“I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here testifying to small and great alike.” Acts 26:22
All preachers struggle with it from time to time. While crafting a sermon, you recall a personal story that could be an effective illustration for some point. However, you wonder if using the self-disclosive account is the right thing to do. Indeed, autobiography in preaching can be risky, and it requires special thought and discernment on the part of the preacher.
Fortunately, Paul the preacher offers us some guidance in this matter. In Acts 22 and 26, the apostle employs autobiography in his sermons. As he testifies “to small and great alike,” he uses three key principles of self-disclosure that we can apply to our own practice of pulpit autobiography.
Principle #1: Motivation
“I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.” Acts 26:16
In his autobiographical speech to Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul recounts Jesus’ words of commission. In the Damascus vision, the Risen Christ appoints Paul to be His “servant” and His “witness.” The word for “servant” (hyperetes) emphasizes Paul’s relationship to Jesus. Paul is to serve his Master and be faithful to his Master’s commands. The word for “witness” (martys) identifies one who testifies to what he has seen and heard. As a faithful servant of Christ, Paul uses his personal story as he preaches to Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Romans, peasants and kings-“small and great alike” (26:22).
And as he employs self-disclosure in his preaching, a key factor for Paul is clarity of motivation.
Paul’s Motive: A Heavenly Command
Paul’s messages in Acts 22 and 26 are missionary sermons couched in rhetorical defenses.1 Both autobiographical addresses include a narratio, the part of a defense speech that focuses on the core issue of a trial case. A significant element of the narratio is known as the justifying motive, or “justification for the act in dispute.”2 Responding to his accusers, Paul defends his actions for which he is accused by issuing his motive: a heavenly command to preach. He recounts for Agrippa and the audience how, during the Damascus vision, Jesus appointed him to be a servant and witness for the sake of Jews and Gentiles. Jesus enlists Paul “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). The content and form of this divine commission is similar to those God issued to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in the Old Testament.3 Paul, familiar with his Hebrew scriptures, must have recognized the parallels of his calling to the prophets whom he had studied and revered. This realization could only have intensified his commitment to the command set forth by his new Lord.
In his narratio, then, Paul declares his justifying motive-a heavenly call to preach repentance and forgiveness. His motive for preaching is identical to that of Peter. Paul could not be “disobedient to the vision from heaven” (26:19). Rather, he must follow the example of the fisherman disciple to “obey God rather than men” (5:29). In doing so, Paul fulfills the heavenly decree that is the basis for his argument to Agrippa.
Paul is clear on his motive for using autobiography in his sermons. We should be every bit as clear on why we might share personal accounts in our messages.
The Preacher’s Motive: A Heavenly Gift
Of paramount importance when considering a self-disclosure is discerning your motivation for sharing it. In his Lyman Beecher Lectures, John Claypool notes how C.S. Lewis distinguished between “need-love” and “gift-love.”4 Need-love is giving that is self-serving; it is born of an emptiness that reaches out to any agency that might fill that void. The giving is “circular,” that is, something of value going out from subject to
object with the goal of bringing something back from the object to the subject. In preaching, imagine the pastor setting in motion an arc from himself to the listeners in the hope that the listeners will send a reciprocating arc back to him. Contained in that returning arc would be messages of approval, empathy, admiration, or even worship from the congregants. The pastor’s motive here is self-serving; he is offering his message in an attempt to get something for himself.
An alternative to need-love is gift-love. The goal of gift-love is to share of itself rather than take for itself. The goal is transferring something of value not from object back to subject, but rather from subject to object. Here the image is a singular arc, moving from subject to object without expectation of return. In the case of the pastor, she is offering her message for the sake of the listeners, not for the purpose of filling her own needs.
Discerning preachers can identify personal stories that might suggest more interest in themselves than in their hearers. Healthy reflection can help prevent employing stories that might reveal one of the following motives:
Out of his extensive study of storytellers who specialize in personal experience stories, S. K. Stahl divides tellers into two categories: “self-oriented” and “other-oriented.” The “self-oriented” tellers weave narratives “that build upon their own self-images and emphasize their own actions as either humorous or exemplary.” The “other-oriented” tellers “underplay their personal role in the story” and emphasize the story’s content.5 When considering a self-disclosive story in a sermon, you might find yourself torn between these two categories.
What do you do if you are interested in using a story that paints you in a favorable light? In this case, you must build a strong case for justifying a “hero” story. Does the story truly benefit the listeners more than yourself? Sometimes being a hero cannot be avoided because of the story’s content. However, always being the hero appears self-serving and not having the congregants’ best interests at heart. Gift-love calls for stories that do not highlight the good to be found in you. As Bryan Chappel puts it, “The only one you can poke fun at is yourself, and the only one you should not pat on the back is yourself.”6 Here John the Baptizer, who pointed selflessly to the Messiah, serves as our model. John disclosed that The One Coming was greater than he. Pulpit autobiographies must function in a way that the listeners must increase while you must decrease.
Wayne Oates decries the practice of “homiletical narcissism” in today’s pulpits. In self-disclosive fashion, Oates uses himself as an example of this flaw. One Sunday he preached a sermon on encouragement. In that sermon he employed a personal story that was clearly focused on the audience. On a later Sunday, made a point in his sermon by telling a story of how he had won a theological argument with a layperson. In this personal account, Oates highlighted for his audience his deft skills in debate. Reflecting on his egocentric motive for using the latter story, Oates confesses that “adulation is a constant temptation for the preacher.”7 Often preachers succumb to that temptation when they paint themselves as heroes in their personal stories.
