By Joe LaGuardia
They say that, in writing, honesty is the best policy. Stephen King advises in On Writing that writing is best when it tells the truth. In Right to Write, Julia Cameron has an entire chapter on honesty and its merits in writing. Creative writing coaches will tell you, if it ain’t the truth, it ain’t worth putting on the page. Honesty has sold millions of books and millions of dollars in movie sales.
Yet, in preaching every week, I wonder whether honesty has a place in the pulpit. I am not saying that we preachers lie or manipulate our congregations, but honesty implies that you, rather than the God about whom we testify and the scripture that we seek to exegete, takes center stage in the preaching event.
Some say that personal stories have no place in sermons. They distract from the doctrines we need to teach. Others say that the only godly way to preach is by expository preaching, which leaves neither room nor time for personal exploration. So where does honesty have a place in the pulpit?
I come from a school of theology (as many Baptists do) that makes room for what is called narrative preaching. Narrative preaching, popularized by the likes of Fred Craddock and John Claypool, not only focuses on scripture for the sermon, but does so in narrative and story-form. Since we live the story of the Gospel in real time and in real situations, than real life–in all its beauty and ugliness–have a place in the sermon.
Some narrative preachers tell stories and preach so well, in fact, that the congregation forgets they’re preaching in the first place. The sermons are like good movies–the moment you forget you’re watching a movie, the director and actors of the movie has moved you into the best that cinema has to offer.
Narrative preaching (and, in Claypool’s methodology, “confessional preaching”) places the preacher squarely in the center of the story. It is disingenuous (as the notion goes) to say that the preacher can “stay out” of the sermon–we bring all of who we are — our personality, life, experiences, and struggles — to bear on the text, so to think that we can somehow not make it personal is the least honest thing we can do.
In reading Julia Cameron’s chapter on “honesty” recently, I got to thinking about the place of honesty and storytelling in the preaching event. I find my home squarely in the narrative preaching tradition. I cannot do expository preaching (I’ve tried, with great failure). I cannot do outline preaching (precept upon precept)–I bore myself to death. I do not consider myself a teacher of scripture–that’s for Sunday School.
I am a preacher who stands in the tradition of a Lord who told stories in order to help people experience the Kingdom of God. Jesus never preached in expository style–he didn’t teach about God; he helped people meet God.
But that doesn’t mean I am required to be honest, at least not in the way that creative writers mean it. Let me explain.
In writing, honesty implies that you reveal your deepest conflict or assumptions about life. It is a type of writing that values memoir over embellishment. We write from the inside out because people do not deserve deceit or fanciful exaggeration. We write what we see, and life does not need help in communicating something true and valuable.
In preaching, however, storytelling still does not create an ecosystem in which the “I” takes precedence over the “Thou.” We are still not at the center of the story, and telling the truth can be misconstrued as pushing an agenda more than bearing witness to what we–as the congregation–can learn together about being God’s beloved community.
We go to church and experience all of worship (not just the sermon, only a fraction of what worship is supposed to be about–those long sermon times are for another column!) because we come to together to experience God and bear witness to how God has redeemed us and is ever redeeming us.
We preachers need to be honest in our shortcomings. We mustn’t pretend to have all the answers or go out of our way to convince the congregation that they need to think like we do. We need to be honest about those areas of scripture with which we wrestle–and explain why they are difficult–not provide cliches that gloss over a Word that is beyond us and still contains deep mysteries that we will never really know about, completely at least.
We must be honest by acknowledging that we are not all that great of people, and that we’re like everyone else aside from our vocation as professional expositors of the text. Instead, we must be humble by keeping our sermons concise and focused rather than allowing pride to prove to others how verbose we are. Our vocation as preachers is one of function, not of elevated spiritual divinity over others who work in and on behalf of Christ’s church.
Every week, I wrestle with this idea. I take great pains not to let myself (or my family or my situations past or present) get in the way of the Gospel message. I use personal anecdotes at times to illustrate or accentuate a point, but it is not the destination of the sermon. These stories, like other methods of storytelling, are merely resources to help others experience God. Being honest is valuable, but its not the point. No one comes to church to hear about me. Honesty is a policy, but its not always the best way to communicate God’s Word.