In my early reading on preaching, I became aware of a tension around the degree of personal transparency that a preacher should adopt. Simply put, the “for” view was premised on the idea that a preacher needed to be accessible to the hearer and the hearers’ world. A real live person in the pulpit was instrumental to the hearers’ assessment of authenticity and the degree to which there was an “empathy exchange” within the preaching engagement. The “against” view was that such an approach risked an unhealthy focus on the preacher to the exclusion of the text and ultimately Christ. Authenticity was potentially also a credibility-killer: yes it might be great to empathise with a real live human being as preacher, but might this transparency go too far so that credibility is actually lost?
I wondered whether both ideas might be right and whether they together create a necessary tension in the preacher. This has led to a conviction about the character of preaching – that a preacher should be doubly transparent.
When I am doubly transparent, I am present as a real person with past failures, present struggles and future aspirations but I am also “see-through” in that God is not obscured by my personality.
Phillip Brooks makes the same kind of point when he says that “preaching is the bringing of truth through personality” and that if either dimension is sacrificed it is not preaching – both the truth of preaching and the human medium of communication must be present. Barbara Brown Taylor’s words say it better than I could:
“By choosing Christ to flesh out the word, God made a lasting decision in favour of incarnation. Those of us who are his body in the world need not shy away from the fact that our own flesh and blood continue to be where the word of God is made known. We are living libraries of God’s word.”
I love the way one of history’s great preachers provides the counterpoint on this – Spurgeon brings a caution against the over adornment of a sermon with illustration generally (personal or otherwise) saying “our figures are meant not so much to be seen as to be seen through.” This cautionary restatement of the tension within the doubly transparent conviction leads me to experience: the preacher is fully present, as a flawed, redeemed human being – it’s not a lecture – but fully transparent – it is not a performance either…
I’d be interested in how preachers maintain the tension in their own preaching practice: how do we keep the tension alive and remain doubly transparent in ways which keep the focus on Christ’s redemptive work?