Oates’ candid reflection on setting straight a less informed churchgoer points to another way that you can discard good-will for the sake of self-centered motives. Preachers should never use personal stories as a means of answering opponents among the flock. This warning may be obvious, but the sad truth is that we can be tempted to use personal accounts for this purpose. Some of these accounts are subtle narratives that stick it to the adversaries in back-door fashion. Others are more direct projectiles (“I know some of you feel that I…but I say to you…”). It is difficult ever to justify these disclosures as “defensive,” as they are being hurled at a captive audience that cannot answer back. (Who knows–As we employ more interactive techniques in our preaching, maybe they will answer back!) These personal disclosures are offensive, a means of striking back or “evening the score” in a dramatic manner. Such a tactic abuses the function of pulpit autobiography, not to mention the targeted opponents. Good preaching exudes good will, even toward a preacher’s enemies. Instead of disclosing toward opponents from the pulpit, we must follow the ethical model articulated by Jesus in Matthew 18. Confronting the contentious begins with two or three present, not the entire congregation.
Sometimes we might fail to turn a story with negative connotation toward a positive enough word for the listeners. The danger of negativism must be heeded, especially when we are ourselves journeying through a valley of struggle, pain, or doubt. The sensitive preacher knows that listeners can detect not only overt pessimism, but also pessimism that is discerned by the nuances conveyed through word selection and delivery.
Critical to assuring gift-love toward the listeners is to be sure that any story–however negative in content or tone–move toward a positive message. Even in the wrenchingly honest messages about his struggles over his daughter’s illness and death, John Claypool is careful to move toward a hopeful word. In these sermons, compiled in his book, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, Claypool refuses to coat the tragedy with pious talk. However, he moves the listeners toward places where he found faint glimmers of Gospel in the dark valley. Even in the most painful of experiences, says Claypool, there are positive lessons that we can share from the pulpit:
Some of the most negative things I have done or had done to me have taught me a great deal. Life does work us over before it’s done. But yes, I always have to leave you in a positive light. The sharing of any autobiographical story ought to have some intent to illuminate, to make clear what our options are.8
Along with confessions of personal struggle, we must offer confessions of sin that move from the darkness to the light. Acknowledgement of sin should always move toward a redemptive word. Self-disclosive stories should not be simply stories of sin confessed. Unhealthy preachers sometimes commit this abuse when needing to “purge” themselves of some guilt. Sound preachers acknowledge the sin but then proceed to reveal evidence of God’s deliverance in their lives. Moreover, the movement toward the light reveals the possibility of that deliverance for all who hear.
Our personal stories do not always have to be “easy listening” that accentuates the positive in superficial fashion. Nevertheless, the story must point to the Gospel to some perceptible degree. This movement to the positive is reinforced not only by the words we use, but also through our delivery. Volume, pitch, and rate, along with the physical elements of posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact serve us in assuring the congregants that in the end the News is Good.
One of the ongoing challenges for ministers is awareness of personal and professional boundaries. Wayne Oates, the father of pastoral counseling, underscores this fundamental concern in many of his writings.9 I recall numerous moments in his classes at Southern Baptist Seminary when he would identify sound knowledge of one’s limits as the primary sign of a healthy, professional minister. This knowledge of limits extends to our use of personal stories from the pulpit.
When we wrestle with our motives for self-disclosure, we must keep in mind certain lines that are dangerous to cross. In particular, there are three lines that preachers should be sensitive about not transgressing. With the possible exceptions of occasional family stories, we are wiser to refrain from stepping into these danger zones.
The Frequency Line. Preachers who use autobiography effectively do not cross the line of frequency. Using only one personal story in a sermon requires careful discrimination. More than one story in a single sermon is excessive, save in the most exceptional of circumstances. Incorporating more than one story runs the high risk of shifting attention from the listeners to the preacher. As a result, the stories illustrate the preacher more than they do the point of the sermon. A healthy rule of thumb for preachers: No more than one autobiographical account in any sermon.
A similar rule of thumb applies to multiple sermons. You can cross the frequency line by including personal stories Sunday after Sunday. Even using one personal story in successive messages can be too much, particularly when your tendency is to use stories to highlight your humanity. Recurring stories about struggles, failures, and doubts can become counterproductive. Joe Stowell, President of Moody Bible Institute, warns that preachers can cease to be examples to the flock and become instead their excuse. Repeated exposure to a preacher’s negative baggage “may end up excusing the faults of the flock. Hearing them say ‘My pastor has this problem as well’ without a stimulus to remediate the problem is a bad consequence of transparency.”10 How tragic an effect when our personal stories foster excuses instead of illumination.
The Family Line. What about a self-disclosive story that involves a family member? Here you must consider carefully the appropriateness of the story. You must take pains to determine whether the content truly illustrates your point. But even more important, consider whether the story casts the family member in too negative or too positive a light. Casting a spouse, child, or relative in a negative light is inexcusable. A more common problem is frequent bragging on family members. Such boasting sets apart your family members, creating distance between themselves and the congregants. A son or daughter does not need to be singled out from peers by a parent from the church pulpit. A spouse does not need a lift toward that pedestal that disrupts relationships with fellow members. Furthermore, painting rosy family pictures can set up a spouse or child for a hard fall when they fail. Sharing a story about a family member is questionable at best.
Perhaps after careful reflection, you determine a family story to be both effective and appropriate. If so, then you must follow the wise credo of seeking permission from the family member in question. Failure to deal correctly with these stories is a grievous error, one with possible fallout both in the church and at home.
The Privacy Line. There is a final line never to cross when it comes to self-disclosive stories-that of sharing confidences from counseling situations. Sharing information from counseling ministry carries significant dangers. Broken confidences can devastate a pastoral relationship, let alone your relationship with the congregation. A perceived violation of trust can render you unapproachable, with members turning elsewhere when seeking personal help. Even references to counseling situations from previous ministry posts can be disruptive. Current members will hesitate to seek your guidance for fear that you might use them as a public example some day at another ministry setting. Furthermore, even if you are using a story from a previous context, some current members might suspect that you are talking about them.
