The articles in this series focus attention upon some of the tacit, non-verbal messages that go back and forth between the preacher and the audience in the interplay of personalities between the preacher and the members of the congregation.
These articles call attention to what someone has called the “parataxic distortions” of communication, in which the actual message of the Gospel is skewed and twisted to meet self-serving needs of the preacher and the listener. One of my main objectives is to identify some of the most common of these personality life styles (or “ways of life”) that appear in our on-going relationships to a congregation.
My second objective is to encourage the preacher to be “as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove” in discerning these nonverbal interplays when they first appear in conversation with individual members and groups in the congregation.
The preacher can encourage a more creative kind of relationship. He can cease to fuel the more unhealthy and growth-discouraging relationships. This activates the gift of the Holy Spirit to us, the gift of discernment of spirits — the spirit of dependency, the spirit of hysteria, of the “packaged” personality, the spirit of the self-absorbed, the spirit of the aggressive personality, and the spirit of the detached or withdrawn personality.
My next objective in these articles is to relate them closely to the biblical witness and suggest ways that specific texts apply to these personality life styles or disorders in living. The overall theological concern in the articles is spiritual ordering of personality in the transformation of life through the power of Christ being “formed in us.”
Communication through the sermon happens at two distinctly different levels at the same time: the level of the spoken word and the level of the kind of relationship the preacher has with the listeners.
The empathic preacher does not focus entirely on the one at the expense of the other but keeps the spoken word in harmony with the kind of relationship he has with the audience. Content and relationship are, therefore, congruent with each other.
Relationships to a congregation vary widely from preacher to preacher and from congregation to congregation. One such relationship is to the dependent persons to whom you preach.
Conversely, you can be so dependent upon the approval of your congregation that you will slavishly cater to their every whim in your preaching. Dependent preachers and/or members of the congregation have several characteristics:
– They are generally likeable, friendly, obliging and unduly anxious to please.
– They overdo compliments and are slavishly submissive to you to such an extent that it makes you feel ill at ease. You become uncomfortable unless you have a strong need for people to echo what you have to say rather than to have them think for themselves. Then you are subtly as dependent on their flattery as they are upon your “every word.”
– They do not get strong directions for living from their own judgment and decision making. They are what David Reisman called “other directed” persons rather than self-directed; they “escape from freedom” into a sort of slavery to a hypnotic leader. Erich Fromm describes this escape from freedom in the obeisance of the German people to Adolph Hitler (Erich Fromm, Man for Himself, New York: Rinehart & Co., 1947, pp. 65-67).
– They lack confidence in their own judgment and belittle their competencies, strengths, and aptitudes. They have histories of having their own self-confidence undercut by parents, spouses, friends who overindulge them and confirm them in their “learned helplessness.”
– They are “laid back” and deficient in initiative. In your premarital and marital counseling you will often see the “laid back” husband and the aggressive, over-functioning wife who is frustrated by her husband’s dependence upon her. The religion of the family is like the insurance policies: it is carried in her name! He “goes along with any thing you say, pastor” and does nothing about it. He lets Martha do it! Or you may see the dependent wife and/or mother whose husband does not let her “worry her pretty little head” about anything. She knows little or nothing about family finances, leaves all major decisions to him, and becomes completely helpless and undone if anything happens to him, such as travel in his work, military service, illness or death. They become the unconsolable widows.
– They need magic as a religion more than they are challenged by a faith that does not shrink but heads into the storms of life as adventures. They demand a sign from the Lord Jesus Christ that gives them absolute certainty. They are allergic to uncertainty. In times of suffering, they expect God to remove all their suffering with no acceptance of discipline on their part.
– They react with terror to separation. If you are a new pastor, you hear from them about the former pastor who “left” them far more than you do from less-dependent members of the congregation. They are “pastor worshippers.” The thought of a pastor as a fellow struggler and a co-laborer with them in the vineyards of the Lord is foreign.
The thought of God as beside them in the darkness of grief as well as the sunshine of satisfying company does not occur to them. They may even write you a letter and ask you to preach on “bright, positive things” when you have just preached on “Keeping the Faith in the Pit of Despair.”
– They have a low sense of personal worth and depreciate rather than appreciate their unacknowledged gifts.
The Demonic Aspects of Dependency
Paul Tillich rightly observed that the demonic enters into human relationships when we absolutize that which is relative. Somewhere in the life story of the dependent person, he or she has put total dependence in some one or some thing, or first in some one and then in some thing.
