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Get Over Preaching Narcissism

I'm learning to not begin with myself. To not begin where I am. To not begin with what I need to say. I'm learning to begin where the church is and where God is.

As a pastor, I've sat with countless individuals in the midst of deep emotional angst and strife—but this girl was particularly ticked. I got it out of her. It was the sermons. It was the tone of the sermons. It was the illustrations in the sermons; they all got to her. She couldn't help but critique that all of my sermon illustrations were about my family—kids, wife, waking at 2 A.M., funny road trips to the grocery store. Not that she didn't love families. Problem was, she didn't have one. She was single.

As a single woman, she'd always yearned to hear stories that didn't require someone to have the experience of being a father, a mother, or a lover to unpack what was being delivered. But she wasn't finding it. Alienated, she struggled to find herself in the story of God that came from my lips.

My sermons about Jesus are too much about me. And it's not helping people like my single friend.

Renowned Scottish preacher William Barclay was widely known as a brilliant communicator of the biblical message to contemporary culture of the early 20th century. Barclay once authored a little-read chapter humbly entitled "A Comparison of Paul's Missionary Preaching to the Church."[1] Within, he carefully examines Luke's portrayal of Paul's preaching method throughout Acts as he travels along on his missionary journeys. What Paul preached we've always been aware of; Barclay points how Paul preached is perhaps more penetrating.

In the three only recorded sermons Paul preached in the book of Acts, we discover something quite unique about his method. In Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:16-41), Barclay points out, Paul preached to a Jewish synagogue to Jews and converts to Judaism. There, Paul begins his sermon with extensive Jewish history and a reflection on the Old Testament narrative. In a sermon at Athens, Paul begins his sermon to those who live in the center of Greek philosophy and poetic creativity with a conversation about local religious worship by quoting the Greek poets (Acts 17:22-31). Finally, in Lystra (Acts 14:15-17), Paul preaches to what Barclay called the "wilds"— rural bumpkins who knew nothing of Jewish history, Old Testament law, or Socrates. In the rural world, Paul begins his sermon with a conversation about nature—the sun, the wind, the rain, and things that grow from the ground.

Now, at first glance, this may seem unexciting. But it is anything but. Barclay unpacks Paul's homiletical brilliance:

He had the gift of beginning where his hearers were … The significant fact is that in the three sermons the approach, at least on the surface, is completely different … In his missionary approach Paul had no set scheme and formula; his approach was completely flexible. He began where his audience was. (165, 166)

That brings me to our question: how am I growing as a preacher?

I'm growing as a preacher by learning that I shan't begin with myself, my story, my experience. Preaching is holier task than that. Narcissism runs warm in all of our veins—even the preachers. But that isn't an excuse to combat it. I'm learning to not begin with myself. To not begin where I am. To not begin with what I need to say. I'm learning to begin where the church is and where God is.

When I eventually traveled down the vocational road toward preaching and pastoring, my grandpa seemed to scratch his head. Some, like grandpa, speak of a person's choosing a life at the pulpit, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a life at the pulpit choosing a person. The pulpit chose me. I can't escape it. And I've tried. There's a little mini-Jeremiah deep in my bones that won't let me escape the task of preaching.

This is where I have to catch myself: being called by God does give me permission to be a bad preacher. I've often used his call as an excuse not to grow—it's on him for calling me, isn't it, so he gets all the blame. As I've wrestle with the fact that my preaching is lamentably more for (and about) me than anyone else, it's caused me to wrestle with my calling. To be a placed preacher is to be called to somewhere for the long haul. And it's on that long haul journey that I actually know who the people in the congregation are.

Me-centered preaching is perfectly tailored to a class of preachers who don't stick around long enough to have to get to know their congregation.

When we get down to it, it is certainly impossible to tailor everything to everyone. But it has become possible for many of us, myself included, to tailor everything about my preaching to an audience that looks a lot like me. And that simply won't do. Exhausting is the work of discovering those in front of you.

Our sermon illustrations are the itinerary record of what we've been doing with our lives. When I'm on the road, my illustrations will be about traveling. When I'm sharing Jesus with people I sat next to on a plane more than I am my neighbors, it comes out in my preaching. When my illustrations are all things that happen at church, it portrays a world in which ministry only happens in church.

But if we're bold enough to preach about the neighborhood, work, and everyday life, because we're actually doing those things, we are learning how to begin where the people in our church are in real life.

A. J. Swoboda is the pastor of Theophilus in Portland, Oregon, a professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way.

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