I remember a situation in which a preacher told a story from a counseling context, making sure to note that it was from a past church. Following the message, an angry member accused the preacher of breaking a confidence, certain that the story was actually about her. The woman was convinced that the preacher was taking the story about her and simply altering the place and time. In other words, she believed the preacher to be twisting the story into a white lie that could be told in a safer, once-removed fashion.
Sharing stories from counseling situations can cause painful effects on pastor-parishioner relations. In our litigious society, pastors face the added danger of lawsuits. In response to such risks, some pastor-parishioner relations are held in check by joint adherence to a ministerial code of ethics. I have never seen a code that expressly forbids pulpit disclosures of personal stories from counseling contexts. Even if such a dictum were too specific for the code as structured, we are wise to consider this rule to be included in the code.
Using It for the Right Reason
When considering a self-disclosive story, we must be self-aware enough to probe our true motives for wanting to tell it. All too often stories are employed out of need-love–to elicit praise or pity, acceptance or affection. Listen for the message behind the story: Is it saying, “Look at what I know” or “See how human I can be” or “Feel sorry for me”? An appropriate and useable message portrays a more grounded, more centered personality: “Here is something from my life that speaks clearly to this word about the Gospel.”
Clear motivation helps assure judicious employment of personal stories. Keeping our need-love in check empowers us to deliver our stories as gifts to the congregants for their benefit. Preachers are human and, like other human beings, we wrestle with mixed motives. Nevertheless, we must seek the heavenly motive of making ourselves vulnerable for the sake of others, not for our own interests. In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Beckett considers making himself vulnerable to martyrdom. Beckett finds himself wrestling even with his motive for such a sacrificial end. Could his deepest intentions be for lasting celebrity? Amidst his struggle Beckett declares:
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
Doing the right deed for the wrong reason.11
As witnessing “martyrs” for Christ, we must test our intentions for every self-disclosive story that we might share.
Principle #2: Identification
“When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet…” Acts 22:2
When the Holy Spirit came in power, Acts 2 records that the crowd was amazed by the small band of Galileans who were preaching the Good News. “How is it,” the listeners asked, “that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8) By God’s miracle, the apostles were empowered to connect more directly with the diversity of souls present. In spite of the various peoples represented, the Spirit graced the moment by touching the tongues of the preachers and, as a result, opening the ears of the audience. Many who heard were soon to turn their lives to Christ that day, because “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11).
To our knowledge, Paul the preacher never did speak in foreign tongues like the other apostles did at Pentecost. Nevertheless, this unlikely apostle was schooled in the science of connecting with differing audiences. Paul endeavored to “speak the language” of the particular audience whom he was addressing at a particular time. His autobiographical messages recorded in chapters 22 and 26 were no exceptions to this practice.
In the Language of His Listeners (Acts 22)
In addressing the temple crowd, Paul uses a form of forensic defense speech. The first part of this speech is called the exordium. The purpose of the exordium is to prepare listeners in a way that they will be more inclined to hear the rest of the address.12 Cicero taught that this forensic technique renders listeners “well disposed, attentive, and receptive” to the speaker.13 In order to win the good will of the listeners, the speaker must find points of contact with those whom he hopes to reach. In addressing the Jews outside the temple, Paul fuses self-disclosure with classical rhetoric to connect with the crowd.
Note the ways that Paul engages the Jewish crowd. A hush falls over them when he delivers his opening words in the native tongue of Aramaic: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense” (22:1). These are the same words Stephen used to open his defense before the Sanhedrin (7:2). Both Stephen and Paul begin their speeches by establishing their loyalty to Judaism. Paul builds the exordium by noting his background: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city” (22:3). Here Paul is careful to note that, though born in Tarsus, he was reared in Jerusalem, the staple city of the Hebrews. Having established his Jewish roots, Paul highlights his education “in the law of our fathers” by Gamaliel, one of the most revered of Jewish scholars. Already Paul is establishing identification-what Aristotle called pathos-with his Jewish listeners.
But even as he moves out of the exordium, Paul’s autobiographical message employs images to reach his intended audience. Moving into what classical rhetoricians call the “proof” section, Paul shares his Damascus road story. In disclosing his conversion, he offers evidence in support of the main point of his message – the resurrection of Jesus.14 Here Paul recounts that, after the brilliant light struck him blind, he was ministered to by Ananias-“a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all Jews living there” (22:12). After commanding Paul to receive his sight again, Ananias announces that Paul is appointed to know the will of “the God of our fathers” to see the Messiah and “witness him to all men.” Paul discloses two other events of his personal story that support his Jewishness: It is Paul the Jew who enters the temple and there receives a vision to leave the city. And it is Paul the Jew who resists the Gentile mission, telling the Lord that he would have a more convincing testimony among his fellow Jews (2:17-20).
Paul’s self-disclosive story to the temple crowd amounts to a powerful proclamation of the Gospel. Aided by the tools of rhetoric, he defends the reality of the Risen Christ. Furthermore, his message is couched in language and images that identify with his audience. Paul shows himself to be a fellow Jew whose stance toward the law has not changed – only his stance toward the One Who fulfills that law – Jesus.15 In sharing his own story, Paul shows how it is their story as well.
When our personal stories “speak the language” of the listeners, the impact of the story increases.
