“It’s Not About You” – or is it? Self-disclosure and Preaching

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.

Keeping the “Prayers of the People” a Prayer


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Keeping the “Prayers of the People” a prayer

Intercession is sometimes offered with the pastor or priest asking openly for prayer concerns, attempting to gather them into a prayer on the spot. This practice is often a wonderful experience of community prayer. In my experience, two problems typically accompany this form of prayer:

  1. People can’t hear. This is an issue of hospitality. As presiders we are in control of worship – and controlling the microphone is a crucial way in which we either welcome everyone, or exclude many. In many instances, only those near the person lifting up a prayer concern or thanksgiving will actually hear what is said.
  2. People cease to pray. The “Prayers of the People” becomes “announcement time,” or a time when the congregation is not at prayer but simply sharing concerns, as they might in a small devotional group.

It is possible, however, for the us as leaders to use a form that will permit every prayer concern to be audible by all, and enable the congregation to remain in a state of prayer from start to finish.

Here’s what I suggest:

1. Invite the congregation into prayer, asking for prayers to be offered “on microphone only.”

2. While the congregation remains in prayer, you, as pastor, or someone designated by you, move among the congregation (with a hand-held microphone if possible) and stand at a particular pew or row of chairs and receive both the person’s name and brief prayer of intercession.

3. Before moving on, you repeat in a short sentence form a bidding prayer,  (“Let us pray for”…) followed by a category of prayer (“healing and comfort”) followed by the specific object of the congregation’s intercession not going again into detail (” for Jim Smith’s mother, Mary), followed by an invitation for response in an attitude of prayer (“Lord in Your mercy”)

Full example: Let us pray for healing and comfort, for Jim Smith’s mother Susan. Lord in your Mercy:

4. Followed by a congregational response: “Hear our Prayer.”

5. Then move to the next person with a petition or prayer.

This process can then be concluded with a collect.

The entire process is done in an attitude of prayer. 1) We hear the prayer, 2) we rephrase the kind of prayer offered, 3) we ask for the congregation’s prayer, 4) they respond with prayer.

Again, my hope is that:

  1. Everyone can hear.
  2. Everyone will be at prayer.

Seems simple. But it takes some thought and planning in each of our situations to make it happen.

Preaching the Good News as GOOD News


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Preaching the Good News…

Image …as Good News

For a variety of reasons, we often fail to communicate any motivating “good news” in our sermons. From my experience, there are several reasons for this.

Sometimes we cave in to the culture’s pejorative definition of “preach” – thus the need to sound “preachy.” We load sermons with hard or soft imperatives: “we must,” “we should,” or “let us,” and “we are called to….” When this happens, I am reminded of the hospital nurse, using the “nurse’s ‘we’”: “we need to take our medicine now,” “let’s sit up now and eat some lunch.”

At other times, we worry that the congregation is not doing all that it could do to support our exciting vision for church growth or social justice. We feel compelled to nag at our congregations for their failings.

At other times, we lose sight of the redemptive good news altogether. We are lost in doubt, lack of theological confidence or conviction, and can only muster a few “hints and helps for daily living” as a positive message on Sunday morning.

In the worst case scenario, we allow ourselves to become angry with something in the congregation or culture at large. We feel the need to “load up on people” week after week, dividing the sheep from the goats.

There is certainly plenty of bad news in this world, and the good news that we preach should not appear pollyannish. With this in mind, I still feel compelled from time to time to remind myself that the heart and soul of preaching is the good news of God’s redemptive grace and mercy. Whether preaching a text from the Hebrew Bible or from the New Testament, we are fundamentally in the service of a God of redemption and hope. With this in mind, I offer these suggestions:

