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Pulpit Confessions

We're all sinners. Even preachers. Everyone knows that. But how much should we reveal in the pulpit about our own struggles? In this era of self-disclosure, pastors debate whether personal revelations help the congregation or hinder them.

These preachers have very different approaches, for very good reasons.

Todd Hahn pastors a postmodern congregation of young believers and seekers.

Alberto Guerra pastors a suburban Hispanic church.

Joe Stowell ministers to college student at Chicago's historic Moody Bible Institute.

Keep It Real

My audience wants me to be honest, especially about myself.

Todd Hahn

The people I preach for are mostly 20 to 35 years old, many of them not Christians, which means they are not much impressed with me.

They don't assume that I am smarter than they are, or that because I'm a pastor I'm worthy of any particular respect. They wouldn't dream of calling me anything but "Todd." And most don't need convincing that either they or I are sinners. Preaching to them, I have to "keep it real."

Used as a greeting ("What's up?" "Not much—keeping it real.") and an exhortation ("See you later." "OK, keep it real."), the phrase captures the demand for authenticity that is so important to them.

What does this mean for preaching?

Transparency vs. authenticity

I really don't like either word. Transparency reminds me of fuzzy overhead projections on youth group retreats, and authenticity sounds too 1960s touchy-feely. My own preferences aside, it is critical to know the difference between the two words.

Transparency is living clothed only in Saran Wrap. Everything is on display—every thought, feeling, sin, and doubt. It is the preacher confessing pointing his browser to Internet pornography or speaking of his sexual struggles with his wife. Both of these experiences should be shared with a trusted friend or small group, but neither is appropriate for a congregation. They would draw attention to the preacher rather than the preacher's message.

Authenticity (let's say "keeping it real") means that we are quick to admit failures that help the narrative of sin and grace to form the lives of our listeners. Keeping it real about my own shortcomings allows grace to shine from the text, refracted through my own all-too-human life, in a way that gives hope and points to the spaciousness of God's patience and his yearning to change us.

Don't let yourself off the hook

In third grade, I got in a playground fight. I was losing, fairly badly. Physically overmatched, I brandished the only weapon left—my words. I spat out words designed to wound: "You stupid Jew!"

I remember the moment to this day—the weather, what he was wearing, the silence that followed my words, his own dismissive laughter as he let go and walked away.

Sermon illustration begging to be used, right?


It is all too easy to screw up the illustration here. I could say how, as an eight-year-old, I had never heard of the Holocaust and was, of course, not an anti-Semite. I could tell that the other boy and I became friends. I could confess I felt a great deal of remorse and apologized later.

In so doing, I would waste the punch of this illustration, at least for the people I serve. When I told this story, I told the truth—that my words revealed what was in my heart, that at that moment I would have murdered if I could have. I am in my early thirties instead of third grade now, but that only means I have learned socially acceptable ways of hiding or redirecting my rage.

In short, left to my own devices, I am an excluder, hater, murderer. I need grace. So do we all. So do our listeners.

Telling the truth by telling stories of our failures that point to grace creates connections with postmodern listeners so real you can nearly see them.

"Real" requires risk

In a recent service at Warehouse 242, we showed a video we shot on a Friday night in Charlotte's bar and entertainment district. Those interviewed on the street were asked questions about life, God, and faith. The montage showed both the challenge and promise of being the church in our postmodern world.

The people on the street returned often to a core theme—the irrelevance of the Bible to their lives and their reluctance to submit to any authority outside themselves.

After the video, I got up to speak. I had planned carefully what I was going to say. None of those words came out of my mouth.

"I am often like these people," I said. "I am paid in part to tell you guys that you ought to believe and follow the Bible, but I don't always want to myself. There are many times when I want to be my own god, call my own shots, when I really wish the Bible didn't exist, and that it didn't say the things about God and me that it does. I don't always love the Bible. And I don't always obey the Bible."

There was electricity in the moment, a link between me and them and, I think, between them and God. It was an honest moment.

I didn't leave it there, however. The sermon was about embracing the Bible as God's true story, which is to be the story of our lives as well. I told them I really believe that is true, even though I stumble through life trying to figure out how to make it so for me.

What I said might have made a more traditional audience uncomfortable. But these were my people (thank you, God) and I had to keep it real with them.

I have occasionally heard pastors and other spiritual leaders say, "You can't take your people beyond where you have gone yourself, so you had better make sure your life is exemplary at every level."

That's a myth.

Preach beyond your experience

I have to preach beyond my own experience all the time. I encourage people who are experiencing pain I have not known (and hopefully won't) to continue to trust God. I warn people of the perils of dishonesty when I shaded the truth just yesterday to avoid a confrontation. I tell people to avoid sexual immorality when my own thoughts are not consistently pure.

If I preach only on topics I have mastered or commands I obey unfailingly, then I will run out of subject matter quickly.