Same Story – Different Content (Acts 26)
Like his message to the temple crowd, Paul uses autobiography for a different audience in chapter 26. However, he alters some of the content in order to connect more effectively with Agrippa, Festus, and the other political leaders who are listening in this different context. Even his initial gesture, noted in verse 1 (“So Paul motioned with his hand and began…”), is tailored for this audience. It was not the gesture he used to quiet down the temple mob (21:40), but rather the outstretched hand of a Greek orator. Next, Paul speaks directly to Agrippa, noting his good fortune to stand before this king who is knowledgeable of Jewish culture. Here Paul seeks to curry favor from this famous listener.16
In contrast to his message at the temple, Paul omits any reference to Ananias. In chapter 22, the mention of Ananias is designed to assure the Jewish mob that Paul’s Damascus road experience did not change him into an anti-Jewish maverick. When the apostle preaches to the authorities who hold the highest territorial power, he telescopes the experience, highlighting his commission as coming from a singular, unmediated authority–Jesus himself (26:12-18). Here in Caesarea, Paul connects with Agrippa and the Gentile audience by focusing less on the details of the Damascus Road conversion experience. Rather than offering more detail about his Jewish background, Paul focuses on his divine call to bring the light of Christ not only to the Jews, but also “to the Gentiles” (26:23).17
As in chapter 22, Paul recounts Jesus asking him the question, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (22:7; 26:14). In the speech to the Gentiles, however, Paul adds a striking phrase and attributes it to Jesus: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (26:4). Scholars note that this statement was a common proverb of the times, particularly among Greeks and Romans. The phrase is found in works by the playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus, with whom person in this audience are familiar. Obviously, the proverb hit a responsive chord with the Gentiles on this particular occasion.18 Once again, Paul employs pathos both through the act of self-disclosure as well as the content of that self-disclosure.
It is important to acknowledge that in the case of these two particular messages in which Paul employs autobiography, neither were received well by most who were listening. Paul was addressing audiences that were hostile both towards him and towards the Gospel he was proclaiming. (In Acts 22, the angry crowd would not let him finish, and in chapter 26, Agrippa thought Paul to be mad.) Nevertheless, it is clear that Paul knew how to share autobiography skillfully, and that he used it to bring the Good News to unbelievers (see also Galatians 1:11-24). His skills in identifying with his particular audiences enabled Paul to be an ambassador who could speak the language of his intended audiences. And there is no doubt that his efforts to connect through personal story have impacted souls through the ages. Classical historian E. M. Blaiklock issues this declaration, praising Paul for his ability to speak the language of differing contexts:
The rabbi of Jerusalem, the Greek of Tarsus, the citizen of Rome; trilingual participant in three civilizations, interpreter of East to West; Paul the apostle of Christ, emerges from the record more real than any personality known to us from his generation.19
None of us can attain quite so lofty a place in our time. Nevertheless, as we use autobiography for different audiences at different times, we can look to our model confessor who took pains to be “all things to all people.”
Discerning the Preacher-Listener Relationship
Like Paul, altering your content based on context can create self-disclosure that connects more effectively with particular listeners. However, if you dare to employ autobiography in your sermon, you must be skilled in areas beyond merely the words and images you select for a particular audience. Before you venture into talking about yourself, you must be as attuned to the particular audience as possible.
A personal account in a sermon is useless if it fails to connect with the hearts and minds of the listeners. In contrast to other types of narrative that are more “objective,” self-disclosive stories run the risk of subjectivity that fails to move attention from preacher to congregants. Successful identification is established when the story rings true in the common consciousness of the audience. In order for this identification to occur, the preacher must discern the degree of relational connection established with the audience. This relational discernment is achieved by considering four variables:
A foundational concern for effective identification is determining the appropriateness of autobiography for a particular audience. Knowing the appropriateness of a self-disclosure calls for knowing the listeners with whom the disclosure might be shared. Every congregation displays certain norms, values, behaviors, outlooks. These norms of experience serve to define the congregation’s style as well as their perceived “place” in the religious, social, and cultural context of which they are a part. Kenneth Burke, the renowned rhetorician, calls these norms “frames of acceptance” and “frames of rejection.” Frames of acceptance include attitudes that are accepted as normal for a group. Frames of rejection are those attitudes that are spurned by the group.20
When considering using a personal story, a preacher should attempt to see the world through the congregation’s frames, taking stock of their norms, values, and behavior. Does the self-disclosure reveal an attitude with which they identify? Does it reveal something about yourself that connects with their norms of experience? Or is there something about the story–or yourself–that they might reject? Sensitivity to frames of acceptance and frames of rejection is crucial, particularly when you sense that your own frames do not match theirs. Your own values and views could “color” your personal story in a way that rubs against the congregation’s perspective. In cases like this, wisdom calls for deciding if the story is worth a collision of frames. To be sure, a preacher need not agree with the congregant’s attitudes, nor does the story have to fit into their frames of acceptance. Often prophetic preaching is called for to challenge the congregation’s norms and behavior. But here we are concerned about identification-making sure that an autobiographical story finds its mark with the particular group of hearers.
I always consider the frames of an audience before preaching a sermon in which I share a personal story about my two older brothers. One of them enlisted in the Vietnam War; the other moved to Sweden. Both of them made their decisions out of strong theological and ethical convictions. I use the story to suggest that good Christians can disagree and still love one another as brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, for many people Vietnam remains in the not-too-distant past, and the ethical and political overtones of the story can collide with the frames of certain congregations. Depending on the audience’s attitudes about patriotism, loyalty, or Vietnam itself, the story could be counterproductive to the sermon’s point. As a result, I am extremely careful to analyze the values and viewpoints of a particular group to see if the story could be used. And if I sense that my own frames differ from theirs, I consider whether I can draft and deliver the story in a way that helps them “see” the story through their own frames. In other words, I see if I-like Paul-can speak the language in a way that the self-disclosure connects.
