It’s always a tricky thing in preaching to talk about life experience and stories in preaching. For some in the pews a story from someone’s life is what will first catch their attention. For others, they want you to teach them a new Greek word and explain the first century context. Most pastor’s are fully on board with telling stories. We know that stories connect with hearers in a similar way to how Jesus told parables as a way to appeal to the hearts of listeners.
As preachers who faithfully proclaim the story of scripture and the stories of the world we find ourselves in, we must ask: what is the purpose of life experience within the context of preaching? In other words, why do we have life experience?
Frederick Buechner writes, “If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that he speaks to us largely through what happen to us…” He writes this in the introduction to his memoir, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation in many ways to support the entire text. He writes how, in writing the memoir, he sought to let his life experiences wash over him and thus, his readers, so that all might listen for the most important voice of all: God.
It is because God speaks to us through what happens to us that we come to find ourselves swept up into the work that God has always been doing throughout the story of scripture and history: the inbreaking of good news. Paul Scott Wilson says that this inbreaking results in a transformation of our language within the sermon. “We do not hedge our words with hesitancy and tentativeness, by saying, “I believe” or “I think,” for the focus is not the preacher, and the force of the Word is proclamation. We are also unable to speak about a personal God in impersonal ways, about the love of God in unfeeling ways, about the actions of God as though they themselves are passive.” God comes to us in the midst of our very lives, breaks in, and sets up shop. There really is no purely objective way to speak about this kind of personal God.
We know no other God besides the one who uses the mundane ordinary moments of our life to speak. These “slices of life”, when used authentically within the sermon, should have verisimilitude, that is “the lifelike imitation of reality such that what is told resonates with the listeners’ experience as being true.” Wilson goes on to remind preachers that we are presenting two kinds of reality within the sermon: present life as people might know it, and life as it is true when seen from the perspective of faith.
The following are some ways that we can practice telling stories of life that connect with both realities and resonate with our listeners.
Wilson suggests that the challenge for preachers is not in finding the stories, but in knowing how to use them for theological purposes. He offers the following theological categories to help preachers recognize a particular story’s purpose: God’s judgement, the human condition, Christ’s suffering and crucifixion, God’s forgiveness, God’s overturning the world, God using people.
Let’s use the following brief story as an example for analysis. As you read it, ask yourself: What is the conflict? What is the plot? What metaphor is being employed? What is a possible central idea for the sermon? How could I deliver this story with passion?
“I stepped up to the Wal-Mart customer service line and sighed. There were at least a dozen people in front of me and only one associate making returns.
A girl stood in front me with a young man, presumably her boyfriend. She was visibly agitated and talking on her cell phone while her boyfriend placed a hand on her arm intermittently to comfort her. Not wanting to eavesdrop, I awkwardly tried to avert my attention, but the customer service area did not provide much alternative. Her voice rose and I learned she was speaking to her father. It was clear that their relationship was strained. At one poignant moment of the conversation she sharply said into the phone, “I don’t want anything from you…No, I don’t need stuff. What do I want? I just want you to be my dad. I want to spend time with you and I want you to want to spend time with me. I just want you to be my dad.”
Story-telling, whether from your life experience, the news, or history provides a rich opportunity to remind our listeners that God is found in the midst of our lives. Through our story-telling, faithful preaching will affirm the lived present experience, but also transform it by properly situating it within the life of a God who is breaking into our world.
 Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, (San Fransisco, CA: HarperSanFransisco, 1991), 3.
 Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 263-264.
 Ibid, 265.
 Ibid, 267.
 Ibid, 268-269
 Ibid, 271
Leanne Ketcham is an ordained pastor in The Wesleyan Church since 2014. She is a graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University in 2012 and Princeton Theological Seminary in 2017. She is a doctoral candidate at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto for homiletics. Leanne was deeply shaped by her time as an associate pastor at a church plant in the Mountain Plains District, as well as an assistant pastor at a Methodist church revitalization during seminary. She is passionate about local churches and Christians being the incarnate hope of Jesus
in their neighborhoods through proclamation of all kinds. Her doctoral research is focused on new worshipping communities and how church plants and other forms of new worshipping communities relate to the world around them particularly through the practice of preaching. Leanne has been married to Andrew since 2012. Together they share one fluffy, silly goldendoodle, many moves and adventures, and a whole lot of grace.
Wesleyans are doers. We always have been, starting with John Wesley himself. The whole of his life’s work staggers the mind. Wesleyans have followed his example through history. In the years since Wesley there have been revivals to preach, churches to plant, missions to open and always more work to be done. Yes, Wesleyans are doers, and that has been a good thing for the Kingdom as untold lives have been impacted for Christ’s sake. Wesleyan preaching has played a large role in this Kingdom work.
As great as it is to have the worker/doer gene built into our Wesleyan DNA, it has sometimes caused us Wesleyan preachers to place too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace. Instead of always making God the subject of our preaching, we sometimes have made it human responsibility. Instead of preaching about God’s amazing grace and the work of the Holy Spirit empowering heart transformation, we sometimes preached about effort and the will to overcome. In the past these ideas sometimes manifested as a focus in preaching that might be seen as legalistic. “If you want to be holy then don’t (insert your sin here)! If you want to be holy then make sure you start (insert religious action here)!” I’ve heard many sermons like this that equate being Godly with things I do or don’t do. With enough willpower I can be the holy person God wants me to be.
