The example of Saint Paul weighed especially heavy in how I was taught to style a sermon. His declaration that ‘it is not ourselves we preach, but Christ Jesus as Lord’ (2 Corinthians 4.5) was to be taken as the guiding rule in every homily delivered.
And that meant that preachers ought not to mention themselves nor explain any personal experience from the pulpit. All attention was to be directed towards Christ witnessed in the Scriptures and amongst his people. To divert that focus, even unintentionally, was to hobble the preaching event, we were instructed.
I remember working away at assessed sermon scripts to make sure what I said, and how I said it, had nothing to reference my own experiences and personal preferences. ‘Say nothing that might draw the hearers’ attention to the preacher in preference to the preacher’s message,’ was an axiom that guided my practice for years. Week after week, I laboriously turned things that had happened to me into someone else’s experience. My illustrations and applications were all anonymised in the sense of unacknowledged as my own experience. I wonder whether the congregations I served, noticed or not. No one ever said!
Looking back, such a strict demarcation between message and messenger seems rather naïve, or perhaps even authoritarian. Who are preachers to assume that they can so directly control how what they say is received? Communication is so much more subtle and complex than that. What is heard in what we say and how we say it is part of a much larger landscape than just the preacher’s intention.
My own practice changed when I noticed how school children often paid very close attention to my stories of my own upbringing and childhood. Our sessions frequently ended with a disappointed ‘Oh’ when I stopped, quickly followed by a vocal urging of ‘more!’ Something that I had never experienced after preaching!
So, I stopped converting personal experiences into anonymised events and allowed the anecdote and the personal aside into my sermons. I avoided focussing on self (I hope!) but contrary-wise the change made my preaching more of an engagement with others’ experiences than previously. When a public church meeting acknowledged that anecdotes about my grandma helped people’s biblical understanding, I regretted that I had previously been so reticent.
I keep my preaching tutor’s instructions in mind – the pulpit isn’t the place to parade oneself – but the Lordship of Jesus is often disclosed through the personal. We need skill and nous to do that effectively.
Christopher Burkett, Editor