Part 1 – What Is Your Motive?
Using self-disclosive stories appears to be more popular than ever among preachers. Various reasons are offered for employing autobiography in sermons. However, it is important that preachers discern their motives for using these personal accounts. When used effectively and appropriately, they can have profound impact on listeners.
Recently, Dr. James Barnette, Minister to the University at Samford University, interviewed four outstanding preachers about using self-disclosive stories in their messages. John Claypool, who popularized “confessional preaching” through his sermons and his Lyman Beecher Lectures, is Visiting Professor of Preaching at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. Barry Black serves as Chaplain of the United States Senate, and was formerly Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Navy.
Bob Russell is pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, and has gained notoriety for his use of self-disclosive humor. Dieter Zander, formerly a preaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, now ministers in the San Francisco area and preaches across the country. They “disclose” with admirable candor their own struggles with their motives for using self-disclosive stories.
Preaching: Can you think of a time when you struggled with your motivation for using a particular self-disclosive story? What temptations have you faced when considering a particular personal narrative?
Russell: I can tell you some stories I chose not to use. Years ago I wrote a prayer and used it at a prayer breakfast at the state capitol. Then it was put in a publication. Then a preacher in Wichita used the prayer at the Kansas state legislature, and it created a stir. Then it got on Paul Harvey’s news twice. In both cases, this other preacher got the credit for the prayer.
I almost told this story a couple of times to say, “You know, that preacher is a friend of mine, but I’ve got to admit I struggle some with envy over a little thing like about who gets credit for that prayer.” But I chose not to use it for two reasons: first, it would make my friend look bad. Secondly, my motivation was my wanting to clarify that I am the one who wrote that prayer. My motivation was selfish pride.
Preachers often struggle with the motivation simply because you know it is a good and compelling story, but it really might not be appropriate or might not fit. I have learned how critical it is that a story fit. And I have also learned that it’s worth waiting for when the story really fits in the message. If a good personal story fits, you up it a notch. It goes from an 8 to a 9. If it doesn’t fit, you drop it a notch or two and it goes from an 8 to a 6. The key is to hold it until it fits.
I recall when you interviewed me about using humorous stories.1 Using personal stories that are funny leads to another concern. If the story might possibly make some people uncomfortable, don’t use it. Even though it’s funny, people see through the lines. They can tell when you are just telling a story because you want to be funny. Sometimes I tell a personal story and it’s funny, and I have two or three more lines and it’s still funny. But I have to decide if going ahead with those three or four lines really helps the sermon, or if I am just throwing in those lines to get a laugh. If I have made the point, it is time to go on. Dealing with your motives helps you remember that it’s not so much what you say; it’s who you are. I am not a comedian. I am a preacher.
Claypool: The temptation is, “Am I doing this to get them to think certain things of me? Am I trying to enhance my reputation or earn their favor?” In my Beecher lectures, I built on C.S. Lewis’ distinction between “need-love” and “gift-love.” Put simply, need-love refers to giving to another with the expectation of getting something in return, while “gift-love” is giving something to another simply for the sake of giving it. The concept is so basic, and yet I have to constantly go back and ask myself, “In which category of motivation is the telling of this story?”
Henlee Barnette, my ethics professor in seminary, taught me that motive and consequence are the two canons of moral decision-making. And so in the case of self-disclosure in preaching, I must always ask myself, “Why am I doing this and what likely will happen if I do it?” I always try to measure what will be the consequence on a given question. It’s certainly easier to do this when you have been with a congregation for some time and have become one of the family. You know them and they know you.
Black: Like many preachers, I have a wife who is a very constructive critic! There have been a few times in my ministry when I probably had too many points in the message where there was self-disclosure. She would call that to my attention and also at times question my motivation regarding some stories. “Did you just tell that because it is funny and you knew it would get a laugh?” Or, “Did you tell that because it would make you look like a hero, even though you couched it in self-deprecating words?”
So, I have had to question whether my motives have been pristine. Am I really trying to illuminate the passage and help people with the application of the particular pericope? Or am I trying to lift Barry Black?
Preaching: Have you ever used a self-disclosive account in a sermon and then later questioned whether it was appropriate or necessary? If so, can you recount the story and your reflections on using it?
Russell: I guess the most glaring example of that was once when I was talking about somebody in the Bible who had a lot of children. I think it was Jacob. I said, “I always wanted to have a lot of kids.” But off the cuff in this sermon, I said that if I was going to do that I would have to have a concubine. I was trying to be funny.
After the first service I was standing at the door shaking hands and my wife came up and stood beside me, which she doesn’t normally do. And she said, simply, “I wouldn’t use that illustration in the second service.” Needless to say, I decided that I wouldn’t.
Claypool: I can give a specific example of when I did this. I had a really powerful, complex relationship with my mother. My father traveled and was the lesser influential parent in our family. And so my mother was very, very strong and very opinionated and was the shaping influence in my childhood. So she and I struggled because her tendency was to take over and control those things that mattered to her. I really had to struggle to get separate from her, and to establish my own identity.
I mentioned this one Sunday in a Mother’s Day sermon, and it so happened that my wife-to-be’s mother was there. She took great offense at the way I was speaking negatively about my mother, because I think it made her fearful that I might some day be critical of her. And looking back, it would have been just as well not to have done that. Here is where St. Paul’s speech about speaking the truth in love is so important. That it is true is only one of the factors. It can sometimes be true but – out of love – it needn’t be said.
Black: I used an illustration about a funeral in Arlington National Cemetery. There were some horses at the funeral that relieved themselves. Here was this beautiful caisson with the horse-drawn casket and all the pomp and pageantry. And then all of a sudden the beauty and the music were interrupted by these Clydesdale-type horses relieving themselves with great force. This was a funeral of a very high-ranking military person.
I talked a little bit about my reaction to this embarrassing occurrence: how temporal is this whole thing called life. And no matter who you are, you are not guaranteed a decent funeral. After having delivered the sermon, I started second-guessing. In retrospect, I found myself realizing that I could have probably come up with a better illustration.
Zander: 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 embrace more people who might be going through the same thing. But I was not accurate. I was not truthful. I exaggerated the story in the wrong way.
Preaching: Do you ever tell stories about family members? If so, do you follow some guidelines as you consider telling such a story? Have you ever regretted using a family story? Been glad you did?
Russell: First of all, I get permission. Second, I try very carefully not to make my wife or my kids look bad. If it is a story that makes one of the kids look bad, I will protect their identity. And the other thing is that I will tell, hint, or let the audience know in some way that I have permission to tell this story. I don’t always say, “I have permission to tell this story.” But I will let them know often enough that they realize that that is the case.
