Is Honesty the Best Preaching Policy?

man writing in front of booksBy 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.

 

A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?

The Ten Commandments for Welcoming Guests to Church

By Joe LaGuardia
Church consultants and pastors have spilled much ink regarding how churches should welcome guests.  There is a reason for that: Churches, from veteran churches to church-starts, need to learn how to greet guests and be the welcoming community Christ calls us to be. You may be surprised to know that this does not come naturally for churches–we must instill a culture of welcome time and again!
As Christmas is that time of year when guests visit churches, I reckon its also a good idea to remind you how to welcome guests.  Here are the ten commandments for welcoming guests:
  1. Thou Shalt Be Friendly.  You think that this is a given, but you many people tell me that they have visited churches that are not friendly.  People can enter and leave without someone greeting them or even smiling at them–it really happens!  I visited a church one time and the pastor passed me three times without stopping once to greet me.  This was a small church, so it wasn’t like he wouldn’t know whether I was a visitor or a member.  Be friendly!
  2. Thou Shalt Communicate Kindness. Greet guests with a firm handshake, open posture, and smile.  It is not enough to be friendly–thought that’s a first step.  Ask the names of guests and try to use their names in the course of the conversation.  Don’t forget to introduce yourself too!
  3. Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Your Surroundings.  Pay attention to who is near you in the pews.  You are the first line of greeting when a guest comes, and if you see someone new in your section of the church, follow the first two commandments, then let the nearest staff member know so we can do it too!
  4. Thou Shalt Invite Guests to Something Significant.  How do we get guests to stay and participate at church?  Invite them to lunch or coffee.  Church is not like social media, where you check in and out of people’s lives at your convenience.  We are the church and we are to make disciples, so guests need to feel a part of it to start that journey.  Invite people somewhere: to coffee, to lunch, to Sunday School, or to a gathering.  It may be inconvenient, but too bad.  Someone a long time ago went out of their way to welcome you, so now its your turn to do the same for others.
  5. Thou Shalt Help with the Children.  If guests have young children, be kind and accommodating to the family.  Point out where the restrooms and nursery are, ask the names and ages of the children, have conversations with the children–they need to feel a sense of belonging too.  Get one of the staff to introduce the children to our children and youth leaders.  If the children are vocal or playful during worship, play with them silently–don’t worry about the sermon, you can catch it online at home.  For now, focus on the children–they are miracles, each and every one, and you may be the first of Christ’s ambassadors they’ve ever met!!
  6. Thou Shalt Not Ask Too Many Questions.  When you welcome a guest, don’t ask too many questions.  For instance, don’t say, “Oh, and is this your mother?” because you may get the response: “NO!  THAT’S MY WIFE!”  If there is a single guest, don’t ask if he or she is married or what not.  Follow through on the fourth commandment, and then you may–may!–eventually get the emotional permission to ask probing questions.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Comment on Appearances (except for children).  People love to hear praises and compliments about their children, but please refrain from commenting on the appearances of adults.  It is not appropriate to say, “You are very pretty,” or worse, “Your wife is very pretty.”  If you want to be nice, be broad–“You have a beautiful family.”
  8. Thou Shalt Not be Culturally Insensitive.   Kristina and I once visited a primarily African American congregation, and the first thing the greeter said was, “Wow, we don’t get visitors like you here often.”  We were not impressed and we never returned.  If a guest visits who may be an ethnic, gendered, or racial minority, don’t make it awkward.  Don’t say, “We don’t get a lot of your kind here,” or, “Wow, it’s nice to have you…so, as a Mexican, what do you think of that comment about immigration that Trump said the other day?” or, “Hey, you’re the perfect person to ask this: What do you think about those Confederate statues being removed from public parks?”  All of these questions are either racist or bigoted in one form or fashion.  Other questions can be misogynistic, so just treat everyone the same and be sensitive.
  9. Thou Shalt Not Use Off-Color Humor.  First impressions are everything, and people may not share the same kind of humor as you.  Do not try to use humor to break any tension or awkwardness in the greeting.  Be yourself, but just be sensitive (see Commandment 8).  So if you feel inclined to make a joke, just don’t.  Be warm and friendly, but be professional.  The other day, someone lamented that they were afraid to joke around anymore because of all of the sexual harassment suits in the news lately: “Everyone is so sensitive these days,” he said.  Yes, that’s right–the truth is that that kind of humor has always been wrong–the fact that no one is laughing anymore is a good and godly thing, trust me.  Locker room talk is not appropriate for the Christ-following Christian.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Make Assumptions.  Do not assume that because a guest looks or talks a certain way, that you have them “pegged.”  People who visit churches are taking a risk, and there is a level of vulnerability we need to respect.  One of the ways we respect strangers is to give them the room to surprise us and perchance become our best friends.  That is what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming church: We welcome strangers into our sacred space–with all our own strangeness thrown in the mix–only to become fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith.Since we all do not start out in the same place, our journeys vary, but as God’s creatures made in God’s image, we can all learn from each other. Plus, we don’t want to become “That church!”
Read more on how not to greet guests at Tom Rainer blog.