Sometimes placing too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace produces sermons that reduce the biblical narrative to moralistic tales with humanity as the subject. “If you want to be a good Christian, then be more like David.” “If you want to be a soul-winner then just love people like the Apostle Paul did.” In the story of David and Goliath, David is the hero because he stood up to a giant, instead of God being the hero who empowered him to act and who brought about the victory for Israel. In a sermon about soul winning like the Apostle Paul, we might reduce his ministry to action steps, that if simply duplicated will bring duplicate results.
Sermons that emphasize human responsibility over God’s grace might have titles like, “Five Ways to be a Soul Winner” or “How to Live a Successful Christian Life” or “Six Ways to be a Leader like Moses.” Don’t get me wrong, these might make excellent sermons and they might be greatly needed in a congregation. Yet if we are not careful, this kind of preaching can be unbalanced in its scope when it reduces holiness and discipleship to action steps and “how-to” guides. We must share the “how” as preachers, but even “how” cannot leave out “why” and “whom” if we want to avoid works-righteousness.
Preaching with imbalance between grace and responsibility instead of empowering people to live in the light of God’s love and leading them towards a Holy Spirit empowered holiness can foster a sense of failure. This failure can lead to a sense of hopelessness, a fear that holiness is not even possible. Consider this: If I preach that people can please God by conducting themselves a certain way, or shunning certain activities, and the people I preach to still struggle and fail after trying to keep those rules, they might be led to the conclusion that true holiness of heart and life is impossible on this side of heaven. I have reduced holiness to human willpower and I might as well tell people who are struggling in their faith to just try harder. Master preaching professor, Paul Scott Wilson, says that “many preachers persist in preaching messages that proclaim our condemnation as humans, for they sentence us to the limitations of our own accomplishments.”[i] If we preach messages that reduce holiness and Christian living to simply doing or not doing things, then we risk becoming what Wilson describes as preachers who “preach as though the resurrection of Christ makes no difference in the world.”[ii]
But the resurrection of Christ makes all the difference. Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith, not human will. I am encouraging us as Wesleyan preachers to focus our preaching more on grace and less on human responsibility — to always make the work of God the subject of our sermons.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute! We are Wesleyan and that means we believe that somehow in the great mystery of salvation God has given humanity freewill. God has given us a part to play in the process.” You are absolutely right! God does give us a role to play, and doesn’t force his will on our lives. The grace of God doesn’t mean that, whether we want it or not, God pours holiness on us. Even though we know that salvation isn’t earned with works, what Christ has done for us and in us will result in action and life change. What’s more, there will often be things that Christians should do, and certain things they probably shouldn’t do. We should keep preaching that.
Hold on, you might be asking, “If we should focus our preaching on the grace of God, making God the subject of our preaching, and God somehow has also given us a level of responsibility in our faith, didn’t you just contradict yourself? Do you want us to preach grace or responsibility?” In a word, YES. We should preach both, but the difference is that we should never preach the latter without grounding it in the former. Do not preach responsibility without first preaching the grace of God that makes it possible. Even then, make sure responsibility itself is laced with grace. God is the one who starts our faith and God is the one who perfects it. He empowers it and makes it possible. If I preach about specific ways people can act on the sermon I should first preach about how God’s grace makes that response possible. If I preach on God’s call to holiness I must first preach of how holiness begins with God — we’re only holy because he is first holy and we can only hope to ever be like God through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s consider a few ways that we might become preachers who preach grace, making God the subject of the sermon:
Whether you use one of these or other books like them, or simply take the time to reexamine your preaching and its focus, you’ll find that preaching that concentrates on grace and makes God the subject of the sermon will result in God’s empowerment and encouragement in those you preach to.
[i] Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 21.
[ii] Wilson, 21.
[iii] Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).
[iv] Lenny Luchetti, Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012).
Mark Schnell has been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church since 1994 and has served in various roles in churches in Michigan, Indiana and the eastern shore of Maryland. He is currently finishing his doctorate in homiletics and regularly serves as an adjunct professor of homiletics and proclamation at Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary. He’s been married to Sharie for over twenty-four years and is Dad to Kate (12) and CJ (6).
“So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.”
2 Peter 1:12-15 (NIV)
As a preacher and as a teacher of preachers I affirm that preaching has many important functions within the body of Christ. At its best it follows the challenge of the Apostle Paul as he instructs preachers to correct, rebuke and encourage those they preach to. The best kind of preaching also inspires people to realize and embrace their worth and equality as image bearers of God. The best preaching challenges systems of injustice and oppression. And, of course, the most significant function of preaching throughout the history of the church is the message of salvation — to share the truth of the Gospel — a new life that only comes through the sacrifice, resurrection and indwelling of the Savior Jesus Christ. A beautiful reality of preaching is that this latter function (salvation) inspires and empowers the former functions as well (justice, encouragement, teaching, etc.).