Another very important point is that we not exaggerate the family story. There is a real temptation to make it bigger than it is. But I think the most powerful stories are stories that other people can identify with.
Let me give you an illustration of this. I didn’t realize this story would go over as well as it did: I was talking about the fact that marriage reveals some of the weaknesses that you have in yourself. I told the congregation about when my wife bought some lawn furniture. It is very good furniture, but when it starts to storm, or when there is a threat of rain, she will say that “we” (which I know means me) need to bring those lawn furniture cushions in. When she says that, I say, “Look it is outdoor lawn furniture. That’s why we bought it! It will endure.” But, she replies, it will just last longer if we bring it in.
Now, I’m sitting on the couch and I don’t like how lazy I feel at that moment, and I like it less when she is bringing the lawn furniture in herself. And so, reluctantly I’ll get up and move them in. The point of the story is that we don’t like what marriage does to us – it underscores our weaknesses.
Now that personal account doesn’t need to be exaggerated. It doesn’t need to be a big, compelling story. It needs to be as simple as it really is. So many men in the church came up to me to say, “My wife is the same way with lawn furniture.” And something like that – when people can see themselves or see themselves in something similar – makes it real.
Zander: Early on, my wife and I made an agreement that I would never tell a story about her or about any one of our family members with out express permission from them. That would include my children, relatives, everyone. There had been times when I violated that because I just wasn’t thinking. It would be an off the cuff kind of a deal, and it was a terrible breach of trust. But that was something we committed to early on, and I have tried to hold to it. There are a lot of good stories that haven’t been told, and it kills me inside. I’m thinking, “Oh, that would be a really good illustration.” But my son would say, “No, Dad, I don’t want to be seen as that person in the church.”
Once at Willow Creek, I told that story about my wife and I having a fight. There was a reporter from Forbes Magazine, and they were doing an article on Willow Creek. And when Forbes Magazine printed this article it stated that Val and I had almost been divorced early on and some other nonsense. I had not read the article, but Val was reading the article while we were lying in bed. We couldn’t believe it! What a terrible mess.
And that’s a danger when you disclose. There is the danger of your story being taken and expanded and used against you. I think it is that kind of stuff that has really helped me taper back on what I share and how I share it. Just about everything is taped nowadays. It can really be taken the wrong way by somebody.
It is critical that my children not feel used and that my wife doesn’t feel that I am using our marriage or our family to further my own deal. One of the first stories I told was about my son. It had to do with a particular worship chorus: “You are mighty; You are holy; You are awesome; You are God.”
Well when my was son about five, he would just run around and sing that same melody, but he kind of got the words mixed up. He would go: “You’re on my team: You’re in my house; You’re in my room . . . ” He would change the words, but some great theology was coming out! I was going to tell the story. But even with such an innocent story, my wife said, “You need to ask.” He is five years old. He is not going to know that I am doing it. He is in the nursery. But I went to him and said, “Kyle I would like to tell people how you sing that song because I think it will really help people to think better about God. Are you OK with that?” And he said, “Yes.”
But there have been other times when I have posed a question like that to him or one of his brothers, and they have said, “No, I don’t want you to tell about that.” And I have had to honor that.
Claypool: You need to be very careful about not casting them in a bad light or not disclosing a confidentiality. But I think that is pretty tricky when it comes to experiences with family.
Going back to what I said earlier about my relationship with my mother, I am happy to say that she and I worked through a lot of our issues. She died in ’94, and I think I had come to accept that her intentions were very good, and that she was operating out of a pool of experiences. She had never been particularly blessed by her mother. Trying to fix everything was kind of the way she had been treated all of her life. And I was able to reperceive her mercifully and compassionately, as I hope she reperceived me.
When she died, a pastor sent to me this little book by Alice Miller called Prisoners of Childhood. Miller says that we all come out of childhood with two forms of woundedness: We come out with grievances because none of us were born to angels. Our parents had their own needs and their own weaknesses that impacted us. But we also come out guilty because we haven’t done it any more perfectly than they. This realization was a very, very significant thing for me to work through.
There were things in my relationship with my mother that I needed forgiveness for, and things I needed to give forgiveness for. I needed to bathe that whole situation in grace. But I do wish on that given Mother’s Day, I had not used that illustration about her.
Black: There have been times that I was glad that I used family stories. I do “family life weeks,” and many times an anecdote about my relationship with my wife – particularly when it illustrates our having to overcome some challenge – is very, very helpful to people who have an unrealistic attitude toward marriage. Occasionally, I will talk about my children, but I am very, very careful about doing that. I recall at least one occasion I was talking about my middle son. He didn’t have a strong objection to it, but he did say, “Why did you have to talk about me?” So I am very, very sensitive to the fishbowl environment that the minister’s family already lives in. I try to save my family from that by not adding to the ability of people to view their lives.
Preaching: Should an autobiographical account in a sermon always lead to something positive?
Russell: I think it has to have a positive point. With struggles, for instance, you don’t just throw them out there because it is something that you are struggling with. Until you have some kind of a positive conclusion or have a purpose for that illustration, you should hold it.
Zander: I think you can share a negative story and let the listeners “sit in it” for a while. I think one of the great ways to do a self-disclosure is to talk about regret or a missed opportunity. I’ve talked about missing opportunities with my kids. And I’ve talked about saying something that was in a sense my father’s voice living in me – something I vowed that I would never say. And I said it, and you don’t get to take that back. I think we have all been there, and you can just let people sit in that for a while. People will think, “Me too.” At that point I might say, “I would like to be able to say that I never do that any more, but I still do. And it is a process and I have asked forgiveness from my children many, many times.” But the listeners can sit in it for a brief time, and that is a means by which you can make them long for the good news. It gets them ready for what you have coming.
Claypool: If you mean by positive a lesson learned, yes. Some of the most negative things that I have ever done and had done to me – these have taught me things. Yes, I always have to leave you in a positive light. But it does not always have to be sugary sweet, because life does work us over before it’s done. The sharing of any autobiographical story ought to have some intent to illuminate, to make clear what our options are. It should teach, even if it discloses our folly in the situation.
Black: Sometimes even as in Scripture, there is negativity for a positive reason. That passage in Revelation 14 says, “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, then he, too shall drink of the wine of wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation. He will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the angels and the presence of the Lamb.” You know, those are the words of Christ. Pretty negative, but it can lead to a positive decision.
