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Losing the Center (Part 2)

When personal experience becomes the foundation of your sermon.

This is part two of a two-part article. In part one, Koessler discussed how micronarrative is a double-edged sword: it has a legitimate place in the message, but must not replace the Word of God.

Stories of personal experience are interesting and can be a powerful tool for today's preacher. But the sermon's foundation must be laid with better material. Personal experience provides an uncertain footing for the expository message. Experience can be a strong testimony when it is used in a corroborative way, but experience is not self-validating. One person's personal experience can be used to contradict that of another.

Many years ago, I heard a pastor that I deeply respected challenge a world-renowned atheist's assumptions about the Christian faith with these words: "There isn't anything I can tell you about Jesus Christ that you don't already know, but there is one thing I can tell you that you haven't heard, and that is my personal testimony." He went on to describe his conversion experience and the subsequent change that the work of Christ produced in his life.

Personal experience is a useful touch point in the sermon, but it should never be the final reference point.

I was so impressed by this approach that, a few months later, I attempted to use the same line of reasoning on a bald-headed devotee of Eastern mysticism in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I bumped into him on my way out of a bookstore, and he asked me to buy a colorful magazine filled with stories about the gods he worshipped. I attempted to engage him with the gospel. When I told him I knew the gospel was true because of the change Jesus Christ had brought about in my life, he flashed a beatific smile. "I know exactly what you are talking about," he declared. "Lord Krishna did the same for me."

Machen is correct: "Christian experience is rightly used when it helps to convince us that the events narrated in the New Testament actually did occur; but it can never enable us to be Christians whether the events occurred or not." All experiences may be true experiences, but the conclusions we draw from them are not always true.

The believer's experience confirms the testimony of the biblical record. But it is the biblical record and the events it recounts that interpret the believer's experience. If Christ's resurrection did not actually take place, it does not change our experience, but it does change their significance. If Christ did not rise, "we are to be pitied more than all men," no matter what our experience has been.

Preaching that makes the micronarrative its center of gravity is interested primarily in the audience. As laudable as this is, it is not a sufficient focus for biblical exposition. The goal of the expositor is to convey God's message. The prophet Jeremiah captures this idea when he speaks of the "burden of the Lord" in Jeremiah 23:33–38. The burden is the heart of the prophetic message, the essential content that the prophet must convey to God's people. In this respect, every preacher feels the weight of the prophetic mantle when standing before the congregation.

The preacher, however, differs from the prophet in an important respect. Although both aim to communicate the Word of God, the preacher's words are not God's words. When the prophets spoke, they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Such language, while not necessarily implying dictation, speaks clearly of divine control. The prophets spoke from God. This unique ministry of the Holy Spirit guaranteed that the true prophet would say only what God intended. The expositor, on the other hand, speaks about God's Word.

This does not mean that the Holy Spirit is absent from the process of sermon formulation and preaching. Paul's request that the Ephesians pray for him, so that whenever he opened his mouth words might be "given" to him, is a clear indication of the preacher's dependence upon God. But unction, in this sense, is not the same thing as inspiration. The distinction between God's Word and the preacher's words is an important one and must be maintained. God's Word is inerrant and infallible. It is authoritative and must be obeyed. Those who reject God's Word reject God himself.

The preacher cannot make such a claim. While the expositor speaks with authority, it is derived authority. The preacher's words do not have the same inherent authority that the prophet's words possessed. When speaking in the capacity of his office, the prophet's words were God's words. The expositor's words remain his own, no matter how good the sermon may be. The authority of the expositor is contingent in nature and extends only as far as the text itself. Those who reject the preacher's words reject God only when the preacher conveys the truth of the biblical text.

Consequently, the burden placed upon the preacher is both the same and different from the obligation laid upon the prophet. The prophet was charged with the task of accurately conveying the Words of God to his audience. The expositor shares this responsibility. Kent Edwards warns: "Good preaching is not based on original idea. It strives to say to a contemporary audience what the original author of the biblical text said to the original audience."

But the biblical expositor bears an added burden. It is the responsibility of being a mediator of the text. In a sense, the preacher stands between the text and the congregation, and acts on behalf of both. The preacher studies what God has said in order to know what he intended to communicate. The preacher also listens to the text on behalf of the congregation, in an effort to discern its implications for them. The expositor tries to anticipate how the audience will hear the text and frames the message in a way that is best suited to their needs. In short, the preacher's challenge is to convey the "unoriginal" idea of the text in an original and practical way. The difficult task assigned to God's messenger is that of being interesting and relevant without altering the message.

How, then, do we make certain that the center of gravity in the message is rooted in the metanarrative of God's Word? It is not necessarily a question of whether the sermon begins with a reading of the text or a personal story. Micronarrative may be a very effective starting point for the sermon. Preachers often use personal experience to establish common ground and raise concerns that will eventually be addressed by the text. Personal experience can even be used as a running narrative in the sermon, functioning as a kind of antiphonal reply or thematic "call and response" that answers the main assertions of the biblical text. I believe Rob Bell does this effectively in the Nooma video entitled Rain, where he weaves the story of a walk in the woods during a thunderstorm throughout his message. The story serves as a bridge to the text and a living metaphor that reflects the sermon's central idea and exemplifies the points he makes from the Scripture texts he explains.

Three tests can help us determine whether the sermon's center of gravity is rooted in the metanarrative of Scripture or the micronarrative of personal experience. First, ask yourself where the critical mass of the sermon is found. In nature, gravity is related to mass. The same is true of the sermon. Is the sermon grounded in the idea of the biblical text or in the concepts that are conveyed by story? This is not a mathematical matter, as if you could determine the answer by simply calculating the number of verses read during the message. Rather, it is conceptual. Where do the ideas in your sermon come from? Do they originate in the text? Or are they grounded in the stories you use? Sermons where the biblical content has a low center of gravity relegate the ideas of Scripture to the periphery of the message. The use of Scripture is incidental and superficial.

Second, when it comes to gravity, the presence of mass causes objects to accelerate toward each other. The same should be true of the relationship between story and text in the sermon. When you use personal experience in the message, it should move the audience closer to an understanding of the text and its implications for them. Does your use of story point listeners to the text? Does it clarify the text for them and help them to see what implementation looks like in real life? Does it motivate them to follow through on the admonition of the text? Or does the story seem to function as an end in itself?

Third, gravity gives weight to objects. Where is the weight in this sermon? Is it a function of the truth of the text or the stories you tell? Suppose you eliminated all the Scripture from your message. Could you still preach the sermon? If the answer is yes, the biblical center of gravity is too low and needs to be adjusted.

Personal experience is a useful touch point in the sermon, but it should never be the final reference point. In nature, the center of gravity is the location where the weight of an object is concentrated. A proper center of gravity is essential for keeping one's balance. In the realm of preaching, the delicate balance between biblical truth and personal experience can be maintained only when the sermon's center of gravity is oriented around the biblical text.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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Losing the Center (Part 1)

When personal experience becomes the foundation of your sermon.

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The Dire Need for Doctrine (part 2)

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