  1. Preach only what inspires you. It is easy to finish several hours of exegesis only to arrive at a completely flat, moralistic, and insignificant message. Ask yourself whether your message is inspirational good news for your own life. Then proceed.
  2. Examine your motives. Be sure that you are not motivated in your preaching by either anger or your church administrative agenda. Are you motivated by the desire to preach a life-changing and world-changing word of grace and hope?
  3. Be sure that the good news you preach is faithful to the biblical text you are preaching. There is not only one good news message in the Bible. God’s grace and mercy take many different shapes. It is not always “personal salvation” or “liberation,” or whatever our doctrinal preference may be. Seek out the richness of God’s redemptive presence in the Bible.
  4. Although there are occasions and biblical texts that call for an imperative word from the pulpit, it is best to avoid both the hard and soft imperative voice in preaching, unless it is first grounded in the solid indicative of God’s grace. Weed out the language of “must,” “should,” “ought to,” “let us,” “we are called to,” and try using the language of identity, possibility, process, and vision. Give the strong impression in every sermon that the church is a powerful agent of grace, living more deeply into its redemptive identity every day.
  5. Regularly rethink your theology as it meets your congregation. Ask yourself: What do I really believe? What is God doing in our midst? Who is Jesus Christ and what is Christ’s good news for our world today?

These simple practices may help us reorient our preaching toward a redemptive purpose so that the good news that we preach on Sunday morning is really good news to our hearers.

Part V, Crafting Liturgical Prayer, Types of Public Prayer: Adoration and Thanksgiving


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Part V, Crafting Liturgical Prayer, Types of Public Prayer: Adoration and Thanksgiving

Praise has two qualities:

1. Unconditioned praise (adoration). This is praise that is conditioned by no prior action from God – praise for God in and of God’s-self.  The focus is on God and on God’s unique and wonderful identity. This includes qualities belonging to God such as nurturance, holiness, beauty, strength, etc. These qualities call forth metaphors for God such as creator, redeemer, savior, father, mother, Lord, sustainer, guide, healer, etc.

2. Conditioned praise (thanksgiving). Thanksgiving connects what we know of God from our past to what we experience in daily living today.  It is rooted in anamnesis, which is a particularly strong and dynamic form of communal remembrance. Thanksgiving always recalls God’s mighty acts in the past in order to make them alive and present in the present. And it always places what we remember in relation to where and who we are now.

Forms of Thanksgiving.

1. Non-sacramental Form. Although this prayer might be offered at any point in worship, it is usually associated with the Lord’s Table, and is best done during a portion of worship in which Communion is usually celebrated. Here I will be suggesting a form for thanksgiving when Holy Communion is not celebrated. This prayer is often associated with the Offertory in the non-sacramental Liturgy of the Word.

The collect form is best, modified (for prayers of thanksgiving) by an introductory dialogue.

Consider prefacing payers of thanksgiving with the traditional dialogue from the great prayer of Thanksgiving:

L: The Lord be with you
P: And also with you
L: Lift up your hearts
P: We lift them up to the Lord
L: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
P: It is right to give our thanks and praise

or the abbreviated form:

L: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
P: It is right to give our thanks and praise

Follow this with an invocation and relative clause. For instance:

Almighty and merciful God (invocation)
from whom comes all good and perfect gift, (relative clause)

Followed by a list of 1st person plural adorations and statements of thanksgiving, which remember God’s grace in the past and place that grace into relationship with the present. For instance:

We praise you for your mercies,
for your goodness that has created us,
your grace that has sustained us,
your discipline that has corrected us,
your patience that has borne with us,
and your love that has redeemed us.
We give thanks for your creation,
for the joy of living and the beauty of this day.
We thank you for your redeeming power,
which parted the Red Sea and brought us out of Egypt,
which gave to us Jesus Christ who died on a Cross and rose triumphant from the dead.
which gives us new life, freedom, and hope even now.

End with a result clause and conclusion (perhaps doxological) If a prayer after the collection of the offering, the proper result of thanksgiving might be to offer up our lives to God.

Because of your great mercy and love we offer our lives to you to be your servants and to show forth your praise each day (result clause)
through Jesus Christ, to whom be honor and glory now and forever, Amen. (conclusion)

B. Sacramental Form: The Eucharistic Prayer

The form of this prayer has been one of the most disputed and well-honed elements of theology in all of church history, and the Eucharistic Prayer remains the great prayer of the church universal. Adherence as much as possible to this form shows one’s awareness that worship is always done in the communion of saints past, present, and future. If/when crafting Eucharistic prayers, it is crucial to include the following elements if possible.