What we are supposed to preach is not our own virtue, but Christ's. Over time, if the quality of my life is at odds with the life of Christ, I will erode trust in my message. It is Christ's life that I am holding out as hope, not my own. With this in mind, I can be free to keep it real in admitting my own failings, sins, and doubts. It is not easy, always, to belong to God and to follow him closely. And we should not pretend that it is. If you are preaching to the sorts of people I am, they won't believe it anyway. But if they see a preacher and, much more important, a community of faith struggling to live faithfully, maybe they will, by God's grace, give it a shot themselves.

Todd Hahn is lead pastor of Warehouse 242 in Charlotte, North Carolina.


Keep It Faithful

Authenticity is not about confession, but integrity.

Alberto Guerra

Maria was infuriated by her pastor's words. How dare he stand in a position of honor and confess disgracefulness?

He wants to lead me, he wants to teach me, and yet he cannot help himself?

Maria did not return to church the next Sunday.

Some might label Maria one of America's increasing number of "unchurched." But Maria is not a person without a church; she is a sheep without a shepherd.

Like many, she desperately wants a shepherd. Lost in despair and strife, such people want a leader who will stand for them and relieve their burdens—someone with a voice, someone with a vision, someone who shows them in word and deed the power of the Savior.

Early in my ministry I sought a paradigm for leadership. Neither my Catholic roots nor my Plymouth Brethren experience had taught me how to be a pastor. I read bookshelves full of leadership materials.

I discovered these books were full of methods, even gimmicks. But learning techniques would not do. Authentic leadership demands character—a personality manifested in the method.

Only when I threw away the books and returned to my Hispanic heritage did I find a model for ministry. I found the caudillo.

Caudillos refuse to wilt

In the 1800's, Latin America was governed by the legendary caudillos. Wealthy landowners who employed and protected the common people, the caudillos led by example—many were strong men of integrity.

Historian John Chasteen describes the leadership of Latin America as "a succession of caudillos," much like part of Israel's history was a succession of judges. The caudillo maintained autocratic, yet benevolent authority. The people saw him as purposeful, fair-minded, tough on his enemies, but a defender of the poor. They admired him, feared him, and loved him.

The Bible gives us a picture of this type of leader in Job 29:7-25:

"Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him … I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe … I chose the way for them and sat as their chief; I dwelt as a king among his troops; I was like one who comforts mourners."

Adopting the caudillo paradigm drew me closer to the biblical concept of pastor. In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul calls Timothy to be a living example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. That, according to William Mounce, "is not so much an example that others can emulate, but a mold that should be pressed into the lives of others so that they attain the same shape."

The pastor's example is one instrument God uses to change people. When battling the false teachers of the day, Timothy was instructed not to compare teaching to teaching, technique to technique. His power came from a clean conscience and a moral integrity that verified the transforming power of the gospel (1 Tim. 1:3-7, 4:7).

As Maria understood, we pastors cannot dodge our responsibility to be an example. Pastors today are being urged to reveal their struggles with sin to their people, instead of recognizing the struggle as a battle that we need to win.

The key is not to preach from weakness, but to preach from victory. People know they are as lost sheep. They don't want another sheep to lead them, they want a shepherd. To say that you do not have a struggle is to be a liar, but to say that you're not winning in the struggle is to be disqualified.

The pastor cannot preach, "I'm still there. Sin's still got a hold on me." Instead, I must preach, "I have weaknesses like you, but Christ is giving me the victory. He can give you the same. I know we struggle with sin, but we must be like Christ in overcoming that sin."

Trying to avoid hypocrisy, many preachers adopt a therapeutic model of ministry that teaches us to reveal our weaknesses and failures to keep our public persona consistent with our private life.

A caudillo cannot show that kind of fallibility. Does that make him a hypocrite?

No. Not if his influence and respect flow from a Christlike character that penetrates every sphere of life. A true caudillo-pastor earns that title by the continuity of personal integrity with leadership. There is no distinction between who he projects to be and who he is.

Preach from victory, not defeat

I knew of a pastor in a large church who aspired to this standard. His public image was one of victory and vision.

Unknown to anyone in the church, his marriage was in shambles. He sought no help, no accountability, no victory over the sins destroying his family. Only when a judge phoned one of the associate pastors and said, "I have the divorce papers in my hand. Did you know this was happening?" did the pastor's dual life become known.

My people have a word for the caudillo whose internal life becomes inconsistent with his external actions. He is doubly despised for abusing trust and spiritual authority, for inspiring others to battle sin while he dismisses it in his own life.

He is a bandido.

This paradigm has taught me about integrity. When I sin, I need to get it out of my life. I cannot fool around with sin. That creates within me a strength and a force to resist temptation. Wearing the mantle of pastor is a significant calling, a significance lost when the struggle alone, and not the victory, authenticates the ministry.

I preach the victories and the weapons of waging war against sin. I don't tell my congregation, "I struggle with lust." I tell them, "This is what I do to combat the weakness of lust in my own life."

I have shared from the pulpit how I invite my wife into my battle. She alone knows the passwords to our cable movie ordering service. I share how I ask hotel clerks to block the TV cable to my hotel room. I exemplify refusal to allow that sin into my life.

In this way I show that I, too, have weaknesses. But I will not allow them to overtake me. That is the difference between a therapist and a caudillo.

