instead their excuse. Every pastor eventually becomes one or the other.

Repeated exposure to a preacher's failings may end up only excusing the faults of the flock. Hearing them say "My pastor has this problem as well" without a stimulus from the pastor to remediate the problem is a bad consequence of transparency.

Discerning self-disclosure

To be an example in progress demands that we use self-disclosure in discerning ways. Don't talk about the same category of failure year after year. If traffic violations are your besetting sin, the telling of traffic stories throughout your pastorate only tells people that there are areas in which they do not need to grow, since the pastor is obviously satisfied with ongoing failure as well.

When admitting faults, don't trivialize them. Couch them in a context of appropriate shame. Sometimes in the euphoria of connecting with the audience as a real person, or in the spinning of a story about ourselves that has some humorous elements, it is easy to give the impression that failure is "no big deal."

Preaching to challenge people to growth and Christlikeness is not enhanced by the impression that we all have problems and after all, "nobody's perfect"—not even the preacher.

Couching the disclosure with disclaimers like "I'm not proud of this," or "This is an area of my life that I am targeting for growth," helps the listener maintain a healthy dose of discomfort with the problem.

Let people see a solution to the struggle. For every struggle there is a biblical pattern of remediation. Weaving that into the story or making it the point of the message places hope in the hearer's heart. They see a definitive way in which they can grow with you.

One way to do this is to balance failure stories with an equal dose of your spiritual successes. We all need people in front of us who are winning victories within earshot of our own lives. If you are uncomfortable with appearing to boast, then keep your reliance on God evident. Add statements like, "I am thankful for the grace God gave me when I. …"

Telling about when you went out of your way to be kind; when you said no to temptation; when you captured an opportunity to witness in the face of your fears; or when you responded positively to your spouse or children dramatizes the truth that victory is within reach for everyone. If you share the joy of winning for Jesus, others will want to claim similar joys in their own lives.

Remember that preaching is not about you. It is about Him; His authority in our lives; His worthiness to be worshiped and obeyed; the example of His life to be duplicated in our own; the glory of His presence in our lives and the life transforming power of His Word and indwelling Spirit.

Transparency gone amuck renders the sermon more about us than about Him. If listeners leave remembering us and our struggles (or our personal victories!) more than Christ's transforming power, then we have done preaching and our hearers a disservice.

I'll never forget hearing a church member tell his pastor, a gifted communicator, "Bill, ten minutes into the sermon you disappeared, and I heard from God!"