Transparent preaching is not without risks
Several years ago I participated in a seminar about sex and dating held at a Christian college. The other speaker was a well-known minister whose vision and ministry have influenced thousands of young people. Unfortunately, the subject of sex and dating was not his forte.
Attempting to relate, he shared a personal temptation experience in graphic detail. He was so explicit the students responded with embarrassed amusement. Instead of identifying with him in a positive way, they later turned his disclosure into a campus parody.
While risky, transparent preaching is still worthwhile. Our family struggles, for example, uniquely prepare us to speak to one of the deepest concerns of our congregations. When people see that we wrestle with similar life issues, our preaching inevitably is perceived as more authentic.
But how do we use personal experiences constructively? What are the secrets of making our sermons truly transparent, and not just emotional exhibitionism? How can we draw on the rich experiences of family life without humiliating our family members?
Disclose in the past tense
For successful transparent preaching, I concern myself both with what I share and the way I share it. When I relate personal temptations, for example, I am careful to disclose them in such a way that the worshiper's attention is focused not on my struggle but on the grace of God. That means the personal struggles and failures I disclose in the pulpit should be in the past tense. If I admit sinful actions, they should be ones I've repented of and, if possible, made right.
I heard of one pastor who opened his sermon by confessing that he and his wife had a fight in the car on the way to church. "I hope we can settle the issue after the service," he said, and then launched into his text.
That pastor's confession may have been therapeutic for him, but it certainly didn't help his wife or the congregation feel better. No one could concentrate on the rest of the sermon; they were wondering how seriously damaged the pastor's marriage was.
My preaching should inspire hope, not amusement or sympathy, or worse yet, doubt. When we make our congregations privy to our present temptations, we inevitably threaten them.
Despite what's said to the contrary, our listeners still expect us to rise above the average person's struggles. And if we have not, they reason, we should at least have the good taste not to mention our spiritual shortcomings in the pulpit.
Keeping my temptations in the past tense accomplishes three things:
- Because I have already worked through the problem, rather than threatening my congregation, the positive outcome gives them hope.
- Because I've had time to reflect on the past experience, I can provide practical insights for helping them deal with their own temptations, thus reinforcing their faith.
- Even though the situations are not current, they're still real. Because I share life experiences common to us all, they find my preaching more real, more helpful.
I do at times share some of my current conflicts. If I bare my soul in a hopeful way, often my transparency can have a healing power unlike any other type of preaching.
I know one minister who returned to his pulpit ten days after his son committed suicide. Under duress he read his text: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Visibly struggling, he said:
I cannot make my son's suicide fit into this passage. It's impossible for me to see how anything good can come out of it. Yet I realize that I only see in part. I only know in part.
It's like the miracle of the shipyard. Almost every part of our great oceangoing vessels are made of steel. If you take any single part—be it a steel plate out of the hull or the huge rudder—and throw it into the ocean, it will sink. Steel doesn't float! But when the shipbuilders are finished, when the last plate has been riveted in place, then that massive steel ship is virtually unsinkable.
Taken by itself, my son's suicide is senseless. Throw it into the sea of Romans 8:28, and it sinks. Still, I believe that when the Eternal Shipbuilder has finally finished, when God has worked out his perfect design, even this senseless tragedy will somehow work to our eternal good.
Because the congregation was struggling with the same painful questions about his son's suicide as he was, his transparency was timely and appropriate.
He did not deny or make light of his unspeakable grief. He affirmed his unconditional trust in the wisdom and sovereignty of God. As a result his witness was authentic, and his faith became a source of hope for his congregation.
Standing in both good light and bad
Revealing too much, too soon, however, is not the only pitfall the preacher faces when drawing from personal experience. I also resist the temptation to present myself only in the best possible light. If my congregation always sees me as the hero—riding through life on a white horse, conquering every foe—they will find my preaching self-serving and my credibility suspect.
Not long ago I preached a series of sermons on parenting, and one of the messages was titled, "Mistakes Parents Make." I was concerned that my message might sound accusatory or condescending, so I decided to relay this story:
The first time our future son-in-law visited in our home, I humiliated our daughter. Leah had made us coffee, and when she went to pour it, she discovered that the handle on the coffee pot was too hot to hold. Instead of getting a potholder, she grabbed the handiest thing—a kitchen towel with fringe on the ends. When she picked up the coffee pot, the towel touched the gas flame and caught on fire. Screaming, she dropped both the burning towel and the coffee pot. She wasn't burned, but we had quite a mess.
I lost control and berated Leah right there in front of Todd. "What were you thinking?" I demanded. "You know better than to use a fringed towel around the stove."
Once I got started, I couldn't seem to quit. "You're lucky you didn't burn the house down." With a few more words, I reduced her to tears, and she ran from the room.
My wife Brenda gave me a look that clearly said, "You are one of the world's most insensitive fathers." Without a word she followed Leah upstairs.
I risked a glance at Todd, who sat uncomfortably in the living room not knowing what to do. Not knowing what to say, I went to the kitchen to clean up the mess. By the time I finished, I knew what had to be done.
I went upstairs to find Leah. When she heard me coming, she turned her face to the wall and tried to stifle her sobs. Sitting down on the edge of her bed, I put my hand on her trembling shoulder. She cringed beneath my touch, and I thought my heart would break.
I was tempted to explain my behavior, tempted to say something like "I'm sorry I lost my temper, but you know better than to use a towel around the stove." Somehow I realized that I would still be pointing the finger of blame at Leah.
