Posted September 26, 2007
Self-Disclosure in Preaching
Preaching Words: 144 Key Terms in Homiletics
Author: John S. McClure
Westminister John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 2007. Pp. 170
Self-Disclosure: References in the sermon to the preacherís life
Because of the current interest in authenticity, character, personality, and relationship in preaching, interest in self-disclosure among preachers has risen to a new level. In self-disclosing illustrations, preachers use stories or vignettes in which they are central players.
Homileticians are deeply devided on this issue. On one extreme, John R. Claypool appeals for the confessional use of the preacherís life story, especially when the preacher has experienced suffering. Such stories encourage others to bring the fullness of their experience into the preaching moment. On the other extreme, David Buttrick discourages any self-disclosure in preaching, on the grounds that personal illustrations always ďsplit consciousness.Ē The listenerís consciousness will split and focus on the person of the preacher instead of the message. Tom Long points out that listeners can tell when the preacher intends to split consciousness. 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 they are using their own lives to help listeners better understand the gospel.
Many preachers today, especially those in larger congregations, use self-disclosure to promote the perceived authenticity of the preacher. These preachers argue that preaching is the only time most listeners will have the chance to get to know them. 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, 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 preacherís life, self-disclosure will be perceived as manipulative. Second, self-disclosure should always be in service to the sermonís message. Even when the primary goal is to promote authentic relationship, the illustration be message-focused. Preachers should never simply tell stories about themselves in the pulpit. Third, self disclosure should be other-centered, rather than self-centered. In other words, it should be genuinely designed to encourage the congregationís self-exploration, instead of the preacherís personal catharsis. Fourth, preachers should anticipate the impact of self-disclosure. Premature self-disclosure, too much depth, and too much confession of personal sin can amount to homiletic voyeurism. According to Chartier, preachers should ďassess the timing, depth, and emotional toneĒ of self-disclosure so that listeners will not be overwhelmed or shocked by what is said. Fifth, Chartier encourages a ďbalanced self-picture,Ē incorporating both strengths and weaknesses, past and present. This will discourage both a totally negative view of human experience and an idealization of the preacherís experience as 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 try to be caretakers or play games with the preacher.
When it comes to self-disclosure, the majority of homileticians occupy a middle ground, encouraging moderation. J. Randall Nichols draws a helpful distinction between self-display and self-disclosure. Talking aobut oneís self and oneís feelings is very different from telling a story or providing an image in which the preacher is simply an observer, narrator, or reporter. When a preacher uses 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 should be done modestly, seeing the gospel through the lens of the preacherís life, rather than focusing on the preacherís life itself.