When Preaching Becomes too Personal
American preachers are fond of the dictum of Phillips Brooks that "preaching is the bringing of truth through personality." What Brooks meant by "personality" is not what many of us mean when we use the word. By "personality," he meant the whole person of the preacher: "The truth must come really through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen. It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him" (Lectures on Preaching, E.P. Dutton, 1898, p.8).
What Brooks, the great preacher of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston in the late 19th century, says is unassailable. The fact is that each preacher will preach in his or her own mode of being. Moreover, as Brooks puts it, preaching "must come really through the person." That is why it is impossible to really preach by repeating something found in a book or on the internet. Preaching is processed through the mind, heart and soul of the preacher.
Yet, if Brooks' famous description of preaching is taken out of the context of his own thought, it can be misapplied. It can be miscontrued to imply that what we preach is ourselves or our own experience interpreted by our faith.
While it is appropriate and often helpful for the preacher to refer to his or her own experience to make a connection with the congregation or to illustrate some truth, there has to be a distinction between referring to our experience and preaching it. Perhaps without our really being aware of it, over time, we who are preachers can allow our preaching to become too personal in the sense that our preaching may be too focused upon ourselves or too bound to our own personal experience of the Gospel.
The obvious weakness of preaching that becomes too personal is that it loses its prophetic note, the call of the living God to righteousness, justice and peace. Preaching can become merely a call to an inner experience rather than a summons to transform the world. The root of this over-emphasis on inner experience is often the preacher's own preoccupation with his or her own personal experience of the Gospel.
There is also a loss of pastoral care that occurs when preaching becomes too personal. Each of us has heard the Gospel in a way which gave us liberation in our own personal struggle, but we have to remember that how we have heard the Gospel may not be how others need to hear it since their needs are different from ours. Perhaps, for example, we first heard the Gospel as an assurance that we are loved and therefore can learn to value ourselves. Others may not have struggled so much with a sense of self-worth as with a sense of pride or doubt or uselessness.
There are two cures for correcting preaching when it becomes too personal. One is the Gospel. It is not our personal narrative which we are commissioned by God through the church to proclaim, but it is the great narrative of God's action we are commissioned to proclaim. Whatever other roles the preacher needs to play, such as a prophet or pastor, the preacher must always be the herald--the public announcer of the Gospel. The Gospel literally means "God's story," and it is God's story, not our story, which needs to be announced.
The other cure is the office of the preacher. The preacher is not just a person, but he or she is a person in an office. The office is established by the church for the sake of building up the church through hearing the proclamation of the Gospel. It is the job and duty of the preacher to proclaim the Gospel regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable the message may be, and regardless of how the preacher may feel. Just as the carpenter has to hammer nails, or the mother has to change diapers, or the judge has to decide how to apply the law, the preacher has the job of proclaiming the Gospel. The office is bigger than the personality of the preacher, and it exists for the sake of the church being able to hear the whole counsel of God.
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