Should we use personal disclosure in our preaching?

How much should I share of my personal experience in the context of preaching? This is a perennial question facing anyone in ministry in the local church—and relevant to speaking on other occasions too. My first encounter with the issue arose when I was a teenager. I remember one of the lay preachers in the church I attended making some point and illustrating with reference to his habits of shaving. When I made reference to this a few weeks later in conversation, he seemed very annoyed—and I don’t think it was just because I was an irritating teenager! It does show how any kind of personal disclosure makes the preacher vulnerable, sometimes in ways we cannot predict.

So what can we say about personal disclosure? Here are my reflections.

1. You need to do it

As part of teaching preaching, I used to go and listen to ministers in training to hear them preach, and usually aimed to have a conversation with them beforehand about what they are planning to say. Once when doing this, I met with the person preaching, and had read the prepared script. My observation was that the sermon seemed well structured, was rooted in good engagement in the Scriptural text, was well expressed—but did not give much away about the preacher’s own experience.

In the light of this, the preacher added two short comments from personal experience, and an already good sermon was suddenly transformed into something powerful that touched people’s lives.

Aristotle’s classic account of rhetoric talks of the three elements of logos (the rational content of the message), ethos (the credibility and engagement of the one speaking), and pathos (the emotional or affective appeal of the message). If we avoid personal disclosure, it is not so much the pathos that we miss out on, it is the ethos. Our listeners need to know that what we are saying is real for us if it is to have credibility.

2. …but don’t overdo it

One of the reasons why the preacher I mentioned above was hesitant about personal disclosure was that the experience was a family bereavement, and he was concerned that this could distract from the message—and quite rightly too. So his mention of it was brief and factual, which was enough.

Most of us have experienced that awkward sensation where the speaker is laying it on thick in terms of his or her own personal story, and it has come to dominate our listening experience. This does not mean we should avoid disclosure, but we should beware overdoing it.

3. Use your experience to bridge from the world of the text to the world of your listeners

There is a sense in which this is the purpose of all preaching—to close the gap between the world of your listeners and the world of the text, so that the text might speak afresh today. Illustrations have a key role in this, but for all illustrations, they must function not to take the listener into the world of the illustration itself, but to explore how what is happening in the text might engage with the issues and realities they themselves face.

This is particularly important in illustration by means of personal disclosure. My aim is not to tell my listeners to be like me (or even to avoid being like me), but to show how things might work in a contemporary life.

4. Stick with the facts

When talking about significant personal experience, it always pays to stick with the facts and play down the emotion. The preacher above simply said at one point ‘We came out of the funeral service—only to find the car had been broken into.’ It elicited an audible gasp of sympathy from the congregation—and the impact would have been lost if the preacher had articulated his feelings.

Often in personal disclosure, less is more. As long as the situation is clear, you can allow your listeners to feel with you, rather than telling them how you felt. It is a good exercise for them to generate their own feelings of empathy, rather than have them generated by you on their behalf. A couple of years ago, I preached on the subject of sacrifice, and use the sinking of the Titanic as an example. I read the statistics of those who had survived: ‘Of the children on board, 48% drowned. Of the women on board, 26% drowned. Of the men on board…’ (after a pause) ‘…80% drowned.’ It needed no further comment; the same is often true when telling personal stories.

5. Beware emotional leakage

This is a really useful term that David Day uses in his writing on storytelling in preaching. You need to beware of the unintended emotional consequences of personal disclosure. A few years ago I heard of someone who said from the pulpit ‘I have committed adultery many times…in my heart.’ He was of course trying to communicate the importance of Matt 5.28—but there was enough of a pause after the first half of the sentence to make the shock of his listeners drown out anything else that was said.

Preaching is not the context to disclose serious personal issues, be that addiction, abuse, or anything which will trigger major issues—unless that is the focus, and there has been a warning beforehand, and there is follow-up afterwards. Neither is it the place to disclose family secrets, or the amusing habits or inner thoughts of your children. They won’t thank you for it.

6. Make sure the the focus remains on God

Illustrations from the lives of others and from our own experience are important aspects of our communication. But there is always a danger that in doing so, we focus on what we have done or what our listeners ought to do, rather than on what God has done. This is part of a wider issue, but we need to be careful to use personal disclosure to say ‘This is the reality—God understands it’ or ‘This is what God can do in this situation’, offering our listeners the hope of possibility and not the burden of duty.

7. Remember that Jesus did it

When on his own, Jesus was tempted by Satan, conversed with a man at night and a woman by a well, cried out to God in Gethsemane—but how do we know this? One answer, from a particular school of biblical study, was that it was made up. But a more convincing, and perhaps challenging, conclusion is that Jesus was in the habit of recounting his personal experience to his disciples.

