Whether we like it or not, people are watching and listening. And if current research on sermon listeners is correct, they are watching and listening for ways to relate meaningfully with their preacher. The “Listening to Listeners to Sermons Project,” a massive empirical study of sermon listeners resulting in four books and countless articles, discovered that sermon listeners hear more and hear better when they believe they can relate to their preacher in meaningful ways. Overall, the study seems to indicate a shift in the nature of the authority of the pulpit in America away from forms of authority such as office, expertise, charisma, and expository genius to a relational form of authority, a trend anticipated years ago by Jackson Carroll in his book As One With Authority. In other words, sermons today are granted authority (authorship in listener’s lives) when listeners feel that they can relate and connect with the preacher.

Historians of preaching sometimes trace a similar paradigm shift toward an accent on the preacher-listener relationship in homiletic theory to Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching in the late nineteenth century in his Lectures on Preaching:

What, then, is preaching, of which we are to speak?” It is not hard to find a definition. Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men (sic). It has in it two essential elements, truth and personality. Neither of these can it spare and still be preaching.

Of course, Brooks had a very different understanding of the word “personality” than we do. The pulpit personality he felt was so important was a form of Christian character shaped profoundly by Christian faith and doctrine. Brooks knew nothing of the winsome personality deemed essential for successful interpersonal communication in the late modern period.

Others pin the homiletical shift toward the preacher-listener relationship on Harry Emerson Fosdick, with his ideas about preaching as “personal counseling on a group scale.” One need only listen to Fosdick’s sermons, however, to discover that establishing relationships with listeners was not one of his primary concerns, unless one means relating to a benevolent dictator.

It was inductive homiletics, under the leadership of Fred Craddock and others, that really brought this interest in the preacher-listener relationship to fruition as a homiletical method. Craddock invited preachers to create sermons as shared journeys toward meanings that were rooted in common forms of experience. His ideas ran directly parallel to the great rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who appealed for “identification” or “consubstantiality” with one’s listeners as the key to successful communication in the modern context.

Building on this homiletic of identification, it appears that many preachers today have decided to travel a good deal further than Craddock and Burke, going out of their way to appear down to earth, authentic, and “one of us” with listeners, often including lengthy stories about themselves, revealing all kinds of intimate details along the way.

Teachers of preaching in the modern context have been deeply divided on this issue. On one extreme, John R. Claypool has appealed for the confessional use of the preacher’s life story, especially inasmuch as the preacher has experienced suffering. He argues that such stories encourage others to bring the fullness of their experience into the preaching moment. On the other extreme, David Buttrick discouraged any self-disclosure in preaching on the grounds that personal illustrations always “split consciousness.” The listener’s consciousness will split and focus on the person of the preacher instead of the gospel message.

In response to Buttrick, Tom Long points out that listeners can usually tell when the preacher intends to split consciousness and focus on the preacher. This observation is borne out by the Listening to Listeners Project, in which interviewed listeners demonstrated remarkable skills for discerning when preachers are intentionally talking about themselves, and when, in fact they are using their own lives to help listeners better understand the gospel.

Years ago, Myron Chartier anticipated this interest in self-disclosure in the pulpit. According to Chartier, modest forms of self-disclosure can signify a healthy personality in the pulpit and promote vital forms of solidarity and relationship between the preacher and congregation. Chartier outlined several guidelines for appropriate self-disclosure.

  • First, according to Chartier preachers should be consistent, practicing self-disclosure in all areas of life and ministry. If the pulpit is the only place where people are permitted to see into the preacher’s life, self-disclosure will be perceived as manipulative.
  • Second, Chartier argued that self-disclosure should always be in service to the sermon’s message. Even when the primary goal is to promote authentic relationship, the illustration should be message-focused. Preachers should never simply tell stories about themselves in the pulpit.
  • Third, Chartier encouraged self-disclosure that is other-centered, rather than self-centered. In other words, sharing information about oneself should be genuinely designed to encourage the congregation’s self-exploration, instead of the preacher’s personal catharsis. Preachers can accomplish this by immediately telescoping outward from their own experiences to similar experiences of others.
  • Fourth, preachers should anticipate the impact of self-disclosure. Premature self-disclosure, too much depth, and too much confession of personal details or vices, can amount to homiletic voyeurism. According to Chartier, preachers should “assess the timing, depth, and emotional tone” of self-disclosure so that listeners will not be overwhelmed or shocked by what is said.
  • Fifth, Chartier encourages a “balanced self-picture,” incorporating both strengths and weaknesses, past and present. This will discourage either a totally negative view of human experience, or an idealization of the preacher’s experience as a one like us in every way, but without sin.
  • Finally, Chartier warns self-disclosing preachers that they should expect self-revealing responses from listeners. Sharing oneself encourages others to do the same. Preachers should also be ready for listeners to assume counseling, parental, or even antagonistic roles in relation to what has been disclosed. Many people enjoy meddling in the lives of others and will use this as a chance to care-take or play games with the preacher.

When it comes to self-disclosure, the majority of teachers of preaching occupy a middle ground, encouraging moderation. J. Randall Nichols draws what is perhaps the most helpful distinction for us to bear in mind: the distinction between self-display and self-disclosure. It is very different to talk about one’s self and one’s feelings than to tell a story or provide an image in which the preacher is primarily an observer, narrator, or reporter. According to Nichols, when using self-disclosure the general rule is for the preacher to stay behind the lens of the camera or in the peripheral vision as much as possible. The closer the preacher moves to the camera lens, the more self-disclosure is preacher-focused. In short, self-disclosure can be done modestly, seeing the gospel through the lens of the preacher’s life, rather than focusing on the preacher’s life itself.

At the end of the day, preaching does necessarily come through us as “clay pots.” Whether we like it or not, preaching is an embodied event – and our lives are disclosed through our bodies as much as our words – through gestures, facial expressions, clothing choices, tone of voice, etc. And our choices of messages to preach, illustrations, biblical references, etc. betray our priorities, interests, and passions – beyond and before we actively and intentionally “self-disclose” in the pulpit. Whether we like it or not, therefore, it is “about us” – which raises all the more intensely the question of how we can also be certain that it is not only and primarily about us, but ultimately about the God we worship in and through Jesus Christ.

For more on this issue, and for further reading, see my book Preaching Words: 144 Key Terms in Homiletics.