Karl Barth once said that theology is done, “with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” His point was that when communicate about scripture we bring the ancient truths in touch with modern times. It is important that our message is heard in a way that people understand the relevance of scripture for today. I believe there is much more that goes into preaching than the Bible and the newspaper (current events). There are many other things but the two that stand out are the preacher and the congregation.
It is impossible to separate the message from the messenger unless you just read the text. Even then the messenger gets to pick the translation! When we communicate we bring things to the table that are impossible to separate ourselves from. These are things like our biases, presuppositions, and pre-determined conclusions. The best we can do is to be aware of these things, to shine a light on them and acknowledge their existence so we can be in tune with the ways these things impact what we say (for good or for bad). I am going to come back to this in a moment.
Fourth, there is the influence of the congregation. A preacher who knows the congregation will know which things are relevant to the direction and status of the congregation because no two churches are exactly alike or in the same stage of their life as a congregation. This is why it is a travesty to preach someone else’s sermons, not just because it is plagiarism, but because no matter how good that other speaker is they don’t know your church. No matter how much better of a communicator or expositor they are than you they don’t know your people or your situation. How would that other minister someone copies know what needs to be taught next?
So we have the Bible and the newspaper in one hand and ourselves and the congregation in the other. These things all influence the sermon.
So back to self. I have a conflict in my mind over self-disclosure in preaching. On one hand I believe that someone who communicates on spiritual matters should be real, authentic, genuine and transparent. On the other hand, if we aren’t careful, preaching can become a weekly 30 minute therapy session where the one undergoing therapy gets paid rather than the other way around. It is as if the congregation is the therapist and the preacher is disclosing all manner of personal issues during the sermon. I do not believe that is always a healthy move even though I value authenticity. If you feel like you should be paying the congregation for their 30 minutes of listening to your issues, you might have a self-disclosure problem. You might also have a bitterness issue. Often our lack of discernment in this area is born out of bitterness where we just don’t care what the congregation thinks anymore. That is a dangerous place to be that needs to be addressed quickly through seeking spiritual help for your soul.
It is important, as a minister, to determine who needs to be in the counselor’s chair. The congregation should rarely to never fill that role. That role goes to elders/shepherds, actual counselors and very close friends (often even other ministers who may or may not be local). If you, as a preacher, find yourself sharing in a therapeutic way with the congregation on a regular basis I think you need to check on your level of bitterness. You will also need to check on the strength of your support network. 91% of our ministers report having someone to confide in but only roughly half of them do so more than a couple times a year.
There is a place for self-disclosure in preaching. The place for self-disclosure in preaching can be used effectively in other ways. It can make you relatable (just don’t make yourself the hero all the time – no one is that good). It can help develop a spirit of openness, that it is safe to share…even the preacher does! Self-disclosure can also help model for people what it looks like to come out on the other side of difficulty and find resolution.
We should take care to evaluate why we share what we share and make sure that we are doing so from healthy motivation and perspective.