Phillip Brooks has famously defined preached as “truth through personality.”
This is a simple enough definition. Yet, at the same time, it is rather complex.
Of course, the complexity of this definition has nothing to do with the place of truth in preaching. That matter is pretty clear. It’s a black-and-white issue. There is nothing ambiguous about it. True preaching must proclaim the truth. And, as Jesus declared to the Father in John 17:17, “Your word is truth.”
The word of God is the truth. And faithful preaching must “tell the truth” as it is revealed by the word of God. We are to be a mouthpiece for the text, as it were. Sound preaching explains what the text means by what it says. On the back jacket of Albert Mohler’s new book on preaching, He Is Not Silent, he explains the task of biblical preaching in three words: “Read. Explain. Repeat.” It really is as simple as that.
The complexity of Brook’s definition lies with the business of truth being dispensed through a human personality.
Preaching is dynamic because God uses different personalities to herald his word to his people. Some are master communicators. Most of us struggle to put our thoughts in order. Some are reserved. Others are… um… loud (HBC2). Some can stand and preach for an hour with nothing but a Bible in front of them. Others need an outline or even a full manuscript to make sure that are faithful to their assignment. On and on the differences go. As no two people have the same fingerprints, no two preachers are alike. Yet God graciously condescends to take our individual strengths and weaknesses and use them for his glory. What a mighty God we serve!
The fact that God uses different personalities not only makes preaching dynamic; it also makes preaching difficult. It is difficult for the preacher, evidenced in how often we struggle with the temptation to be something that we are not. And the younger we are, the more prone we are to wrestle with this temptation. It is also difficult for the hearer, who (most often) unconsciously compare one preacher to another. And sometimes the hearer can miss the forest – Is he telling the truth? – for the trees – Is he saying it in a way that I am used to, comfortable with, or find enjoyable?
I find myself working through my competing thoughts about these things as I am still seeking to settle into the new pulpit the Lord has assigned me to. In the providence of God, I have been called to succeed a unique, dynamic preacher. For almost fifteen years, God used his faithful preaching to touch and change many lives. And the congregation is naturally used to his preaching voice.
Conversely, for almost eighteen years, I preached to the same congregation. And in the goodness of God, I was not a “prophet” without honor at home. And they were used to my preaching voice I knew what to expect from them. And they knew what to expect from me. But it’s a new day. Shiloh is now getting used to a new preaching voice. And I am getting used to my new congregation. And it can be a challenge sometimes for both us.
Please, don’t read any of the previous paragraphs as complaints. I am unspeakably grateful to God for the fact that he sent me to serve such a great congregation. And the membership has received my preaching warmly. I believe, God is changing lives here. And the Lord is adding to the church. These are all wonderful blessings, for which I praise God.
But for some reason, I am hyper-sensitive about the cultural expectations and congregational norms. And I keep carrying these things to the pulpit with me. I concede that this burden may be the Lord’s work to humble me and nurture me. And I recognize that I need discernment, so that I will not miss the lessons the Lord is teaching me or hinder the changes the Lord is working in me. But I also need discernment to know what thoughts to ignore, so that I can stand with courage to preach the truth with a sense of freedom to be what God has wired me to be.
I am so glad that God really does use weak people. Aren’t you?
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7 (ESV)