I tell a story about a young man who accepted Christ and was murdered the next week. Kind of a “downer” type story. But it is very, very effective, particularly with young people. It challenges them to think about how transitory life is. I tell a story about a dear friend of mine who asked me to help her write her autobiography. What she didn’t know was she only had three weeks to live. So, that is kind of a downer and is negative. But again, it can have positive effect. I told that story once while making an altar call, and the floodgates opened and people started coming down the aisle. So I think that appropriate self-disclosure may be negative, so long as the goal is to make a positive impact.
Preaching: How often would you say that you include a personal account of some type in your sermons?
Russell: I would say almost one per sermon. There have been times when I had too many, and so I try not to have more than one per sermon.
Zander: It depends if I am teaching a group of people that I am teaching regularly. Then I use one only if it is really appropriate. Relevance is the real key.
In a broader sense, I would say every sermon has a little bit of something in it that has to do with either how I learned this, how I am not understanding this, those kinds of things. There is always a little bit of that because I want people to know that I’m trying to figure this out myself. Rarely will I teach in a way that says, “I’ve got it.”
Black: I don’t think I ever preach a sermon where that element of witness is not there to some degree. My sermons are born primarily out of my devotional life where a word from Scripture “stops” me. And the fire of that word burns; it’s like conception in the womb. And even before I look at any commentary or any of the reference materials, I exegete the life experiences of the congregation that I am going to address. I also exegete my own experience. So inevitably, the seminal work includes personal content. I keep a book of “seed sermons” based on passages that have “stopped” me.
Claypool: I would say probably not over 1 out of 8 or 10. I think you have to be very judicious here. My homiletics professor, Jesse Weatherspoon, discouraged self-disclosure. He was concerned about the egotistical temptation to turn the pulpit into just a place to brag or to draw attention to yourself.
I always try to ask the motive question: “Why am I doing this?” And there have been times, particularly when I was younger, when I included references to contemporary plays or modern novels. Looking back, I realize that I wanted people to know that I was up on those kinds of things. I wanted to appear urbane and knowledgeable. And the real reason was for what they would think of me, and not the truth that the story would convey. All of us have mixed motives. This being so, I think there are dangers with confessional preaching; it is a two-edged sword, and so you have to be sensitive.
Preaching: Any other guidelines you might offer when it comes to motive in self-disclosive preaching?
Black: When considering a personal story, there has to be a kind of a sense that this really needs to be told. I really want the story to almost insist on being told. It’s got to sit so well that the sermon would be dramatically diminished without it. It is almost like Spurgeon who used to say, “If you can avoid being a minister, do it.” If you can avoid putting that self-disclosure in there, you should try to avoid it.
But often the power of the witness is so strong. I have learned from experience that the witness element sometimes is so critical to the message that without it, it’s like food without salt. A critical ingredient is missing. I try eating oatmeal without a little bit of salt, and it’s content is missing something significant. I can’t even eat it! So that is a critical guideline for me: there has to be that sense that this particular message really needs this particular anecdote.
I don’t throw away a sword because I have won one battle with it.
Another guideline is that I don’t throw away a sword because I have won one battle with it. There are some personal anecdotes that have had such a powerful impact on an audience that when I need an anecdote to illustrate a particular part of a different message or to make an application, that story comes to mind. And I almost can predict what the impact will be upon the congregation.
A guideline I have not mentioned would be to not use the pulpit as a way of striking back at members or getting a message across to somebody that I can’t just talk to one on one. I have seen ministers who abuse the pulpit in that fashion. Whether it’s an individual or a group that the pastor happens to not be getting along with, you are certain to get a sermon targeting that person or that faction. Many times the members know what is going on, and it is so counterproductive.
A final guideline related to motivation is that I try to tell the truth. One of the great temptations of personal anecdotes is to exaggerate or to abridge the truth. And you know that “literary license” we are tempted to take. As a corrective to that, I try deliberately to understate, rather than just telling it like it is. I would rather err on the side of caution with that regard.
Claypool: Just be sure that your basic intent is generosity and not selfishness or grandiosity. The older I get, the more I am profoundly aware of generosity being the primal characteristic of the holy. I really do think that if you are asking why did God create, that Genesis at least implies that the Holy found the whole experience so overwhelming and pleasing that the Holy must have said, “This is just too good to keep to Myself. I want others to taste this ecstasy.” So the impulse to take what has blessed you, what is given to you, and what may be present in somebody else – I think that comes closer to plumbing the mystery of why God does whatever God does.
I am trying to make generosity the guideline of my behavior. That is how I would like not just to preach, but also that is how I would like to live. Because let’s face it: death is going to make generous givers of us all. We are going to give it all back. And so to me, my birth was a gift, and at my death I am going to give everything. So that’s a clue to me that generosity is what life is all about.
Preaching: Can you share a self-disclosive story you have used about . . .
Russell: My dad died a few years ago. I loved my dad. We were very close. The funeral was in northern Pennsylvania, and there was a bad snowstorm there – about 10 or 15 inches of snow – and the wind was blowing about 25 miles per hour. The funeral director said, “We will not take a funeral procession today. It is too dangerous. I will just take your dad’s body to the grave.” And I said, “Well, I don’t think we have to have a funeral procession, but I would feel that I had left something undone. So I will come with you.”
So I got my brother and we got our kids, and we piled into a 4-wheel drive vehicle and followed him to the cemetery. We got about 50 yards away from the grave and we stopped and climbed through the heavy snow to the plot. We watched while they put my dad in the grave. The wind was howling, and it was freezing cold. Two grave diggers were sitting there, waiting to cover the plot.
So we turned to walk away, but I said, “I would like to pray.” So I started to pray, and I got too choked up to pray. And finally, I just whispered, “Father, this is such a cold and lonely place. But I thank you that I can know that my dad is in the warmth of your arms, and that to be absent of the body is to be present with the Lord.” And it’s true – we have that hope of eternal life with the Lord. Simple stories like this really can offer hope to those who need it.
Claypool: One of my best moments in relation to hope came after Laura Lue [his daughter] had died, and I was so distraught. I was just exhausted physically and emotionally. I didn’t try to preach for about six weeks. My sadness was so deep. Almost 6 weeks after she died, I was in bed but I couldn’t sleep. At about 2:00 a.m., I went down and found Gerhard Von Rad’s commentary on Genesis. I turned to the 22nd chapter, which is where Abraham was called on to sacrifice Isaac. And in that chapter, Von Rad stated he felt what God was doing in this mysterious encounter was to find out if Abraham remembered where Isaac had come from. Did he remember that Isaac came from grace or did he think Isaac was a possession to which he was entitled? And Abraham’s willingness to relinquish was a sign that he did remember. He recognized that Isaac was a gift.