Personal disclosure is an important part of teaching, discipling and Christian leadership, so we need to make it part of our preaching.

(A shorter version was published previously.)

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38 thoughts on “Should we use personal disclosure in our preaching?”

    • Talking about humour, Gill –

      Is there a role (sometimes) for humour from the pulpit ?

      I once heard a cracking joke from the pulpit, by Cyril Guy Ashton (former Bishop of Doncaster). It was so funny, I still laugh about it now.

      Thank God for a sense of humour.

  1. Whereas, in supervision, I was informed that the doctor doesn’t tell the patients their problems, nor should the minister to the congregation.
    I agree with you.

  2. This is thought-provoking, but I don’t think you’ve also mentioned that the preacher may not realise that their stories rub the congregation the wrong way. Endless stories about your happy marriage and family may distress the single, divorced or childless; tales of high-up office meetings may annoy the unemployed, etc. On a slightly different note, why do pastors, whose life by definition is atypical, think they are the best people to write books about Christian lifestyle?

    • Penelope –

      I was once listening to a sermon by the Pastor, in an Elim Pentecostal Church. The subject was on how to practically apply our Christian Faith – which the Pastor said should be very useful for us (i.e. the congregation), because we, unlike him (as a Church Pastor), were in, what he termed, the “real, workaday world” !

    • True say, but can encourage when way forward had been given. How did God help you, through someone, hardwork. Then the hurted congregations will know how God works His blessings.

  3. I think when people relate an incident in their lives where God has intervened in a very direct and unmistakable way then l find it immensely encouraging. The same God that did it for them can also do it for me. Your faith suddenly becomes more real.

  4. Excellent Ian.
    I used to have long conversations about what we were reading in the Bible. One of most frequent questions was “Give me a for instance,”
    Which meant “How does this teaching work out in ordinary life?”
    or “How does this work out in your life?” It used to be called “Personal Testimony”which magnifies and glorifies God and should make people more hungry to know The Lord Jesus or understand the practical ways to live the Scriptures.
    On humour, this can be a disaster on occasions and less than illuminating. However I do think our Heavenly Father has a wonderful sense of humour. I often laugh out loud at the ways that He answeres prayer,resolves problem situations or just His teaching methods.
    A useful prayer for anyone under any sort of trial is Ps 51:8
    Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
    Isa 51:11 Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.

  5. “But a more convincing, and perhaps challenging, conclusion is that Jesus was in the habit of recounting his personal experience to his disciples.”

    Why challenging?

    Jesus spent many hours on the road with His disciples, probably sitting around fires at night sharing meals and in deep conversation. His whole life was one of “personal disclosure” of Himself as God, in both word and deed. In fact, isn’t all of scripture is God’s “self disclosure”.

    Do you suppose the New Testament contains everything Our Lord revealed? Who shared the accounts of the annunciation, the visitation, the nativity, His being ‘lost’ by Joseph and Mary in the Temple? No doubt His mother shared these experiences with His disciples and its not unreasonable to suggest Jesus discussed these with His close friends.

    As scripture says: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

    HJ suggests He said many other things as well that His apostles shared with others after His death, resurrection and ascention.

    • So you are attempting to make a case, HJ , for extra-biblical beliefs such as the alleged :

      ‘Assumption of Mary’, ‘Papal Infallibility’, and the ‘Immaculate conception’ ?

      • Happy Jack is just citing scripture and using simple common sense. Jesus spoke to his disciples long before the things He taught were written down.

        HJ isn’t “attempting to make a case” for any particular doctrine or dogma. There’s a time and a place. He’ll just say that the doctrine and teachings of the apostles came to them in oral form from Jesus long before being committed to written form.

        Besides, using the expression “extra-biblical beliefs” rather begs the question. HJ will just leave you with these two thought: firstly, scripture itself makes no claim that it alone is the only authority in matters of faith and morals; and secondly, scripture may be interpreted in many different ways, as the divisions within Christendom testify. So one needs an interpretive key. For the primitive Church this was wider than the apostolic testimony confined to written documents emanating from, or attributed to, them.

        • Thank you for the helpful reminders of the sequence of things here HJ. The New Testament was the product of the early Church, and not the other way around. Many matters of doctrine, faith etc were still emerging when the text of the NT was fixed. The Holy Spirit didn’t stop speaking to the Church and continues to do so.

          • The New Testament was the product of the early Church, and not the other way around.

            The Church didn’t produce the New Testament, it recognised it.

  6. David Watson was brutally honest, believing in the cleansing power of truth. In the first draft of You Are My God, he was even more honest.