                   1. introductory dialogue
                   2. preface/thanksgiving
                   3. institution narrative
                   4. anamnesis
                   5. epiclesis
                   6. concluding doxology

With only a couple of exceptions all of the historic liturgies which found their way into the liturgical tradition in the West include also:

                   1. sanctus
                   2. intercessory prayers (diptychs)
                   3. preliminary epiclesis (before the institution narrative) in some traditions

Here, then, are the basic elements of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving: 

1.  Introductory Dialogue. This is a dialogue of greeting between the presiding minister and people and invites everyone present to join in the giving of thanks, just as we might introduce grace before an ordinary meal.

            Minister: The Lord be with you.
            People: And also with you.

It may include an invitation to lift up the heart to God (sursum corda). This indicates that all that we do is an offering of ourselves to God, rather than a re-offering of Christ on an altar.

            Minister: Lift up your hearts.
            People: We lift them to the Lord.

Then there is an invitation to give thanks and followed by a response indicating that this is the proper and correct thing to do.

            Minister: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
            People: It is right to give our thanks and praise.

The importance of this action is that the celebrant receives the assembly’s authorization and assent here to prior to proceeding.

2.  The Preface. Next comes the preface, a joyful thanksgiving that usually recites either a specific work of Christ (varying according to season or occasion) or a general narration of the history of creation and redemption. In the West this was a variable thanksgiving stressing one part of God’s saving activity. In the East this was an invariable thanksgiving presenting a general view of the whole history of salvation. When crafting this section, focus on the mighty acts of God in creation and redemption. This thankful recalling of the mighty acts of God is often ended with the Sanctus.

3. The Sanctus.  From Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. The “Thrice holy” is the highest ascription of praise in scripture.

            Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts
            Heaven and earth are full of your glory

The Benedictus qui venit is added in most liturgical traditions. The Sanctus enables the congregation to join in the climax of the thanksgiving.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord

5. The Narrative of Institution. This commemoration of God’s acts is followed and culminated in many liturgies by the words of institution. The Reformers separated this out and made it into a warrant for celebration. Many of our recent liturgies follow the more ancient practice of including it in the prayer.

6. The Anamnesis. As noted before this is a unique kind of “remembering.”  In every sense it is an attempt to bring to life something in the present that occurred in the past. It involves a careful balancing between two elements: memorial and offering. These two are carefully linked in a way that makes the former grammatically dependent upon the later.

  • memorial – this section always mentions the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Often other aspects of the mystery of redemption are included , such as incarnation, burial, the mediation of the ascended Christ at the right hand of God and quite often a reference to the second coming which sets the Eucharist in eschatological perspective
  • offering –this section offers the bread and cup, making it clear that the offering is dependent upon its identification, in virtue of Christ’s institution, with his own offering of himself.

7. Epiclesis – (From Greek word meaning “invocation’) Fundamentally a petition for the descent of the Holy Spirit on the elements and upon the assembly gathered to partake, and a statement of the ends for which this is sought – the fruits of communion.

8. The Intercessions. Intercession appears at this moment in the prayer, because we are most clearly aware of the body of Christ and our participation in Christ’s presence. It is basically an extension of that aspect of the epiclesis that prays for the fruits of communion. This becomes then preparation for communion as our participation in the Body of Christ.

9. The Doxology. The Eucharistic Prayer ends with praise and thanksgiving. (Usually Trinitarian in form).

Part IV, Crafting Liturgical Prayer, Types of Public Prayer: Intercession


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The intercessor is one who “stands between” or “goes between” an individual, or community and God.  Intercession is prayer “on behalf of” another and addresses itself to concerns, issues, problems, conflicts, or suffering that require God’s special attention. Intercession is the priestly prayer of the body of Christ and in intercession it is the congregation, the people of God who are intercessors – not the priest, minister, or leader. For this reason it is often called the “prayers of the people.”

Open Prayers of the People – Intercession is sometimes offered in a less formal way, with the pastor or priest asking openly for prayer concerns, attempting to gather them into a prayer on the spot. This practice is often a wonderful experience of community prayer. Often, however, it ceases to be prayer, and becomes “announcement time,” or a time when the congregation is not “at prayer” but simply sharing concerns, as they might in a small devotional group. It is important for the leader to use a form that will encourage the congregation to remain in a state of prayer. One of the best forms to accomplish this is:

1. invite the congregation into prayer, asking for prayers.

