Over the past few centuries, the preparation of the sermon has been viewed as a standalone activity. Its tools are the academic disciplines of rhetoric, biblical studies, and theology. Sermon preparation was isolated from all other activities of life. For example, preachers were given the advice to prepare sermons separate from their devotional life. Sermon preparation was viewed as something you do for the congregation and devotional life was something you do for yourself. However, sermon preparation is a central part of the preacher’s devotional life. Even further, preaching does its best work when it becomes not just a quarantined weekly task but embraced as a way of life. This is the foundation of autobiographical preaching. It is preaching that flows out of a godly lifestyle. This lifestyle acts as a palimpsest underlying weekly sermon preparation. In other words, what preachers proclaim on Sundays, flows out of a deep faith in Christ as it is lived out in the ordinary experiences of life.
Autobiographical preaching begins with our relationship with God and with the faith community in which we serve. It begins with our engagement in the surrounding culture and in the lives of those in our community. It begins with the desire for listeners to see and hear preachers embody the gospel in their lives. It begins with who I am as a person.
THE THEOLOGICAL BASIS FOR PREACHING AUTOBIOGRAPHICALLY
I give two representative examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. In the Old Testament, the whole posture of the biblical sages is, in a real sense, autobiographical. That is, they share the wisdom accrued from their life experiences. Whilst the Torah remains the background of their writings, it is their experiences that are front and centre in the canonical writings of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth (‘The Preacher,’ ESV), bases his theological reflections on his observations and experiences. Repeatedly he says in his search for meaning, ‘I saw . . .’ (2:13, 24; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 4, 7,15; 8:10, 17; 9:11). In addition, he expands his limited experiences by putting himself in the role of a king, King Solomon, imagining what it would be like to experience life from a person who possesses everything! The Preacher was a believer. That is why he vigorously questions and struggles with the hard facts of life and death.
This wise Preacher is a keen observer of life. As William Brown (2002, 20) writes, ‘Qoheleth would remind us that as the Word became flesh, flesh is also made word, a living testimony to divine providence and human creatureliness.’ Preaching requires interpreting both the Word and the world. The Preacher’s theology is hammered out in the trenches of life, facing squarely the weariness and grim realities of life. Unless preaching faces the complexities of human experience as well as the joys, it will fall listless to the ground.
The preacher’s life experiences serve to open up new vistas of God’s work in the world today and provide new insights into Scripture. In turn preaching uses Scripture and faith in God as an interpretive lens for life. The palimpsest undergirding the Preacher of Ecclesiastes’ story is God’s work in the world, even when it makes no sense. In spite of the weariness and the uncertainty, the Preacher reaches two conclusions. First, one must receive every day as a gift from God (2:24–26; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–9). Second, one must fear God (3:14; 5:7; 7:15–18; 8:12–13, 14; 12:13). Through it all, the Preacher remains a hopeful realist (Peterson, 2020).
The apostle Paul also engages in autobiographical preaching. The Pauline scholar, James Thompson, describes 2 Corinthians as ‘the most autobiographical of Paul’s letters’ (2021: 7). Second Corinthians is made up of a series of sermons Paul dictated over time and delivered to the Corinthian church (Thompson, 2021: 7). Ultimately these sermons became 2 Corinthians, which explains why there are such sudden shifts in subject matter throughout the epistle. Not only does Paul share the anguish and sorrow he experiences, he shares experiences of joy as well. Paul must defend his ministry against those claiming he is not a true minister. Significantly Paul does this by demonstrating how his life conforms to the gospel and the image of Christ. Thus, contrary to his opponents’ bragging about their strengths, Paul ‘brags’ about his weaknesses. A repeated refrain that appears throughout the letter is a catalogue of his sufferings (4:7–11; 6:4–10; 11:23–33) (Thompson, 20212: 7). These are Paul’s weaknesses (11:30). All of his experiences are deeply embedded in the gospel of Christ. Paul’s life rests on his understanding of and commitment to the suffering ministry of Christ. Out of his experiences, Paul proclaims the gospel. Autobiographical preaching is preaching that looks at life with all of its struggles and complexities, hopes and joys, through the lens of Scripture and faith in God’s continuing work in this world.
ONE’S LIFE SHOULD NOT BE SEPARATED FROM ONE’S PREACHING
In the past, preachers were instructed to keep their personal lives to themselves. Just get out of the way of the text, and let the congregation hear the word of God. Karl Barth viewed the preacher as a conduit, like a picture window, through which the Word comes. The preacher’s life must remain sequestered. Autobiographical preaching counters that.
Clearly, however, autobiographical preaching is easily abused. It is dangerous for a couple of reasons – For one, while we believe God continues to be active in this world, it is difficult to assign an experience or activity to the hand of God. After all God moves in a mysterious way! What may look like God’s work may not be and vice versa. Or others may criticize us for being too flippant or too presumptuous in our interpretation. However, preachers must take the risk, and with humility strive to identify God’s ongoing work in this world. We believe God’s work is not just assigned to the pages of Scripture. God is actively engaged in our world.