I can’t tell you what a powerful sense came over me – that I had a choice. I could regard Laura Lue as a possession and spend the rest of my life being angry and resentful that her life had been cut short so prematurely. Or I could spend the rest of my life being grateful that she had ever been given to us at all, and that I never had to test my relationship with her that I’d had.
And I don’t ever remember having an awareness of existential freedom any more powerful than I did at that moment. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my study. It was almost as if two roads visually opened up in front of me and I realized that I was free. I was free to walk down either one of those roads. I guess intellectually I had always realized that she was a gift, but it had not hit me in any profound sense until that moment. And I have said often that I am everlastingly grateful to God that that night I chose to take the road of gratitude rather than the road of resentment.
It didn’t in any way diminish the fact that to this day I wish Laura Lue had lived. And I have wondered what all of us would be like if she had lived. It didn’t diminish the sadness, but it kept me from just descending into this bitterness of soul that wouldn’t bring back anything. I read just the other day that responding to grief with bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping it is going to kill someone else. In fact, who you are really hurting is yourself. And I have seen other people who have chosen the road of bitterness, and I have seen what it has done to them.
Black: I have a number of stories regarding my courtship experiences where I was determined that I would not have a broken home, having grown up in one. And my prayer to God was that that He would lead me to the right person. And the hope that I had in Him and the trust that I had in Him that that would happen was so strong. It was such a pressing matter for me that I was praying up until the moment I said, “I do.” I mean, even as Brenda walked down the aisle, I was still praying! These stories of trusting the loving providence of God and placing my hope that God would be able to answer that prayer and direct me to the right person – these stories have been effective.
Zander: When we decided to leave Willow Creek, we decided we would take a six-month sabbatical. We needed some time and space from there, and we wanted make a good decision for the next phase of what our ministry would look like. We looked at our finances, and we had done the kind of stuff the financial people tell us. You know, get three months of emergency funds in your savings. And we did that. We had three months of funds, and we figured we would live with Val’s family, who had invited us to do so. Well, we were able to live the right way, and the funds stretched to six months. We were just being cool about the way we spent our money.
Well, we spent these six months and we had these wonderful experiences. We traveled, and I had some speaking engagements. At the end of 6 months, we had made our decision to move to San Francisco. And when we looked at our financial situation, we had more money in the bank than when we started. And it was because I had some of these speaking engagements.
I lead worship for a Chick-Fil-A national conference. I did all of about an hour’s worth of work, and they paid me so much money. It was one of these “I think you made a mistake” kind of moments. But it was one of those things that reminded me of the Israelites – how the Scriptures say that their shoes and their clothes never wore out. God just took care of them. And God really took care of us in that way.
But the story gets even better. When we moved to San Francisco, it was during probably one of the tightest housing markets that city has ever experienced. It was right at the height of the dot.com boom. All of these young millionaires were buying stuff and renting stuff, and the city had less than a 1% vacancy.
If anything became available, there would be 30 or 40 people lined up to try to get in it. If you were looking at a place, you had to show up fast. They would only show it for a couple of hours on a particular day, and that was it. You had to show up, and you had to have your credit report and all these other documents showing that your financial stuff was all okay.
Generally, you wanted to bring some kind of a gift for the landlord to kind of stand out from the rest of the people. The landlord was king. He would just say, “Ah, I think I will have that person living in my place.” Well there were five of us – my wife and I and three boys – and we could only afford a two-bedroom. We wanted to live in an area that was generally safe. And so for three weeks, eight hours a day, we went around the city and looked at anything that was open. And we would give our applications and our credit reports, and time and time again the landlord would come back and say, “No, we don’t want you.”
Now there is another part of this story. Before we even moved to San Francisco, my kids did not want to go there. They didn’t want to move. And I said, “Well guys, we are going to move. I’m sorry if this feels like it is forced, but we are going to move.” But then I said, “Why don’t each of you ask God for something – something just for you – in San Francisco?”
My youngest son, Christopher, said, “I want to ask God that we would live in a home with a back yard.” I said, “Okay, we can pray for that.” My middle son said, “I would like to live in a home that is next to a park, and I want the park to have animals in it.” “OK,” I said, “We can pray for that too.” And then my oldest son said, “I want to live in a home on a street that has lots of boys my age.” And by this time I realize what they are doing is describing the home we left. They are saying, “We want a home like that in San Francisco.” And it’s a huge city. Most places there in our price range don’t have back yards.
Well, we prayed. The kids said, “So are we really going to ask God for these?” I said, “Yeah, let’s do.” For me, it was one of those “Oh God, please” seasons of prayer! But my faith was so small.
We were in this house search three weeks. After three weeks of looking and applying at some 30 places that were open to the idea of having us in their little two-bedroom place, two houses became available. And of the two, we decided to go for the one we are now living in. It has a backyard. And it was one block from Golden Gate Park. We didn’t know at the time, but Golden Gate Park has a field in it with buffalo. And my animal-loving son loves buffalo. I mean, here we were driving through the park one day before moving in, and he said, “Dad, look! “There are buffalo!” I looked, and sure enough in the middle of San Francisco there are a field of buffalo!
And then after we moved in, one day we looked out and saw our boys meeting some kids. And standing in the middle of the sidewalk outside of our place were all of these boys. On our street and the street next to it, there are 15 boys around my oldest son’s age. Fifteen boys his age! And you just think, “This is the needle in the haystack. How did this happen?” And you just go, “You know what it is? God hears the prayer of little children.” He is that big. Jesus is serious about God’s provision. “Don’t worry,” He says, “You will be taken care of.”
Black: I talk a great deal about my experience growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, Maryland. I share about the work ethic that was forced upon me, where we actually picked beans with migrants. And I go on to recount the challenge of receiving a Christian education by working your way through school. I try to do it in a way where it’s not a Horatio Alger story. But I try to do it in a way that will encourage people to see that God can be with you each step of the way, and that He opens and closes doors in order for you to achieve His will.
Zander: I think one of the all-time stories is this one. I was born on Feb. 28, which is almost Feb. 29. I was born during a leap year, so I was almost born on the 29th. When I was in 6th grade it was my 12th birthday. I was having a terrible year, because I’ve got a weird name and it’s a small school and I was German and my parents would pack these weird lunches for me. Everyone else had bologna and I would have like a cow tongue sandwich or some other goofy thing. I was really the odd guy.