Finally I managed to say, "There was absolutely no excuse for what I did. Please forgive me. If you'll come back downstairs, I will apologize to Todd as well."
Leah agreed to come, and that emotional scene had a happy ending. But had I been unwilling to own my mistake and make restitution, our relationship might have been seriously wounded, perhaps for life."
By sharing this painfully embarrassing incident, I showed the congregation that, like all parents, I, too, make mistakes. Without accusing anyone I highlighted the common parental mistake of losing one's temper. By owning my mistake publicly, I encouraged other parents to accept responsibility for their own mistakes and then presented a model for making restitution for parental failures.
Attention to the ordinary
I avoid the temptation to overlook the ordinary experiences of life in search of the extraordinary. While examples of dramatic spiritual experiences have their place, our congregations often have difficulty relating.
For the most part, my listeners live lives that can best be described as ordinary—not unlike my own. Their problems, too, are ordinary—trying to make ends meet, finding time for the most important things, dealing with the death of a beloved parent or the empty nest when their last child leaves home.
Frederick Buechner says, "In the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." If I miss the "little" moments, I will be the poorer for it, and so will my preaching.
I often use other people's material to introduce my own. It helps set the context, and shows the significance of the everyday occurrence. On Mother's Day I began by reading Mary Jean Irion's "Gift From a Hair Dryer," a mother's reflection as she dried her 7-year-old daughter's hair following a Saturday night bath.
"Comb and dry, comb and dry," I read. Soon I won't be able to do this any more, you say to yourself, knowing that the little straight bob must inevitably yield to grown-up coiffures and ugly curlers. What will she be like at fourteen? Where will her hair be blowing then? And sixteen and eighteen—you suppose boys will love to watch her hair blow as you do now. And some of them will feel it on their faces, and one of them will marry her, and her hair will be perfect under the veil, and there will be her hair spread out on his pillow … oh, you hate him a little and wonder where he is at this moment and whether he'll be good to her … they will grow old together … the gold-brown hair will be gray, and you will be gone, and then she will be gone … this very hair that now your fingers smooth …
All the tears of the world swim for a second in your eyes as you snatch the plug out of the socket suddenly and gather her into your arms burying your face in the warm hair as if you could seal this moment against all time.
For a moment we were all there, mothers and fathers alike. It was our children who were growing up faster than we ever thought possible. Soon they would be gone, and their precious childhood years would be just a fading memory.
Then I told my congregation how deeply I was moved the first time I read Irion's account. How I put my finger between the pages while tears ran down my cheeks. How she made me realize the many times I had lived moments like that without ever realizing it. How I asked God to forgive me for missing so many of life's special moments. How I vowed to slow down, to spend more time with my family, to live life to the fullest.
Finally, I told them how I got up and went to the door of my 7-year-old daughter's room and watched in wistful silence as she played Barbies. My heart swelled with love and thanksgiving as I realized—maybe for the first time—that this was abundant life. Leah sensed my presence and glanced a question in my direction. I smiled, spread my arms wide, and said, "I love you big—this much!"
Leah returned to her dolls, as if nothing special had happened, while I thanked God for her and for all the special moments we had shared.
I addressed a common concern, and it grabbed the attention of everyone in our church. It not only spoke to their intellect but to their hearts as well.
Making my story their story
Perhaps the greatest challenge in transparent preaching is to avoid focusing on ourselves. By its very nature, transparent preaching is autobiographical, filled with personal experiences. How can we help but focus on ourselves?
I've discovered that I must communicate my experiences so that the hearers get in touch with their own story, not just mine. In a recent seminar conducted by my wife, Brenda, and me, I told how for years I had frustrated Brenda with advice and exhortations.
"Whenever she shared a problem or worry with me," I confessed, "I had a ready answer. The things that troubled her seemed so insignificant to me, so easy to solve. Yet it was not my 'wisdom' she sought, but my understanding. Not realizing this, I continued to advise her. I was a 'fixer,' but what she needed was a compassionate husband who would accept her and listen."
By then, several husbands had sheepish looks on their faces. My story was their story. A number of the wives, identifying with Brenda, were nodding their heads.
"Needless to say," I continued. "My insensitivity was not without its consequences. After a while Brenda stopped sharing her needs and concerns. I hardly noticed, so busy was I in my own world. My easy answers and constant advice had only made her feel silly, inadequate, and angry. So she suffered alone. Over the years this silent suffering took its toll, and she grew depressed. She was careful to hide it from me, for I had not proved worthy of her trust."
"One winter evening I came home early and found her in the bedroom crying. Reluctantly she poured out her hurts, fears, and self-doubts. For once I listened with compassion and didn't try to fix everything. After her grief had spent itself, we sat for a long time that night in silence."
I noticed that several wives in the audience were weeping. This was their story, too. Some of the men, too, were realizing how they had hurt their wives.
"That night was a turning point in our lives. Brenda wasn't suddenly free from her depression, but a bit of the loneliness was gone. She began to believe I might be able to understand her. Little by little she began to trust me with her feelings again. As I responded with compassion and understanding, our relationship deepened."
After the session, several couples shared similar experiences with us. More than one wife said, "That's exactly how I feel, but I've never been able to put it into words." Our story had become theirs. Several were moved to renew their commitment to their marriage.
Jesus told the man out of whom he had cast a legion of demons, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mark 5:19). That, in the final analysis, is how I view the moments of transparency in my preaching. I am describing the grace of God in my life.