Based on his analysis of communication studies, Jeffrey Kisner points out another significant variable that influences the effectiveness of autobiographical stories in sermons. The degree of familiarity a preacher has with a given congregation informs two critical factors: timing (when a story should be told), and valence (the light in which the which the story casts the preacher). When the preacher is a stranger–that is, new or unfamiliar to the congregants-stories that cast the preacher in a positive light and convey the preachers direct responsibility for the outcome should be told late in sermons. Late timing is also best for stories with a negative valence and which convey no responsibility on the part of the preacher. On the other hand, if the story is negative and the preacher is responsible, the story should appear earlier in the sermon. Kisner offers a general recommendation for preachers unfamiliar with a congregation: If you use an autobiographical account, use one that is positive (but not excessively “heroic”). Disclosing to strangers in a way that paints yourself in a negative light can cause listeners to wonder why you are airing your dirty laundry upon them. Furthermore, they might question what other issues you might have. These listener perceptions hinder the sermon event, and they reduce preacher ethos.21
Bob Russell, pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville (and one of the best practitioners of pulpit autobiography today), offers a caveat to this contention of stressing the positive to strangers. Whereas dumping an insecurity or failure upon these listeners is not in the sermon’s best interests, Russell suggests that self-deprecating humor just prior to the sermon introduction can serve well to identify with your audience. Often Russell is introduced great fanfare as a preacher of a huge church. His concern over such flowery introductions is that he is being “made bigger” than he really is. In response, says Russell,
…to get down to where they are you’ve got to humble yourself and, in this case, a negative self-disclosure that is humorous can enhance the identification with an unfamiliar audience. For example, I often say to an unfamiliar audience, “I heard some of you say that you listen to me on the radio. I appreciate that. In fact once I spoke in Shelbyville, Kentucky and a woman came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’ve been listening to you on the radio for two years and I came tonight to see what you look like.’ I said, ‘Well what do you think?’ She said, ‘I had to put my head down the whole time. I couldn’t believe that voice was coming out of that body!'” If you are a stranger to the audience and hear this self-deprecating story, then you might say “maybe this guy is not all pumped up about himself.” So in this sense, a light, humorous disclosure with negative valence can be beneficial.22
Russell is correct that, in certain situations, self-disparaging humor can serve to enhance audience connection. However, confessions that expose our issues or weaknesses should be avoided when we preach to those who do not know us well.
Preachers who are regular pastors of churches are free to disclose at more intimate levels. According to Kisner, the two key variables that allow for more self-disclosure are the preachers’ familiarity and, more importantly, their credibility with the congregants. However, Kisner points out that timing and valence are also critical factors in the familiar parish. For instance, if a preacher’s credibility has been damaged, an early, forthright confession could restore a degree of that diminished ethos. However, high credibility preachers are wise to use stories with a negative valence, regardless of the timing. These stories can reveal the preacher’s “healthy humanity,” and can enhance sermons as they help congregants see the preacher as their peer. Here Kisner offers a general recommendation for parish pastors with established credibility: Stress the negative.23
Growing up at Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky, I witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of stories with negative valence in the preaching of Claypool. His high credibility enabled him to confess questions, struggles, and despairs in a way that elicited a powerful response from the congregants. Claypool’s confessional approach is not appropriate for every message. (Indeed, Claypool does not recommend using personal stories every Sunday.) Autobiography remains, however, an option for preachers whose story might engender authentic pathos with listeners.
Just as frequency of personal stories can reveal poor motivation, so also can it foster poor identification. Overexposure places too much attention on the preacher rather than the sermon. Frequent self-revelations of weakness can reduce the significant place of the preacher as role model. Rather than being an example, the preacher becomes an excuse for the listeners to brush off their own weaknesses.
However, some studies suggest that churches might welcome self-disclosure more than some other contexts. Kisner argues that gender role informs the boundaries of pulpit disclosures. Studies conclude that self-disclosure by women is judged more appropriate in this culture. As such, women may use autobiography more frequently and more intimately from the pulpit than men. Furthermore, the majority of churchgoers are female, and “church-going males tend to be more aware of the feminine dimensions of their personalities.”24 Perhaps Kisner over-psychologizes a bit on this matter. However, his contention is encouraging as regards self-disclosure in the pulpit, as it may be judged more appropriate than self-disclosures in other public address contexts.
Principle #3: Integration
“…I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen – that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” Acts 26:22b-23
“…it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’ ” Acts 24:21
Paul: A “Pointed” Disclosure
All of Paul’s messages in Acts 22-26 share a common thread, a singular theme that he hammers home through his self-revelations: The Resurrection. Countering charges that his messages have a different point, the apostle proclaims: “It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.” (Acts 24:21). This theme of the resurrection began with Paul’s message to the Sanhedrin (chs. 22-23) and his address to Felix (ch. 24). Now this central point is given its most complete exposition in Paul’s self-disclosive account before Agrippa in chapter 26.
Paul begins by sharing his own story, highlighting his strict Jewish upbringing. Reared among his own people in Jerusalem, Paul testifies that “I lived as a Pharisee” (26:5). The Pharisees-unlike the Sadducees-believe in the resurrection. As one sympathetic to the Pharisaic viewpoint, it is only fitting that Paul should embrace this belief as well. Paul contends that his faith in the resurrection confirms his loyalty to Judaism. Furthermore, his faith in the resurrection of Jesus emerges out of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus. Paul sees Christ’s resurrection as the fulfillment of “my hope in what God promised our fathers” as well as to “our twelve tribes” (26:6-7).
So Paul begins his speech to Agrippa by sharing some of his background and then declaring that his preaching the resurrection comes out of that background. It is interesting, however, that Paul has yet to actually use the word “resurrection” in his message. He waits to offer this key word at the right moment. Having addressed King Agrippa directly at the beginning of his speech (26:2-7), Paul now turns to the entire crowd in the audience chamber and raise the central issue: “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raise the dead?” (26:8)25
Paul’s self-disclosive messages are “pointed”: They have a central point that is woven into the messages. The apostle’s goal is to hammer home the reality of the resurrection of Jesus and, accordingly, the resurrection of His followers. As with any good sermon, this central theme helps control and guide the content and the movement of Paul’s sermons. The way that Paul uses a central theme for his self-disclosures points us to some of the essential qualities of pulpit autobiography.