Well, it was coming up to my birthday, and someone said, “Isn’t your birthday pretty soon?” I said, “Yes. It is February 28.” They said, “Oh man, you were almost born on Leap Year!” They said this would mean that on this birthday I would only be three. And in that instant, I said, “Well you know, I was born on Leap Year.” They said, “Really?” I said, “Uh . . . yeah. I was born on Leap Year but we celebrate it on the 28th because my folks want me to be able to have a birthday every year.” They said, “Wow! Well that’s cool!”
And so we had this celebration in class on Feb. 29th for me with three candles. Everybody said, “Dieter is so cool! Man, you are the only one in the whole world I know who was born on Leap Year.” And really it was pretty cool. You know all of a sudden I am not feeling like a nobody.
Four years later, I had completely forgotten about this. I am in high school, and most of the kids I went to grade school with are in the same high school. One of them happens to work for the school newspaper. And she said to the editor, “Do you know that we have someone in high school who is going to turn 4 this year? Dieter Zander was born on Leap Year Day. We should do an article.” So they do an article. I am on the back of the newspaper blowing out 4 candles! The article had a headline like, “High school student turns 4 and is a junior in high school.” It was kind of fun, but my mom got hold of one of these newspapers. She says, “What is this? What are these people talking about?” And I say, “Uh . . . Mom . . . they are just having fun.” And so the lie gets deeper and deeper. I am trying to keep these lies from crashing in on me. Well, we got through that.
Four years later, I’m 20. I’m on the staff of a church as an intern. Some of the people from my high school go to this church. They go to the pastor and they say, “Do you know that you have a five year old on your staff?” And he says, “What?” “Yeah,” they said, “Dieter was born on Leap Year Day.” They say, “Oh, this is great! LeapYear happens to fall on a Sunday this year. We’ll throw a surprise party for him in church!”
Now luckily, I caught wind of this. And I had to go back to the pastor, staff, former schoolmates . . . Basically I got up in front of the church and said, “You know, for 8 years now I’ve been living a lie . . . ” When I tell that illustration to people, everybody knows what that feels like to be carrying a lie. And everybody knows what it’s like to carry a sin.
The ironic thing about this is I still get cards from people on Leap Year Day who never heard my confession! Golly, it just keeps coming back.
Black: Regarding the sin of racism or exclusion, I have shared the experience of trying to sell religious books in Alabama to put myself through school. This was in the segregated 60’s, so to become the leading salesman of my church during that time was no small accomplishment. But I pretended that I was African! And I did this African accent.
So here I was selling record numbers of books and no one understood how I was doing it. They were saying, “How can you be selling so many books in these all white neighborhoods?” But I would ring the doorbell, and it was, “Halooo. I am Hadji from Nigeria.” People would welcome me in: “Come on in, Hadji.” And they would buy books to help this little African go to school, whereas they would not have helped an African-American through. You know I never really let the secret out!
Zander: My son was 5 when he had a seizure. He has had a number of seizures since then, but this was the first one. It was a Sunday morning. He was 5, and I was pastor of New Song at the time. The church was huge, and only recently had I begun to let my life be intermingled with other people’s lives. I had people to call if I had a need, and people would call me if they had a need. Now, I had been a Christian for a long time, but I had never really experienced this kind of community. There are a lot of people who don’t; when tragedy strikes they don’t know whom to call.
On this particular Sunday morning, my wife and I wake up and we hear this sound like someone choking. We go into his room and our 5-year old was having a grand mal seizure, a “full-on” thing. His bed is soaked; we don’t know how long he has been doing this. We have never seen anything like this, and we just freak. He is our first-born son.
So we call 911 and the ambulance comes and takes my son, takes my wife, and they rush off. My other two sons are only 3 and 1 at that point, and they are at home too. But I know exactly whom to call. I know to call John and Babby. I know to call Tom and Susan, and Dusty and Susan to call Derrick and Alexia. (I still am moved by this. It still touches me.) And they were all there at our house in 15 minutes.
I went to the hospital. And again, this is a first time experience for me. We had never had any health problems with our children, and I don’t know if our son was going to die. And I remember all of a sudden I sensed someone at my shoulder, and it was Bob Logan. Bob was a member of our church. And I said, “Bob, how did you get in here?”
“Well,” he said, “I told people I am your pastor.”
I use this story to talk about how alone we can get in ministry, how we struggle with loneliness. We ought not to let that happen. Through that experience as a minister, I learned about the importance of being part of a community.
Russell: Recently, I shared about how sometimes I struggle with the remote control. I love the remote control because I can watch three programs at once without having to watch advertising, because I hate advertising. If I am not careful, late at night when everyone else is gone, I can start stopping at places that I know I shouldn’t stop. “Maybe Howard Stern has somebody on,” I said, “and I can try to look through the squiggly lines.”
The audience knows what I’m talking about, and some might even laugh. But they see where I’m going. Some of them struggle with their “remote controls” in ways that betray an even deeper struggle.
Questioning and Doubt
Black: Certainly the story about my mother’s death is the classic example of my sort of being bowled over by doubts. I have another story that I tell about my father’s alcoholism. My mother insisted that we pray for him. And I finally reached a point as a teenager when I stopped praying for him, because I didn’t think it would do any good. Later, as a ministerial student and then a seminarian and a young pastor, I would pray for everyone but my father.
God has a sense of humor, because my dad ended up accepting Christ when I preached one weekend. I didn’t even know he was in the audience, until I saw him at the altar call. So I had this doubt of the efficacy of prayer. My mother had continued to pray for my father. But I, as did some of my siblings, just gave up on him.
Russell: I got a phone call that my Dad had had a stroke and may not live, I was really shook up, and I wanted to stand firm. Bill Danson, a close preacher friend of mine was with me, and he said, “Well, it’s about time for you to believe what you say you believe.” He was right.
A Lesson Learned
Russell: I use an illustration about nearly falling out of a car when I was eight years old. We were coming home one Christmas Eve and I was sitting in the back of a Rambler and kept wondering what would happen if I pulled up on the car door handle. My curiosity got the best of me and I pulled it up. The door opened, and the wind made so much noise, and I dove for the floor. My dad screeched to a halt.
My mother turned around and said, “Where’s Bobby? Where’s Bobby?” My sister said, “Right here on the floor. He’s okay.”
