It's hip to "tell all" nowadays. But is it wise? Not really, argues William H. Willimon in this article reprinted from LEADERSHIP, a sister publication of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. While the essay addresses mainly preachers, it also makes good eavesdropping for those who listen to sermons. Willimon is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
I take as my text a statement by the great theologian Oscar Wilde: "About the worst advice you can give anybody is, 'Be yourself.' " For clergy, that aphorism may be especially true.
Recently I heard a church-growth consultant urge pastors to "be authentic." He noted that boomers, busters, and GenX-ers all like preachers who "share themselves," who peel off the clerical masks and share their humanity. "If you've had a tough week, tell them," he advised. "If you have trouble believing a certain piece of Scripture, tell them."
Authenticity is a great virtue. The insincere ministerial demeanor is a true turnoff for many. The congregation rightly expects us not to talk the talk unless we walk the walk. And perhaps there was a time when we preachers needed to demonstrate to the congregation that, despite the M.Div., the backward collar, or the red rose on the lapel, we were, after all, just poor struggling sinners like them.
I wonder, though, if that day has passed. Lately, there have been so many opportunities for the laity to utter the truism "Well, we must remember that pastors are only human" that I see little need for us intentionally to share ourselves, expose ourselves, strip down, open up, or let it all hang out in the name of "authenticity." Show me a layperson who needs us to expend time in Sunday worship convincing folks that we preachers are, after all, only human, and I'll show you a layperson who has been neglecting the gossip section of the local newspaper.
Have you ever decided to act authentically? That's as dumb as deciding to act humbly. You either are or you aren't. To intentionally pepper my sermon with doses of predetermined authenticity is to be, well, inauthentic.
An elderly woman complained to me that she could tell when her pastor had not had time to prepare a sermon, because he would begin crying at the weakest point in the sermon. "Crying?" I asked.
"Yeah, crying," she said. "He says something like, 'When I think of what Jesus did for us I just, well, I … I … forgive me, I'm just overcome with gratitude.' He usually is overcome with gratitude about once every month, usually related to his fishing schedule."
We need more of that? I'm all for pastoral honesty, to let the people know we stand among them as a redeemed sinner who struggles. But the sermon may not be the best place for such sharing. There, we have our hands full proclaiming the gospel, pointing to Christ, telling the story; there may not be much time to waste pointing to ourselves, sharing our story. John Wesley loved to counter his preachers' tales of how well they had done in the pulpit by asking them, "But did you offer Christ?"
I must never become confused into thinking that people are in church because of me. True, we preach through our personality. When a colleague and I edited an encyclopedia of preaching, we noted that the most-quoted phrase was Phillips Brooks's classic definition of preaching as "truth communicated through personality." We have got the personality thing down fairly well. It's the truth thing that may be in peril.
Some time ago, when we preachers were first being urged to "share your story" and to lay ourselves bare before the people, I heard a sermon that began, "Prayer is a problem for me." From there the preacher went on about his doubts and dilemmas with prayer. I thought it refreshingly honest.
On the way home from church, my wife said, "I suppose there was a time when a congregation would be shocked, or at least titillated, by having a pastor admit that he was inept at prayer. Nowadays, it might be more exciting to hear a pastor stand and say, 'I may have problems with prayer, but thank God we Christians have resources greater than my limited experience.' Then he could have quoted Paul or Teresa of Avila or someone who knew more than he did."
In a society where the emotional striptease is the standard stuff of daytime television, in a culture where we are encouraged relentlessly to scan our egos as if there is no help for us other than that which is self-derived, do we preachers need to be "authentic"? Authenticity is more than a matter of being who I am; it is a matter of being who God calls me to be. For preachers, authenticity means being true, not just to our feelings, but true to our vocation, true to God's call. We serve God's people by laying aside ourselves and taking up the cross and preaching Christ and him crucified, whether we feel like it next Sunday or not.
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