For example, a person may have invested total dependence in a military tour of duty. This became the summa bonum of their career, their finest moment. It could have as well been as an athlete.
Then the war is over or the person becomes too old to play the athletic game. They are thrust into civilian life in either case. Nothing can replace this seemingly macho existence; in fact, it was a dependent existence. Then drugs or alcohol takes the place of the macho world.
Addiction is a dependency pathology. This is a working hypothesis you might develop as you address these demonic habits in your preaching. Poignantly enough, the act of surrender to the Higher Power of ultimate dependence and the nurture of a fellowship with others who share that act of surrender is the most effective approach to breaking the power of the addiction to destroy a person’s life.
Many other addictions grip the dependent person’s life and imperialize all those around them who become rescuers of them. Both for the dependent addict and the rescuers a common message provides a way of redemption.
That message is that the Lord God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the only ultimate source of dependence. As the hymn puts it, “the arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own.” This is the God who provides manna for our needs each morning, daily bread, and makes each day’s troubles sufficient for that day.
A dependent addiction is broken on a day-by-day basis. We live life in day-tight compartments trusting in God for the provision of tomorrow, the solution of its problems, and the escape from its temptations.
Clues for Preaching to Dependent Persons
The profile of the dependent personality suggests some clear-cut clues for preaching to these persons:
– A series of sermons on The Image of God can include at least one or more sermons on the worth that God has placed upon each of us. We are made in God’s image and are persons for whom Christ died.
Christ in His redeeming grace went about Palestine in the days of His flesh removing the price tags of worthlessness and replacing them with the price tag of infinite worth. He invested confidence in people who had little confidence in themselves. He believed in them when they did not believe in themselves.
– A sermon that addresses the need for independence can be built around Jesus’ commands to leave father, mother, brothers, sisters, houses, lands, etc. as found in Matthew 19:5 and 29. The need for dependence is transcended by a courageous response to Jesus’ call to maturity and reliance upon fellowship with Him in discipleship. The healthy marriage and the call of God to responsible service in the kingdom of God are antidotes to infantile dependence.
– One of the most profound fears that besets us from birth to death is the threat of separation. The great rituals of the church address the transition times of life — when a new baby leaves its mother’s womb in birth, when a person enters the Christian community as a consenting adult, when a couple are married, and when a person dies and leaves his or her loved ones. These are times when we are separated from one era of life to move to another, or when we are separated from those we love.
A sermon on Romans 8:37-38 — which would include a thorough exegesis of what Xorizo, to separate, means in the New Testament (it refers to separation by death, but in other contexts it applies to separation by divorce as well) — could be addressed to the subject of the Christian’s responses to separation.
– Beneath the superstructure of dependency in an individual personality — or between you as a pastor and your congregation — thrives the whole issue of the reasonable and creative place of authority and the irrational need for absolute authority. Rarely in our preaching do we relate the demand for absolute authority as morbid dependency.
– A sermon directly on “The Necessities and Hazards of Being Dependent” comes straight to the point. Necessities of dependence arise when we are infants, children and adolescents. When, as adults, we become ill and must be cared for by others, dependency is necessary. When as adults, we have done all we can for someone who is involved in drug or alcohol addiction, we, as Alcoholics Anonymous says, admit that we are helpless and must turn our lives and the life of our loved one over to God.
Hazards of being dependent are much as I have indicated in the foregoing part of this article. An excellent text for this is Galatians 6:1-5, in which we are encouraged to bear one another’s burdens and — at the same time — told that each one of us shall bear his or her own load. The ideal is not total independence or total dependence but mutual interdependece in a fellowship of caring one for another.
– A strategic way of involving at least some members of the congregation in an examination of the lines of dependence that are held in tension between the preacher and the congregation is to have an after-meeting following the sermon.
Leave the finale of the sermon open-ended, and invite those attending the after-meeting into a dialogue with you. This is a dramatic way of creating an interdependence between you and them. They are called upon to think for themselves and their contributions are received, affirmed and incorporated into the wisdom of the whole group.
The non-verbal message of such a procedure is akin to that Ezekiel experienced when the Lord said to him: “Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak with you.” He was no longer fallen upon his face before the Lord, but standing upon his feet and conversing with the Lord.
Your task and mine in relation to dependent persons is to enable them to think their own thoughts, take a stand that they have arrived at which is affirmed, and appreciated as theirs by us.

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