My dad got out of the car – right in the middle of the road – leaned against the car, and took several deep breaths. He got back in the car and drove the rest of the way home without saying a word. I knew I was in trouble. And all the way home my sister was saying, “What kind of a idiot would pull open on the car door when you’re going 50 miles per hour?”
When we stopped in the driveway, I hopped out of the car, ran into the house, and went over and stood by the Christmas tree for protection! My dad came into the room and he came over to me and grabbed me . . . and gave me the biggest hugs that I ever remember. And he said, “I’m sure glad you didn’t fall out of that car.” And I was glad too. I learned that your father loves you even when you do something stupid. And when I make big mistakes, my Heavenly Father loves me too.
Black: One lesson I learned was you can’t run from God. I tried to get away from religion as a teenager. But the “hound of heaven,” as Francis Dobson would describe it, managed to track me down. I share about my experience in a gang fight where I was seriously injured. It was God’s way of answering my mother’s prayers and also getting my attention.
A self-disclosive story in which you emerge as the hero
Russell: I was invited to a high school to speak to some kind of social studies class on world religions. I was supposed to talk about evangelical Christianity. After I finished the brief presentation, I asked if there were any questions. One girl said, “Yes. How would you convert a Jewish person to your faith?” The class snickered, and I knew why they were snickering. The teacher’s name was Mrs. Steinberg. I thought, “Here we go.”
I decided that this was one of those times when I thought I would be better off just hitting head on. I said, ‘Well, first, it depends on whether the person is an orthodox Jew or a reformed Jew. For example, Mrs. Steinberg, you are Jewish aren’t you, what is your background?” And she said, “Well, if you could convince me that it is possible for a virgin to give birth to a child, maybe I would consider your religion.”
It’s not often that I answer questions well on my feet, but this was one of those times where I think the Lord provided me with an answer. I said, “Well you know what? With artificial insemination we have discovered that it is possible for a virgin to give birth to a child. God created it, and I’m sure He knew about it before we discovered it.” And the kids clapped. I get out of that story by saying, “You know what? I’ve never been invited back, but I thought it was a pretty good answer.” I use that story to encourage people to be prepared to give an answer for the faith, and also to be prepared to be rejected sometimes.
Black: I was a student missionary to South America in the 60’s. I was at a prison for felons, many of whom had committed horrible deeds. There was no capital punishment at that time in Peru, and I was terrified. I was sitting between two murderers as the missionary was giving his talk. Now, I am not a singer, but the missionary asked me to sing his hymn of appeal. I don’t speak very good Spanish either, but I got up there. And I guess God gave me the gift of tongues for that particular moment, because I ended up not only singing the appeal song, but also singing it with sufficient proficiency. About 15 or 20 people ended up accepting Christ at that particular service.
A self-disclosive story in which you emerge as a “goat”
Russell: One Sunday afternoon I stayed at church because I had so much to do. I had a funeral the next day that was out of town; I was writing a piece for the church paper; just a lot going on. It got to about 6:15 p.m., and I was so tired.
I thought, “Man, church starts at 7:00, and I just wish I could just rest a minute. So I lay down on the floor of the office, and I thought, “Well if I go to sleep I will hear the people coming in, or my wife or somebody who cares about me will come in and wake me. Well, the next thing I know, wake up and look and it said 7:35 p.m. And I had to think a minute. Then I thought, “Wait, this is Sunday . . . This is Sunday! Then I heard the music in the sanctuary. I thought, “What am I going to do about this?” So I went to the bathroom and washed my face real quickly and marched into the sanctuary like I had been counseling somebody or something.
Well, the song leader had been “dragging it out,” waiting for me to walk in. As soon as he saw me, he cut it off and nodded to me. I walked up and looked at him and meant to say, “Where are we in the service?” But what came out was “Where am I?” He said, “Nazareth Baptist.” Well, I looked out at the congregation and I couldn’t think of one thing going on in church that week. My mind just went totally blank! Finally I just said, “Folks I have to be totally honest with you. I went to sleep in the office and I just woke up.” Well the place went totally berserk. I mean they went crazy!
The next morning, I came into the church and there was a Do Not Disturb sign on my door. I opened my office and all the furniture was out. And all that was left was a cot with a teddy bear sucking his thumb with an alarm clock under his arm. I tell that illustration to show that even a preacher sometimes has a hard time staying awake!
Claypool: When I was in high school in Tennessee, I had wanted so much to be an athletic star and be a back in football. When I went out for football, it was clear that there were several other people faster and better. At the first spring practice of my sophomore year, the coach said, “I’ve got to have a center. I’ve got to teach somebody how to play this position. It is a key position, and is anyone up for it?”
And in one of those flash moments, I decided I probably wasn’t going to get to play much as a back. So I held up my hand. And so began the tortuous process of trying to learn how to be a center. It is a horrible position, because you are down looking back through your legs. Just an awful position. And back in those days up in Tennessee, General Neyland, the legendary coach at the University, had this single wing formation where you had to pass it back every time.
Anyway, I was the center on offense and a linebacker on defense. And of course we didn’t get any of the glory – just always found ourselves in the pile in the middle. But right before the half of our homecoming game against Peabody High, I was the linebacker and I intercepted a pass. And I am streaking down the sidelines on the way to score a touchdown right in front of the stands where our students were. And somehow, that ball got away from me.
Now here there was nobody within 10 yards of me, because in those days you couldn’t run with a fumble. So I had to recover my own fumble, and you talk about crushed. And my peers were just merciless. They called me “Glue-Fingers Claypool.” It was a memorable moment. It put another nail in the coffin that I was never going to be athletic hero, something that I so wanted to do.
Part 2 – Making It Connect
In the first portion of the interview, these preachers discussed the motives for using self-disclosive stories. Now they turn their attention to the dynamic of making their personal stories connect with their listeners.
Preaching: Can you recall a particular confessional sermon or self-disclosive story that had a powerful impact on your listeners?
Russell: Recently I was preaching on the fact that God sees everything. He sees your failures, and at the Judgment we are going to have to stand and account. And I told about when we celebrated my birthday and our grandson’s birthday on the same Saturday. My wife gave me a scooter, and she gave one to my grandson. She said, “Now when Charlie comes over you can go scooter with him.”
So I went out with him, and we were scootering around the cul-de-sac and down the sidewalk. Well, the thing I didn’t know about scooters is that the wheels are so small you can hit a little crack and that thing just quits. So I hit a crack and I took a nasty tumble. But what I didn’t know was that since it was our birthdays, my daughter-in-law had the movie camera going! And so at that point of the story, I just flashed it on the sanctuary screen – the video of me riding that scooter and taking this horrendous spill. And the congregation burst out laughing at me falling. Then I made the point that we fall and God records that, even when you don’t even know He is recording.