    At other times, yes, less is more.

    On point 5: A preacher once heard the following sermon-opener, and vowed to re-use it:
    ‘I spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.’ Pause. ‘It was my mother.’ Hahaha.
    So he reused it, but by that time had forgotten the punchline. ‘I spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.’ Longer Pause. ‘The trouble is, I can no longer recall who on earth she was.’

    • Christopher- the version I tell goes as follows.
      The vicar he3srd the bishop tell this joke. He thought it so good, he decided to use it the following Sunday.
      “I spent the best yesrs of my life in the arms of another man’s wife,”
      Pause. “But I can’t remember who she was.”
      Pause. “Oh yes. Now I remember. It was the Bishop’s mother.”

      • Nobody could tell a joke better than the Roman Catholic scholar, Hugh Francis (‘Frank’) Carson KSG. It was the way he told ’em. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      • This is the version Happy Jack is familiar with:

        There was a young priest who was having trouble both writing and delivering his sermons. So he asked his Bishop for help.

        The wise old Bishop said, “Well you might start with something to attract and hold their attention, such as, ‘Last night I was in the warm embrace of a good woman,’ that will get their attention then you go on to talk about how warm and accepting she was and at the end reveal she was your mother; that is great for sermons about family love.”

        The young priest decided to take the advice.

        The following Sunday he got into the pulpit and said, “Last night I was in the arms of a hot woman,” he paused.

        The congregation was totally transfixed; no lack of attention now. But he had forgotten what come next, so he stumbled on about how great she was and how good she made him feel. Then he thought of a way to get out of his problem.

        He said in conclusion, “Well I may not remember who she was, but she was recommended by the Bishop!”

    • A preacher is reaching the end of his sermon. He tells the congregation “Now for next week, I need everyone to read Leviticus chapter 28. It ties into my sermon.”

      A week passes. The preacher reached the pulpit and asked “How many of you read Leviticus chapter 28?” Everyone raised their hands.

      The preacher looked and said “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no 28th chapter to Leviticus. Now let me start my sermon on lying.”

  7. I’d actually say that in the age of the internet, where you can get world class teaching on any passage with a few clicks, the biggest asset the local preacher has is personal experience and personal connection.

  8. You are wrong. Experts believe that Hezekiah chapter 7 is in fact the last missing chapter of Leviticus appended. The congregation obviously knew their bibles better than he.

  9. Get ChatGPT to write your sermons. There is then no danger of excessive personalisation, and the standard of sermons would rise in at least some congregations.

    • Have you ever used ChatGPT for anything, Anton?

      I had never heard of ChatGPT, so I went on Wikipedia and read :

      “ChatGPT has displayed a tendency to confidently provide inaccurate information”; unlike of course, Wikipedia.

        • Thanks, Anton.

          I was listening to Clive Bull on LBC last night, and he said that AI experts have assured us that AI will not take over the world, or enslave human beings. Then Clive added (in slightly more, than half-serious tone) : ” But they would say that wouldn’t they ? “

  10. Reminds me of a minister I once knew. Dennis Clarke who said
    ” I only use humour to open their mouths so that I can pop the Seed in.”

  11. AH, Yes but not everything is “sweetness AND light”
    Sweetness without Light is a disappointing deception.

  12. Ah, but which Christ is the medicine?
    2 Pet 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
    1 John 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

    • The Christ (i.e. Messiah) Jesus, Who spoke the Truth (cf. John 7:17; John 8:28; John8:40; John 8:40) – and that very same Jesus Whom the apostles, Peter and Paul, preached about in the treatise, ‘Acts of the Apostles’ – which was written by the apostle Paul’s co-worker, Doctor Luke (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 1:24;).

      “For God so loved the world that He gave His only and unique Son, so that everyone who trusts in Him may have eternal life, instead of being lost.” (John 3:16).”

  13. My point being that the Scriptures are quite clear
    We may be fully aware of all the Scriptures . We may be able to quote all the Scriptures {Satan can do that} We may be able to analys and disect the Scriptures to death. There is a singular lack of peace in all this debate. I think that two cannot walk together unless they be agreed because a house divided against itself cannot stand.
    However from begining to end the imperative of the Scriptures is that they are to be obeyed.
    How do we know that we really love God
    [The 1st. Commandment]
    Isa 48:18 O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea:
    John14:15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.

    • Absolutely.

      As Jesus said, “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching” (cf. John 14:23a);

      which includes loving our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers (Matthew 5:11; 5:44).

      God bless you, Alan.

  14. Apologies for a rather late comment.

    I have read that a speaker should speak out of their scars and not their wounds.


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