A Sound Sermon
How would you define the word “integrity”? You might explain it simply as “personal character.” Or you might offer a phrase like “when a person’s inner self is consistent with his outer self.” Interestingly, the word is derived from the Latin integritas, from which we get the words “integrated” and “integral.” To have integrity is to be a well-integrated personality. In other words, you have integrity when you are “sound in all of your parts.” This understanding of the word is reflected in the fruit of the Spirit spelled out in Galatians 5:22-23. A healthy Christian is to integrate all of the stated virtues (“love, joy, peace…self-control”) into his life. A balanced mix of these fruits makes for a person with integrity.
Just as we desire to have personal integrity, we should desire that our sermons have it too. Like a good person, a good sermon must be sound in all of its parts. Autobiographical stories should contribute to the soundness of the sermon. Stories used appropriately make for a well-integrated sermon-a sermon with integrity. Richard Thulin adopts the term “integration” to describe this effective employment of pulpit autobiography. According to Thulin, a personal narrative should be thoroughly integrated with the rest of the sermon’s content. “Integration occurs when the personal story informs the rest of the sermon of which it is a part.”26 A self-disclosive story “works” when it is woven into the warp and woof of the message.
Integrating a personal story assures that the story serves the sermon and not vice versa. The following qualities of integration assure this goal of pulpit disclosure:
Homileticians stress the importance of every sermon having a central idea. The central idea is “a statement of the truth that emerges from a study of the text and that determines the content of the sermon.”27 You should be able to state the central idea of any of your sermons in a single, clear sentence. The “centrality” offered by this simple sentence generates and controls the conceptual development of your message. Centrality is also the premier quality of any pulpit autobiography you might use: The self-disclosive story should emerge naturally out of the sermon’s central idea.
When you consider using a personal story in your sermon, a simple exercise can help in determining its appropriateness. Just as you should distill the central idea of the entire sermon, so you can distill the central idea of the self-disclosure. State the point of the story in a simple sentence; perhaps even write it out. Then determine whether the story does indeed shed light on the central idea of the entire sermon.
Some preachers might question whether this practice is worth the time. The simple answer is “yes.” Among types of sermon illustrations, personal illustrations are more subjective than others. Our subjectivity might mislead us into believing the story serves the central idea when in reality we could have used a better fitting illustration. Stating the autobiography in a sentence helps determine whether the story serves the point you intend to make.
You can extend this exercise in centrality a step further. The central idea of a sermon should emerge naturally out of the central idea of the Biblical text; as such, not only should the central idea of your self-disclosive story emerge naturally out of the central idea of the sermon but, ultimately, out of the Biblical passage. Again, placing the central idea of your story alongside the central point of the text helps you ascertain the servitude of the story to the overall sermon event.
Establishing the central idea of your story helps assure the relevance of the story to the overall sermon. More specifically, your central idea should be connected to the point you are making immediately before and/or after the personal account. Relevance to what is being said prior to and/or just after the story itself is critical as your message forms in the consciousness of the listeners. Centrality helps assure this relevance, as does another factor: good transitions. Autobiographical illustrations require well-crafted transitions that enter into and exit out of the story. A key here is effective integration of the “I” and the “we.” Prior to the illustration, you might want to cue listeners about the illustration’s disclosive nature:
“Perhaps a personal story can help us understand this struggle…”
“This question reminds me of a situation in which I found myself, one that I wonder if you have found yourself in…”
Even more critical are the one or two sentences following your story. According to Bob Russell,
The first 15 or 20 seconds after a striking disclosure is an open window that needs special attention. We need to give attention to the wording of what is said immediately after it and not assume that people are making the application that you originally wanted them to make.28
Pains should be taken to have a clear transition that will return your listeners from “I-consciousness” to “we-consciousness,” – that is, moving the attention from your story to the listeners’ own story:
“To some degree, all of us have struggled with this, haven’t we…”
“Such situations could make anyone ask this question. When did something happen that made you ask it…”
The goal here is to enable your listeners to find their own stories through the telling of your own. In finding their stories through your self-disclosure, they can connect more personally with the content of the sermon (logos) and, hopefully, with the Christ (Logos) revealed in Scripture.
Based on my research on humor in preaching,29 I would propose another benefit of relevant self-disclosive stories. Communication studies confirm that the more relevant a speaker’s humorous stories to the content of the speech or lecture, the more highly the speaker is perceived by the listeners. Relevance increases ethos, and the more relevant the story, the greater the increase in ethos. In fact, studies show that relevant humor increases listeners’ perceptions of the speaker in areas including dynamism, expertise, trustworthiness, competence, and intelligence.30
To my knowledge, there have been no studies examining the effect of relevant self-disclosive stories on ethos (although some stories in humor studies are autobiographical to varying degrees). Nevertheless, I would propose that relevant self-disclosures would produce effects similar to relevant humor. The more relevant the personal account to the content, the higher the preacher will be perceived by the congregants. I look forward to studies that might validate this proposition.
Autobiographical accounts that fit in the fabric of your sermon serve another important function, that of restraint. Effective incorporation helps prevent your story from swallowing up the rest of the sermon. Stories that have a dramatic or emotional tone are susceptible to this effect. Listeners become so engrossed with your self-disclosure that they fail to “reconnect” with the sermon itself. As a result of the fixation, listeners remember your story rather than the point of the story. Or even worse, they might remember the story but not the sermon. Here is a key function of well-integrated personal stories: Sound integration helps restrain the story. This restraint prevents the story from interrupting the development of the sermon in congregational consciousness. As a result, transition from your story back into the point of the message is a smooth one for the listeners.