Alberto Guerra is pastor of the Hispanic congregation at Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois.

Keep It on Christ in You

Transparent preaching aims toreveal the light, not the window.

Joe Stowell

Observing college students and their reactions to various preachers has been an education for me. Students want to know if the preacher is a fellow struggler or someone who lives on a different planet.

They can quickly sense a "Bible bureaucrat" or someone speaking from a pedestal of perceived perfection, and their hearts shut down. But let them see the reality of a preacher's pilgrimage, and they willingly follow.

Transparency in preaching has some early advocates. David was eager to expose his confused feelings and deep longings in the Psalms. Paul admitted that the things he should do he didn't and the things he shouldn't do he found himself doing. We read that Jesus wept. In a tender yet traumatic moment, we see Jesus struggling to be released from the cross as he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus himself was the self-disclosure of God. In fact, the incarnation was in part intended to demonstrate that Jesus was tested in all the same ways that we are, so that we can come confidently to Him to find understanding help in our times of trouble.

Transparency helps the listener believe that the preacher understands their trouble, and that, somewhat like Christ, the proclaimer has been tested in common ways and therefore just might have something that can help them, too.

But self-disclosure is tricky. Some kinds of confessional preaching erode respect. If in any way self-disclosure lessens your congregation's confidence and respect, work on those issues privately. Indiscriminate revelation may diminish your greatest ministry, that of cutting a godly wake by the example of your life.

Paul's counsel to Timothy helps chart the course for keeping our transparency constructive. In 1 Timothy 4:12, he urges Timothy to live a life that is an example. Paul is quick to indicate that he is not asking Timothy to live a perfect life, but rather that he is to work hard so that his "progress" may be evident to all.

An example, or an excuse?

Preachers quick to admit their own faults publicly may, if they are not careful, give the impression that they are stuck in sinful habits and patterns. Wanting not to appear perfect is important—but not if it costs the demonstration of progress in our walk with Christ.

One danger of transparency is that we cease to be examples to the flock and become instead their excuse. Every pastor eventually becomes one or the other.

Repeated exposure to a preacher's failings may end up only excusing the faults of the flock. Hearing them say "My pastor has this problem as well" without a stimulus from the pastor to remediate the problem is a bad consequence of transparency.

The preacher's disappearance

To be an example in progress demands that we use self-disclosure in discerning ways.

1. Don't talk about the same category of failure year after year. If traffic violations are your besetting sin, the telling of traffic stories throughout your pastorate only tells people that there are areas in which they do not need to grow, since the pastor is obviously satisfied with ongoing failure as well.

2. When admitting faults, don't trivialize them. Couch them in a context of appropriate shame. Sometimes in the euphoria of connecting with the audience as a real person, or in the spinning of a story about ourselves that has some humorous elements, it is easy to give the impression that failure is "no big deal."

Preaching to challenge people to growth and Christlikeness is not enhanced by the impression that we all have problems and after all, "nobody's perfect"—not even the preacher.

Couching the disclosure with disclaimers like "I'm not proud of this," or "This is an area of my life that I am targeting for growth," helps the listener maintain a healthy dose of discomfort with the problem.

3. Let people see a solution to the struggle. For every struggle there is a biblical pattern of remediation. Weaving that into the story or making it the point of the message places hope in the hearer's heart. They see a definitive way in which they can grow with you.

While preaching on the problem of broken expectations, I shared a story of the many times I have acted less than admirably at a ticket counter when the airlines frustrated my travel plans. Scripture teaches that our one expectation in life is not "to get to our destination" but rather to magnify Christ in every circumstance of life (Phil. 1:20).

The listeners needed at that point in the sermon to be exposed to the remedial principle of turning moments of disappointment into opportunities to demonstrate the spirit of Jesus. After telling how I blew it, I then retold the story expressing what might have happened at the airport if I had awakened that morning expecting only to magnify Christ.

4. Balance failure stories with an equal dose of your spiritual successes. We all need people in front of us who are winning victories within earshot of our own lives. If you are uncomfortable with appearing to boast, then keep your reliance on God evident. Add statements like, "I am thankful for the grace God gave me when I … "

Telling about when you went out of your way to be kind; when you said no to temptation; when you captured an opportunity to witness in the face of your fears; or when you responded positively to your spouse or children dramatizes the truth that victory is within reach for everyone. If you share the joy of winning for Jesus, others will want to claim similar joys in their own lives.

5. Remember that preaching is not about you. It is about Him; His authority in our lives; His worthiness to be worshiped and obeyed; the example of His life to be duplicated in our own; the glory of His presence in our lives and the life transforming power of His Word and indwelling Spirit.

Transparency gone amuck renders the sermon more about us than about Him. If listeners leave remembering us and our struggles (or our personal victories!) more than Christ's transforming power, then we have done preaching and our hearers a disservice.

I'll never forget hearing a church member tell his pastor, a gifted communicator, "Bill, ten minutes into the sermon you disappeared, and I heard from God!"

True transparency in preaching enables people to see right through us to Jesus.

Joe Stowell is president of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. jstowell@moody.edu

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