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The Challenge of Authenticity in Preaching

Laying bare your story and soul before congregations for the sake of bearing witness to the One who holds your story and breathes life into your soul.
The Challenge of Authenticity in Preaching
Image: Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images

The first sermon I ever preached was as a youth ministry intern, more than twenty years and a thousand teachings ago. The text was from Matthew 14, the story of Jesus walking on water. But I didn’t talk much about that. I spent most of my time relating my own life experiences to Peter’s walking/sinking episode. I revealed a lot about myself, explored a bit about Peter, and can’t recall if I mentioned Jesus much at all. Essentially, it was a well-meaning, poorly planned, unwittingly self-obsessed attempt at authenticity.

My intentions were good. I wanted the students to know that no matter what storms of life they faced, they too could “walk on water,” so to speak, and if and when they faltered, Jesus would be there to offer a helping hand. Aside from the potentially ruinous theological and practical implications of such a simplification of the text, the teaching ended up accomplishing none of that anyway. Instead, the sermon elicited sympathy, empathy, and some undeserved admiration. Rather than making much of Jesus, my failed attempt at authenticity made much of me.

In his first letter to the early Christians in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul writes, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess 2:8). Like Paul, preachers today are called to share not only the gospel but the intersection at which the good news encounters and confronts our personal lives. The sermon is a way to offer our ordinary stories and struggles as a means of communicating and putting on display the extraordinary power of God. As such, authenticity is an integral and necessary part of preaching. But challenges, and opportunities, abound.

Authenticity and the Truth

The English word authenticity comes from the Latin authenticus, meaning “original” or “genuine.” In the past, authenticity was most often directly related to the idea of truth—if something was true, if someone was telling the truth, any time we pointed toward truth—we were in the realm of authenticity. But in recent years, as culture has moved further into a post-truth (Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year) era, the meaning of authenticity has evolved along with it.

The authentic person today, rather than pointing to a singular truth, is one who embodies and lives their truth. To be authentic is to be “true to one’s self,” over and against devoting one’s energies toward the search for any one, universal truth. Taken to the extreme, such a pursuit might even be deemed inauthentic, along with being intolerant, oppressive, or abusive. According to Carl Trueman, an individual today is considered, “most authentic when acting out in public those desires and feelings that characterize his inner psychological life.” This cultural reality poses significant challenges for preaching. But it also offers a unique opportunity.

The fickle nature of “truth” in a “my-truth” world is leaving us, and the people we serve and shepherd, are in a perpetual state of flux, tossed back and forth by the shifting tides of cultural norms, tenets, and criteria. The offer of a compelling and convicted view of singular truth, developed at and preached from the intersection of a thoughtful exegesis of Scripture and an honest exegesis of our personal lives, cultivates a meaningful and anchored authenticity that can bridge the gap between clergy and congregation and open us up together to the transformative power of God in and through the sermon.

The Tension of Ambiguity

Let’s go back for a moment to Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2. A few lines before acknowledging his delight in sharing his life with his congregation, he notes that, “we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (1 Thess 2:4). Preachers must first and always embody and express the gospel as the centerpiece and fulcrum of the sermon.

And what is the gospel? It’s good news. Specifically, it’s good news about Jesus—his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Meaning, it’s not news about us.

Authenticity in preaching always comes with the risk of doing exactly that—making the story about us. But there is no saving power in us, nor in our own stories, no matter how emotively, passionately, or compellingly we may tell said stories. One of the most effective ways to guard against the spotlight-hungry underbelly of authenticity is to leverage it as a tool for establishing the problem rather than displaying the answer.

Eugene Lowry writes that, “thinking begins at the point of a felt problem. Problems are felt as ambiguity and hence the introduction of ambiguity is the first step in a sermon as preached.” When sharing our stories, it’s natural to think beginning-middle-end, for this is how all stories are told. But personalization in preaching requires a disruption to the normative arch. Authenticity is most helpful when it tells the beginning and middle of the story in order to create the tension of ambiguity, heightening the congregation’s longing for resolution and resolve.