Russell used the following personal story in a sermon on how the church is a place where we can bear our failures together. Notice how he transitions listeners out of this humorous account in order that they do not lose the sermon’s developing theme:
Several years ago, I was playing golf in Hawaii on vacation, and I came to a hole that would strike terror into the heart of every left-handed golfer who slices. You’re thinking, “I know–water on the left.” No, worse than that–a busy highway on the left. And I said to myself, “Now Bob, don’t slice and hit some car and get your self in trouble thousands of miles from home.” But negative thinking took over, and sure enough I sliced it, and it went over toward the highway. There was a car coming, right in line with the ball. At the last minute, the driver of the car slowed down and the ball bounded across the road in front of him. I was relieved. But the car slowed down and pulled into the driveway, turned around, and went back to where the ball was. The guy got out of the car, went over to the ditch, picked up my ball and waited for me. The guy golfing with me said, “It must have taken a rebound and hit his car.” Oh, I dreaded walking up there. But the closer I got I saw three people in the car who were laughing like mad. And the guy was smiling. I said, “How are you doing?” He said, “I’m doing better.” I said, “How’s that?” He said, “Well, I was playing this course yesterday and I hit the ball over the road just like you did. Today I was coming down the road and I was explaining to the people in the car that I had put the ball over the road. And they said, “How could anybody be so dumb to hit the ball over the road like that?” He said, “And then we watched you and you did the very same thing. And this makes me feel a whole lot better!” And we stood there laughing with our arms around each other talking about golf. I had never met this guy before in my life. He might have been a multi-millionaire, he might have been a great influence somewhere, but we were warm at that moment. Do you know why? Not because of accomplishment but because of failure. Not because of pride, but because of admission of a mistake. We can confess to one another. We can say, “I’ve sinned too. I am humbled myself too. I need Jesus too.”
Stories that contribute to sermon integrity offer restraint not only for our sermons but also for ourselves as we preach. Integration helps curtail self-aggrandizement. All of us who stand in pulpits have struggled with the temptation to blow our own horn about something. Or, even if we have good motives, something about a personal story’s content might cause listeners to perceive the story as veiled bragging. We have noted how a compelling story with poor transitions can cause listener fixation. A story taken to be boasting can have a fixating effect as well. And in this case, it is not merely the listener’s capacity to stay with the content that is affected. The perceived crowing can trigger a negative appraisal of your ethos.
Sound integration of self-disclosures into your messages help thwart perceived self-elevation. When stories weave through the content naturally, ultimately pointing back to the listeners, the content retains its primacy over you as the “confessor.” More significantly, your self-disclosure serves the content as it interacts with the congregants, leading them to an encounter with the Logos.
Integrity With the Facts
There is a danger with self-disclosure-that of playing with the facts. And we are deceiving ourselves if we say that we have never come close to this danger when we preach. Perhaps your memory of an event is not as accurate as it should be. Parts of the story are disproportionate, or parts of it are less than 100% true. Perhaps you are tempted to “remember big” in order to make the story more compelling. Perhaps you want to be depicted as a bigger hero than what is the truth. Even prominent preachers have surrendered to this temptation. This revelation came to me in a painful manner during my college days. An evangelist preaching in university chapel closed his message by recounting a story of a young girl who had been struck and killed by a car. Though he had not met the family, the evangelist stated that he arrived at the girl’s home the next day to offer comfort. He told the mother how sorry he was that this happened. But the mother indicated that just before the little girl ran into the street, she told her mother that she was “going across the street to play with Jesus.” The mother said that the girl used to play with Jesus like an imaginary friend. The evangelist intended this story to be a word of hope, stating that all of us have the same invitation as that little girl did–that one day we might “go across the road and play with Jesus.”
As a young ministerial student, I found myself questioning the appropriateness of this closing illustration. However, a darker revelation emerged that night as I traveled an hour down the road to hear this same evangelist at a local church. Although preaching a different sermon from a different text, once again he used this same story toward the close of the message. But this time I noticed some changes in the story’s content. Rather than arriving at the family’s home the next day, the preacher stated that he was on the scene immediately following the accident. The evangelist himself and ran to the girl, picked her up and cradled her in his arms. She was still conscious, and he prayed for her salvation. Then she looked up at him and said that she was going across the street to play with Jesus. Needless to say, my day ended as a wake up call as to the dangers of adding to the facts of a personal story.
Self-disclosing with integrity means getting the facts straight and not straying from those facts. In some cases, the straying is intentional, as was the case of the evangelist I heard. He was caught up in the moment and in the audience response. There is the possibility, however, that we can misrepresent content in autobiography due to what psychologists call memory bias. For instance, studies show that people tend to be more disparaging of their distant past and more complimentary of their recent past. We tend to paint a “darker” picture of ourselves in stories from our earlier days. Conversely, we reveal ourselves in a more positive light in stories from our recent past. Part of the reason we do this is because it makes us feel better about ourselves in the present and highlights “how far we have come.”31
Sometimes painting a darker picture is rooted in good but misguided intentions. In particular, we might be tempted to exaggerate the bad in order to foster identification with the people. Dieter Zander, a popular “Generation X” preacher, shares out of his own story:
There used to be times that I was tempted to exaggerate my struggle in an effort to really connect with the seeker out there. I would say things like “I sometimes wonder if there really is a God myself.” And that isn’t really accurate, because I know there is a God. I would paint a darker picture of myself than is generally true in order to involve more people, to be able to embrace more people who might be going through the same thing…I was not accurate. I was not truthful. I exaggerated the story in the wrong way…32
Zander’s confession is courageous, and it should strike close to home. If you and I are honest, we have been tempted by such exaggeration at some point in time.