For another, it is hazardous because it possesses the strong temptation to draw attention to the preacher and away from the gospel. The well-known homiletician, David Buttrick, in his ground-breaking volume, Homiletic (1987), says, ‘To be blunt, there are virtually no good reasons to talk about ourselves from the pulpit’ (142). The reason he gives for not disclosing personal experiences is because it ‘will always split consciousness’ (142, author’s emphasis). That is, it draws attention to the preacher and away from the gospel message. It is true that it is not uncommon for preachers to use the pulpit to draw attention to themselves. Preachers, in that frame of mind, often end up drip-feeding their own life history to the congregation over a period of time. At other times, preachers may use it to engage in an emotional striptease act in order to gain sympathy from listeners.
Preaching autobiographically is harmful when used to turn the pulpit into a therapy session, to boost egos, hide imperfection or incompetency, or to get sympathy, whether intentionally or not. David Ward (2019: 151) highlights a common perversion of preaching autobiographically he calls the ‘narcissistic testimony’.”ii It often is a subtle practice to discern. But over time, listeners will know if a preacher is engaging in self-glorification or is glorifying God. To avoid such perversion, preachers need to ask important questions as they engage in testimony. Does this testimony focus on my experience? Does it glorify my work and my ministry? Does this elevate my status? Am I able to acknowledge my limited experiences in relating to others of a different race, gender, culture, and socioeconomic context? The testimonial sermon can easily slip into self-absorption.
Authenticity is a virtue highly prized by listeners. But authenticity does not have to include full disclosure about the raw and sordid facts of my life. And authenticity is not something you decide to do. As William Willimon (1998: 62) observes, ‘You either are or you aren’t authentic.’ He arrives at this conclusion:
Authenticity is more than a matter of being who I am; it is a matter of being who God calls me to be. For preachers, authenticity means being true, not just to our feelings, but true to our vocation, true to God’s call. We serve God’s people by laying aside ourselves and taking up the cross and preaching Christ and him crucified, whether we feel like it next Sunday or not (1998: 62).
In spite of its dangers, preaching autobiographically in whatever form it takes (e.g., witnessing, testimony, confession, self-disclosure) is absolutely essential if the sermons we preach are to transform lives and shape listeners into the image of God. Autobiographical preaching’s purpose is to identify those experiences, places, people, and events where God is working and interpret them through the lens of Scripture. This lens, as it guides interpreters to God’s work in the world, is essential in order to responsibly reflect on and assess our experiences. Experiences are not authoritative by themselves.
When a preacher learns to assimilate life experiences with Scripture and who God is, then such a preacher is better able to equip listeners to do the same in identifying God’s work in their own lives.
Autobiographical preaching flows out of this relationship. Autobiographical preaching can be done in many different ways and with different voices. David Ward (2019) offers preachers suggestions for preaching in the voice of autobiography. One question he suggests is, ‘How does the experience of God related through the text resonate with the experiences of God in your life?’ (148). Sometimes that connection is immediate. Other times the resonance develops over time.ii
However, it is important to acknowledge that our personal experiences are limited. This, in part, is what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes does in imagining himself in the world of King Solomon. Ward maintains that preachers need to hear and listen to the testimony of others to supplement their own. The question, therefore, preachers need to ask is, ‘What have others testified to in their experience of this text and life?’ (2019: 149).
As a way of life, autobiographical preaching calls preachers to a deeper faith in God, a stronger commitment to the faith community, and a greater respect for all people and cultures. First and foremost, the preacher is one who has developed a God-centred view of life. David Ward sums it up well, ‘What if a good sermon is not, after all, the product of a failsafe homiletical method, but the byproduct of a soul-feeding, engaged, sustainable life?’ (see his Chapter 3). When listeners see this kind of life shine through the preacher’s words, then God’s Word will begin to transform lives.
i For the purposes of this article, I include the voices of “witnessing” and “testimony” and “self-disclosure” under the heading of autobiographical preaching. Some make distinctions between these categories. See David B. Ward, Practicing the Preaching Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019) 142, 147.
ii He also highlights two other perversions: the ‘sensationalist testimony,’ which uses shocking language and images for the sake of an emotional response, and the ‘exaggerated testimony,’ which inflates the details and events in a story, 152.
iii David Fleer effectively and poignantly models this as he struggled with the painful reality of jealousy, rejection, and ultimately being disowned by his father. He was given new perspective and a sense of hope when he reflected on his experience through the biblical narrative of Joseph. See David Fleer, “Shaped by Story: Finding God’s Limits and Outlets for Our Passion,” in Preaching Autobiography: Connecting the World of the Preacher and the World of the Text, eds. David Fleer and Dave Bland (Abilene: ACU Press, 2001) 23–45.
Brown, William, (2002) Ecclesiastes, in the Interpretation Series, Louisville: WJKP)
Buttrick, David, (1987) Homiletic, Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Fleer, David and Bland, Dave (eds), (2001) Preaching Autobiography: Connecting the World of the preacher and the World of the Text, Abilene: ACU Press.
Peterson, Brian Neil, (2020) Qoheleth’s Hope: The Message of Ecclesiastes in a Broken World, Lanham, Maryland: Fortress Academic.
Thompson, James, (2021) Preaching Second Corinthians, Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books.
Ward, David B, (2019) Practicing the Preaching Life, Nashville: Abingdon.
Willimon, William, 1998) ‘Naked Preachers are Distracting’ in Christianity Today (April 6, 1998: 68).
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