When our authenticity extends beyond this point in the sermon, to the end itself, the result is usually sympathy, empathy, or undeserved admiration. Sometimes it’s pity or confusion or some strange mix of it all. Careless authenticity in preaching has a tendency to devolve into self-centric authenticity, casting us as heroic martyrs, distracting and diverting from the gospel, the story in which Jesus alone is the martyr and the hero.

The Martyr and the Hero

Early on in my preaching life, one of my mentors, a gifted and experienced preacher, told me, “In the sermon, never allow yourself to be the martyr nor the hero. Jesus already died and Jesus already won. He’s the martyr and he’s the hero. No one else.” This idea has not only stuck with me, it’s saved me countless times from recklessly, irresponsibly allowing the pursuit of authenticity to derail the sermon, setting it off the course headed toward the gospel and onto the path I trekked during that first sermon, toward the self.

Sharing our lives, the ups and downs and ins and outs, in a way that’s honest, genuine, and even raw, while also pointing toward Jesus as the central figure in the story, is a far more complex and nuanced endeavor than many assume. Meaningful authenticity always involves vulnerability, but it’s unnatural and unnerving to be vulnerable in front of dozens, hundreds, and for some preachers, thousands of congregants, some of whom we know well, many and maybe most of whom we hardly know at all. When this dynamic is left unattended, protective mechanisms kick into gear and we find ourselves protecting ego by subtly making ourselves heroic or covering up insecurity by subtly making ourselves martyrs.

But being effectively authentic in preaching calls us to come to terms with discomfort. Thomas Long writes that the sermon moves the preacher “from being a witness to bearing witness.” Herein lies the tension. Authenticity is the bearing of your own story and soul; but authenticity in preaching requires the same laying bare of your story and soul before congregations for the sake of bearing witness to the One who holds your story and breathes life into your soul. Authenticity in preaching is a laying down of the self. It is a sacrifice and a submission. This sort of work demands humility, openness, intentionality, thoughtful preparation, and a sober awareness of both ego and insecurity.

Crafting and cultivating such authenticity in our preaching requires us to move away from the question, “What will people think of me when they hear this?” and toward the question, “What will people think of Jesus when they hear this?” And it is this second question that is in fact the answer to the tension of authenticity. The first question always feels like it matters so much. But this is, again, for the most part just ego and insecurity.

Thank You, Jim

In a sermon I gave a few months back, I shared a story from my childhood, a significant moment of pain that left an indelible mark on me. I was genuine, truthful, and vulnerable. I was authentic. But unlike my first sermon decades before, this time, my authenticity initiated the journey but the preaching pilgrimage took us to the Cross, and the healing and wholeness I was able to find in Christ. The light shone brightest on the power of resurrection, not my own resilient, effortful resolve.

After the teaching, several people came to talk and thank me. One woman approached with tears in her eyes and told me that God had spoken to her through my words. I thanked her and briefly prayed with her. As she walked away, with warmth and tenderness in her eyes, she said, “Thank you, Jim.” My name is Jay. But it was a beautifully and profoundly affirming moment. Because my name doesn’t matter.

Jesus, the name above all names, the one name under heaven by which we are saved, is the only name that matters. This is the point of any and all authenticity in preaching, to declare and proclaim the good news of Jesus, and what that good news has done for us and to us, and to tell that story now through us. The preacher is a conduit, not the source, of transformative power. Authenticity is the means not the end; the path not the destination; the baring of souls and stories for the sake of bearing witness to the One who can redeem and restore our souls and stories, disentangling us from ego, freeing us from insecurity, bringing us wholeness, healing, and renewal.

Jay Y. Kim serves as lead pastor at WestGate Church in the Silicon Valley of California. He’s the author of several books, including Analog Christian and Analog Church.

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