If you are to disclose something from your past, make every effort for the retelling to be as accurate as possible. And recognize that the temptation to embellish is a real possibility. Stretching the truth is a serious transgression of the pulpit. And it is very possible that, as in the case of our evangelist friend, it could blow your credibility with the listeners.
When considering autobiography in a sermon, we must be sure that the story has integrity. It must weave naturally into the sermon’s tapestry. If the story’s “color” fits the tapestry and completes it, the impact of the message is increased. The integrity of a sound sermon is assured, as is our own integrity as sound preachers.
Testifying Like Paul
As preachers of the Gospel, we, like Paul, have the blessed privilege of “testifying to small and great alike” about how we experience God in our lives. Sharing these experiences in the context of a sermon calls for prayerful discernment. When we apply Paul’s principles of motivation, identification, and integrity effectively, our personal stories can increase the persuasive power of our messages: clarity of motive enhances ethos; keen identification builds pathos; sound integration strengthens the logos. As we follow Paul in committing our stories to the highest standards of rhetoric, first and foremost let us follow his example of remaining true to the primary goal. Even as he relied on autobiography at times, the apostle employed it for the ultimate end of preaching “not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5).
James Barnette is Minister to the University at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
1. See Marion L. Soards, The Speeches in Acts, (Louisville: Westminister/John Knox Press), p. 122. See also H. Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 2nd Ed. (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 209. I am grateful to Derek Hogan, Instructor in New Testament at Campbell University Divinity School, for his review of my sections on Paul. Hogan has performed extensive research on the rhetoric of Paul’s messages in Acts. See “Paul’s Defense: A Comparison of the Forensic Speeces in Acts, Callirhoe, and Leucippe and Clitophon,” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 29:1 (2002), 73-87.
2. Jerome Neyrey, “The Forensic Defense Speech and Paul’s trial Speeches in Acts 22-26: Form and Function,” Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar, Ed. Charles H. Talbert (New York: Crossroad, 1984), pp. 213-214.
3. Gerhard Lohfink, The Conversion of St. Paul (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1976), pp. 70-71.
4. John Claypool, The Preaching Event (Waco: Word Books, 1979), pp. 55-61. See also C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1960).
5. S.K.D. Stahl, “Personal Experience Stories,” in Handbook of American Folklore, Ed. R.M. Dorsen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), p. 270.
6. Bryan Chappel, Using Illustrations with Purpose and Power Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) , p. 166.
7. Wayne E. Oates, “Authentic Preaching vs. Homiletical Narcissism,” Preaching (September-October 1989), 8.
8. John Claypool, Personal interview, September 2001.
9. See Wayne E. Oates, The Christian Pastor, 3rd. Ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), and Wayne E. Oates and Kirk H. Neely, Where to Go for Help (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957).
10. Joe Stowell, “Pulpit Confessions: Three Views on Preaching About Sin-You Own,” Leadership Vol. 22 (Spring 2001), 58-59.
11. T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935), p. 44.
12. Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 65. See also Jerome Neyrey, “The Forensic Defense Speech and Paul’s Trial Speeches in Acts 22-26: Form and Function,” in Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar, Ed. Charles H. Talbert (New York: Crossroad, 1984), pp. 210-224.
13. Cicero, Inventio, 1.15.20.
14. Malina and Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, p. 86.
15. See Roy A. Harrisville, “Acts 22:6-21,” Interpretation, Vol. 42 (April 1988), 181-185.
16. John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), p. 499.
17. Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, Paul the Accused: His Portrait in the Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1995),
18. Pohill, Acts, p. 502. The phrase appears in Euripides’ Bacchae and Aeschylus’ Agamemmnon.
19. E.M Blaiklock, “The Acts of the Apostles as a Document of First Century History,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel: Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F. F. Bruce on His 60th Birthday (Exeter: Paternoster, 1970), p. 54. See also Stanley E. Porter’s concluding remarks in The Paul of Acts: Essays in Literary Criticism, Rhetoric, and Theology (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1970) pp. 170-171.
20. See Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 3rd Ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Craig Loscalzo draws richly from Burke’s rhetoric of identification in Preaching Sermons That Connect: Effective Communication Through Identification (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1992.)
21. Jeffrey Kisner, “Self-Disclosing Stories in Sermons: A Multi-Disciplinary Rationale,” Ph.D. Dissertation (Louisville: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989), p. 249. See also Jeffrey Kisner, “And for Preachers…”, Perspectives, (April 1994), 24.
22. Bob Russell, Personal interview, September 20, 2001.
23. Ibid., p. 251.
24. Ibid, p. 250.
25. John Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary, Vol. 26 (Nashville:Broadman Press, 1992), p. 500.
26. Richard Thulin, The “I” of the Sermon: Autobiography in the Pulpit (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), p. 56.
27. James Cox, Preaching: A Comprehensive Approach to the Design and Delivery of Sermons (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 77.
28. Bob Russell, Personal interview, September 20, 2001.
29. James R. Barnette, “Humor in Preaching: The Contributions of Psychological and Sociological Research,” Ph.D. Dissertation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1992. See also “A
Time to Laugh: Using Humor in Preaching,” Preaching Vol. 11 (March-April 1996), 5-11.
30. See, for instance, Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Uses and Effects of Humor in Educational Ventures,” Handbook of Humor Research: Applied Studies, Vol. 2, Ed. Paul E. McGhee
and Jeffrey Goldstein (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1983).
31. See for instance Anne Wilson and Michael Ross, “From Chump to Champ: People’s Appraisals of Their Earlier and Present Selves,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 80 (2001), 572-584.
32. Dieter Zander, Personal interview, September 19, 2001.