They bring up that story to me all the time – all kinds of jokes about the scooter!
I told another one recently: I remember years ago talking about being at a football game. And everyone knows that I am a big University of Louisville fan. And U of L was beating Southern Mississippi up to the last play of the game. Southern Miss had the ball with 65 yards to go. Brett Farve was their quarterback at the time. He faded back and threw a long pass and it bounded off the head of one of the U of L players. They all went up in a big jump to get it down, and it bounded over to the hands of one of the Southern Mississippi players. He grabbed it and ran in for a touchdown.
I used that story to talk about having to control your temper and your language. I told the congregation that when he ran in for that touchdown, I said to myself, “Oh hecky dern!” After some laughter, I went on: “And do you know what? That is not what I thought. I didn’t say the word that I was thinking. But I was thinking it. And when bad things happen to you or you are startled, there will be some bad words come to your mind. And that’s when you got to practice self-control.
Zander: There is one that I remember the best, because it was a real kind of a defining moment for me as a communicator and for our young, fledging New Song Church. It was within the first six months of my being a pastor, church planter, and preacher. I was also a seminary student at the time. My wife and I had been married 9 months, and we were going through a horrendous fight. It was one of our first really bad fights. We didn’t know how to fight at that point, and it took all of our time during the week when we were doing school and work. (She was in seminary as well.) We were trying to work through this conflict. I had no time to prepare a message.
So that Sunday morning I got up and we had maybe 50 people in the congregation. We were all young, but she and I were the only married couple in the church. And I got up and said, “You know what? I need to be honest with you guys. I have nothing to say to you this week. This whole week Val and I have been working through stuff in our relationship. I can tell you a few things I have been learning about God and relationships, but the thing I was going to teach you about, I didn’t have a chance to prepare.” So I spent just a short time talking about things I had learned about myself, things I had learned.
It was really hard. I felt really badly about not having this real sharp message. This was back when our church was in Chuck Swindoll’s backyard, just down the road from his church. He had a big name, and so I was always gauging my sermons by Swindoll’s. I felt really bad about the job I had done.
Well, these young people flocked to me afterwards and they said, “Thank you.” And I said, “For what?” “Thank you so much for being honest. Thank you for telling us and showing us how God works in and through these kinds of things.” And I thought, “I did that?” It was a surprise to me. It was not an intentional tool. And the thing that makes it so memorable was that an older couple came that particular Sunday as well. They were in their 60’s or so. And the gentleman came and put his arm and said, “Now pastor, you know my wife and I really appreciate your being willing to be honest, but that doesn’t belong in the pulpit.” I said, “What you mean it doesn’t belong in my pulpit?” And he said, “You know, I don’t want to know my pastor has problems.” And I said, “Well, you now know. Your pastor has problems.” And they never came back.
So to me that was a sort of an old school/new school kind of moment for me. I saw these young people opening up to what I had to say, and this older couple saying “you no longer are someone I can aspire to.” I think in an earlier time a lot of preaching and preachers used to be aspirational and inspirational, and now I think the thing that is being looked for is incarnational.
Claypool: The confessional sermon that had the most widespread impact was entitled The Basis of Hope, which I preached six weeks after my little girl was diagnosed with leukemia. It is in my little book, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.2
I also remember sermons in which I share how I had to go through several periods of doubt along my faith journey. I remember doing that on several occasions, and it seemed to be helpful. Sometimes I have traced how I grew up just echoing what my family believed, as any child will.
And then I had this experience with a neighbor who moved in up the street. His father had been in the military, and he had lived a lot of places. My mother called me to come in one Sunday afternoon when he and I were playing, and he asked me why I had to go. And I said that I had to get ready to go to church. He got this dark expression on his face, and he said “Church? My father thinks that anybody who listens to God is just a plain fool.”
Well, that was a shattering experience in my life. I had never heard anyone talk like that. I was very frightened. I lashed back at him saying that my father believed in God. And the night after this had happened, I can distinctly remember lying in bed looking at the ceiling and trying to sort it out: “OK, here I am, I believe there is a God because my father says there is. And here is my friend doing the very same thing – he’s believing what his father believes, and he says there isn’t a God.” And posed before my shattered innocence was the question: “How do you know that your father is right?”
This was the beginning of my religious struggle. An exchange student came to our high school from Iran. He told me he didn’t think the Bible was true. He believed that Allah was the only true god and that Muhammad was his prophet. And I had not ever heard of the Quran in Nashville in the 1930’s and 40’s. We were so encapsulated. So that really launched me into a terrible time of unknowing. But I will always be grateful for that, because it was in that unknowing that I had to ask and seek.
I have told that story of my own faith struggle, and it has helped others who were struggling.
I have also had lots of struggles in coming to have personal sense of “worthwhileness” based on grace, not on achievement. A minister in town called me one Monday afternoon and said, “Who cuts the barber’s hair?” And I said, “Excuse me?” He explained: “Where does the pastor go for pastoral care? We are so busy taking care of everyone else, where do we go for our needs?” And suddenly he just broke down. He said things were just coming apart for him, and he asked five of us to come be with him and see if we could take off our masks and give each other some care.
And so that was my first experience of profound sharing. I had never had that kind of interaction in the seminary. And it was there that I had a really profound moment of new self-awareness – that my worth came from God and not from my achievements. I am not free of that yet. I think we continue to work on our salvation with fear and trembling. We keep trying to appropriate what we have already been given.
Black: My mom was killed, and it had a very traumatic impact on my life. I wrestled with issues of theodicy, and I worked through that in a kind of Claypool-fashion actually. I found myself dealing with the providence of God and the complexity of that labyrinthine theme of the movement of providence.
With judicious self-disclosure, I talked about my anger at God. I talked about my desire to leave the ministry. At the time I really had a rather infantile faith, quite frankly – you know, the belief that God was the celestial bellhop. I didn’t understand the meaning of faith. The feedback I have received from congregants is that that message has been extremely helpful, although I am certainly not the hero in it at all. In fact, I am not even proud of my reaction to the tragedy. But it seems to have a tremendous impact when I use that illustration in a variety of messages that deal with issues of theodicy.
Preaching: Does the content of a self-disclosive story vary with regard to your intended audience? In other words, are there factors relating to the intended audience that you consider?