2. while the congregation remains in prayer, move among the congregation (with a hand held microphone if possible) and stand at a particular pew or row of chairs (or have someone else do this) and receive both the person’s name and brief prayer of intercession.

3. before moving on, repeat in a short sentence form a bidding prayer,  (“Let us pray for”…) followed by a category of prayer (“healing and comfort”) followed by the specific object of the congregation’s intercession (” for Jim Smith’s mother, Mary), followed by an invitation for response in an attitude of prayer (“Lord in Your mercy”)

full example: Let us pray for healing and comfort, for Jim Smith’s mother Susan. Lord in your Mercy:

4. followed by a congregational response: “Hear our Prayer.”

5. Then move to the next person with a petition.

This process can then be concluded with a collect, or with one of the forms of prayer below. The entire process is done in an attitude of prayer. 1) We hear the prayer, 2) we rephrase the prayer, 3) we ask for the congregation’s prayer, 4) they respond with prayer.


When a form of open prayer is not used, there are many other forms for intercessory prayer. Since intercession is “on behalf of,” it will include petitions. Since it is corporate, it is important that these petitions be included in a form that is participatory as possible. Some possible forms of intercession include:

A. Bidding Prayer Form

  • Invocation and Introductory sentence focusing on the nature of the prayer – for example: “Almighty God, in Jesus Christ you taught us to pray for the many needs of others.
  • Bidding Prayer – “Let us pray for the world.”
  • Collect – Remember, a collect is a single sentence prayer, expressing a single petition or theme.  It is rendered in a five-fold patter which includes invocation, relative clause, petition, statement of purpose, conclusion:

“Creator God, (invocation) you made all things in your wisdom, and in your love you save us. (relative clause)  We pray for all creation.  Order unruly powers, deal with injustice, feed and satisfy those who thirst for justice, (petitions) so that your children may freely enjoy the earth you have made, and cheerfully sing your praises; (statement of purpose) through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (conclusion)

  • Response – “Amen”: or “Hear our Prayer, O God.”

Then you return to the next bidding prayer.  The prayer ends with a concluding collect

B. Litany Form – 

  • Invocation and Relative Clause – Almighty God, (invocation) who answers the prayers of the faithful and hears the cries of the distressed, (relative clause)
  • Series of petitions that end with identical words or other recognizable cues.

L: For peace in the world

for the welfare of the church of God and for the unity of all peoples,

let us pray to the Lord

P: Lord, have mercy

  • Concluding collect

C. Congregational Bidding Prayer Form

This form of prayer is divided into categories.

  • Enumerative Bidding Prayer – Member of congregation or deacon lists a series of concerns representing one category such as the church:

“We ask your prayers for God’s people throughout the world:

for church leaders in Iraq, China, Europe and throughout the world, and for this gathering.”

  • Bidding Prayer – Leader summarizes with a  call to prayer indicating the broad category of prayer to be followed:

“let us pray for the church”

  • Silent Prayer A moment of silent prayer follows.
  • Concluding collect (repeat pattern)

D. Litany Form including silent prayer

  • Bidding Prayer – Leader suggests category for prayer:

“Let us pray for the church and for the world.”

  • Petition – a brief prayer:

“Grant almighty God, that all who confess our name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world.

  • Silence
  • Responsive Cue – “Lord, in your mercy”
  • Congregational response – “Hear our prayer”
  • (repeat pattern)
  • Concluding Collect – Ends with a concluding collect

E. Pastoral prayer with concluding Amen 

  • Bidding Prayer – Having gathered together the concerns to be prayed for, the minister offers calls the congregation to prayer indicating the category to be addressed in prayer:

“Let us pray for those who are ill.”

  • Petitions – which lists and addresses the concerns gathered and others.
  • Response – Congregation responds with “Amen” after each section.
  • Concluding Collect – Ends with concluding collect.

F. Pastoral Prayer with one concluding Amen

  •  Pastor offers a number of petitions in connected collects.
  •  People respond with a concluding “Amen.”