Russell: Yes. I think that I would tell one story to a men’s power lunch that I might not tell at all if I am speaking to a women’s daybreak. So the makeup of the male/female audience would make a difference. I think the maturity of the audience would make a difference too. Let’s say I am speaking to a leadership conference in which I assume that everybody who is coming is a leader in the church. I might be a little bolder than if I was speaking to the local church because there are not a lot of non-Christians or new Christians there who might not totally understand. Also, I think I would be a little bolder to my own congregation than I would be a new audience.
Zander: Context is very important when I consider what I share. Who’s out there? What is the make-up of the audience? I have learned hard lessons – learned them the hard way. At Willow Creek, I had to learn a lot about being very careful because at Willow there was always somebody in the audience who was looking for some means of smearing the church. Bill (Hybels) wouldn’t tell us to not talk about stuff, but he would encourage us to be very aware of misplaced words that can be used in bad ways. I think it is always important to keep that in mind: As helpful as a personal story might be, if there is an opportunity for it to be abused, you may not want to use it.
Claypool: If I am going to be autobiographical, the less I know the people to whom I’m disclosing, the more it has got to be pretty basic and general. It should not be anything specific. When I have to speak to a group of people that I don’t know, I fall back on something that Bill Hull said to me once when he asked me to go out to his seminary church in Kentucky. Bill said, “Tell us what is saving you.”
And so in that sense it does not have to be autobiographical, but you try to get in touch with things that are the best help for you at that moment. So when I am talking to a strange audience and have not been able to educate the listener, as Fred Craddock says we ought to do, I try to share the things that I feel like have been most helpful in my own journey. They are general illuminations and experiences, not stories that are so specifically about me.
Black: I have found that when I am in academic circles, because there is a greater emphasis on empiricism rather than the anecdotal, I tend to use less personal narratives than I do when I am speaking to a more heterogeneous congregation.
However, I have very often been validated by academicians who say that they really appreciate the times I do use personal anecdotes. They indicate that it is a refreshing change of pace from some of the more pedantic utterances with which they are familiar. I am a bit ambivalent about it, but I tend to be a lot more left-brained and analytical and into a deductive mode when I am talking in an academic environment.
Preaching: Based on his research on this subject, Jeffrey Kisner suggests familiarity and credibility as important variables to consider when using self-disclosure.3 Basically, the more familiar and credible a preacher is with an audience, the freer he/she can be in using autobiography in sermons. Furthermore, Kisner suggests that only preachers with high credibility should use personal stories that have negative valence – that is, stories that paint the preacher in a more negative than positive light. Based on your experience with self-disclosure in preaching, how would you respond to Kisner?
Zander: It is interesting that I don’t think about these things that Kisner has researched, but I do intuit them through experience. They really are important, and part of what I do in my preparation is I put myself in the role of the listener. I say, “If I am listening to me, how would I feel about what I just said?” And so I agree with Kisner that if you do a story that makes you seem like the hero and you put it right up front, that immediately sort of distances you from most of the other people to whom you are not heroic. I think as soon as you are put on a pedestal in churches today, people don’t feel like they can relate with you. And so whatever you are going to say has just been reduced in credibility. And so the timing of when you tell something seems pretty critical.
Kisner is right that if you are a high credibility preacher who is familiar with the audience, then stress the negative. If you are teaching on a regular basis and you are a good communicator – in that people really like you and they think you’re awesome – there is a responsibility not to fuel that. That may feel good on the ego. But what it does to your ability to communicate over the long run is create this gap between “Superman” and the “common people.”
So I do think that there is the need for the preacher to let air out of people’s inflated view of you. And it is your responsibility to let the air out. Not doing that is irresponsible. And if you look deeply at your motivation for not doing so, it is generally because you are trying to get people to give you something that you ought not to be getting from them in this way.
I agree with Kisner about telling negative stories about yourself to strangers, as least as far as if they reveal weakness, insecurity, struggle. If you say something dark and bad about yourself to people, part of what they are going to say is “Why is he speaking if he is such a mess? Why is he here? I could get up there and talk about the same types of things.”
I think this is important stuff for the preacher to think about – to think about the way listeners engage with a speaker. What is it that draws them in and makes them want to hear what he says? What pushes them away? There is a dance going on between the communicator and those who are being communicated to. Timing, familiarity, and tone are important in dancing, and they are in preaching too.
Claypool: I would agree with Kisner’s basic principles. For instance, his research suggests that if you are not very familiar with the people then you probably need to put your negative stories toward the end of the sermon.
Russell: Kisner says that high credibility preachers are wise to use stories with a negative valance, regardless of the timing. I think that is true. But I disagree with the notion that you should never use a negative-valenced personal story to strangers. Let’s say the “negative” story is a humorous, self-disparaging one. That kind of story can show strangers that you don’t suffer from self-importance.
Black: I think Aristotle’s concept of ethos, how the people perceive you, is very important. So if they don’t know you, you don’t want to be misunderstood. So I would concur that you have to be very careful about familiarity and credibility.
Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t use a negative story; but I would certainly frame it in such a way that made up for the familiarity deficit. I wouldn’t say that it should never be used. But you must be sensitive to the fact that people are hearing you for the first time, exposed to you for the first time, and you don’t want to give the impression that you have some serious pathologies that you are working through. So you would have to couch and frame, but I think it can still be done.
And many times the self-deprecating, non-hero negative can be far more powerful in the long run than the hero-type – those “look at what I have accomplished and look at what God has done through me” kinds of stories.
I would be hesitant without some familiarity with the audience to tell some stories without framing it appropriately. Knowledge of the audience is crucial. The more you know about your audience, the more effective you are going to be. And I think that is what makes a pastor so effective, because you can preach to their real needs. If you are scratching people where they are itching, you are going to be a lot more effective than if you are just winging it. You may eventually get to the itch, but you’ve got to go over a lot of territory, and it is a hit-and-miss kind of thing.
James Barnette is Minister to the University at Samford University in Birmingham, AL.
1 See James Barnette, “Humor in Preaching: An Interview with Bob Russell, Preaching, 10 March-April 1995, 5-6, 9-10.
2 John Claypool, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: How to Handle Grief, The John Claypool Library (Birmingham: Insight Press, 2003).
3 See Jeffrey Kisner, “And for Preachers . . . ”, Perspectives, (April 1994), 24. See also “Self-Disclosing Stories in Sermons: A Multi-Disciplinary Rationale,” Ph.D. Dissertation (Louisville: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989).