Lives can be transformed because of Christ. Because of him there is hope for today and tomorrow. Racism and oppression must end because we all have equal worth and are equal recipients of the love and sacrifice of Christ. And because of Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we no longer have to remain captive to old ways of thinking and living. The best preaching embodies all of these functions and shares the message of the Gospel boldly.
A function of preaching that isn’t spoken of as often, though, is the ministry of remembrance. Almost all preachers will have the privilege at times to preach the message of Christ to people that do not yet believe in him. We call them the unchurched, non-believers, the unsaved. Some preachers even have the daunting but joyfully important task of preaching almost solely to people like this. The reality, though, is that most local church preachers will do the majority of their preaching to believers. You know, we call them the saints, the saved, the regular attenders.
It is easy to look at regularly attending believers and get caught up wondering what we’re going to tell them each week. What can we possibly say that they haven’t heard before? Some of the folks we preach to have heard hundreds of sermons, some of them have been hearing them for longer than we’ve been alive! How are we going to come up with a new word to speak to these folks? If you’ve found yourself wondering things like this my next sentence ought to make your day. You don’t have to!
One of the powerful functions of preaching is reminding people what they already know. Finding new ways to express timeless truths can be a very good thing, but fretting about what truth to share is a needless burden. Most people can relate to the practice of hungrily opening a refrigerator door time after time as though between trips it might miraculously fill itself. But carrying the burden of what truth to preach is like opening a fully stocked fridge and then closing the door only to complain about not having anything to eat. The great news for us preachers is that God has provided all the source material we need in his Word. The fridge is full!
A preacher’s ministry of remembrance speaks words of truth to people that may have heard those same words a hundred times before. While that may sound redundant at best and boring at worst, life is not a static thing. We forget what we know when times are tough. A man dying of thirst forgets what it feels like to have cool water sliding down his throat. A person plodding through a Midwestern winter might forget what it feels like to bury their toes into a warm, sandy beach. A person being abused by a family member can be reminded through the preaching ministry of remembrance that they have ultimate worth in God’s eyes. They can be reminded that they are not alone, both spiritually and physically, because of the local church body. When someone is wondering how they will put food on the table or pay the rent, they can be reminded that God sees them and cares for all their needs. Then on the flipside, those in the church can be reminded that they are often the avenue of God’s provision for those around them.
We all know it: sometimes life can seem more than we can bear. Sometimes the things people know, even the things they’ve built their lives on, are forgotten in the fog of loss and adversity. Sometimes they can’t see the forest of God’s love and care for the trees of pain and trouble. So, the ministry of remembrance shares truth that never grows old or stale. It cuts through the fog of pain and discouragement with the light of God’s active presence. It pulls people out of the bog of complacency and empowers them for action. The ministry of remembrance can be one of your most important roles as a preacher of the Gospel.
But there is another benefit to the preaching ministry of remembrance. When my father died suddenly at age 56, I was devastated. My world was completely rocked. In the darkness of those days I needed to be reminded again and again that I was not alone, that God knew my pain and that I would see my father again. I was the pastor of a local church and had no one else to preach to me. However, as I faithfully preached the Gospel to my church, that same Gospel was uncovering what I already knew but had become hidden in the midst of my grief. My own words were speaking to me week after week. No, check that. God was speaking to me through my own preaching! “I am here. I know your pain. You are not alone. I will bring you through.”
As I was engaging in the ministry of remembrance to my church through the Gospel, God was speaking through that same Gospel and refreshing my memory. The simple fact is this — the truth that you preach that refreshes the memories of your people will often be the very words you need to hear more than anyone else. The line between preacher and listener dissolves in the ministry of remembrance through the power of the Gospel. Through another of God’s great mysteries we can be both speaker and listener at the same time. There are many functions of preaching, but in the preaching ministry of remembrance you can both practice and receive the Gospel at the same time.
Mark Schnell has been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church since 1994 and has served as a youth pastor, worship leader, associate pastor, and solo pastor in churches ranging from 30 to over 1500. He earned two graduate degrees from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently working on his doctorate at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto focusing in homiletics. He’s passionate about preaching and equipping women and men to be faithful and effective preachers of the Word of God, as well as, preaching the transforming message of the Gospel as often as he can. Mark is regular serves as an adjunct professor of homiletics and proclamation at Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary.
He’s blessed beyond measure to be husband to Sharie for over twenty-four years and Dad to Kate and CJ. Those three continually teach him more about God’s love and grace and help to sharpen him more into the image of Christ.
Preaching is powerful. It reaches into our souls and speaks to every human emotion when it is going well. Though this will not be true of every preaching ministry some preachers avoid touching on grief and despair except for in funeral sermons. Perhaps this is because the preacher faces enough grief and despair week to week that they want to uplift and encourage instead. Compassion fatigue can so wear down a preacher that even discussing grief is too much for them to bear again. For other preachers a level of fear of getting it wrong or a lack of comfort in talking about these topics drives the dodging of lament. Others simply want to lead their congregations in optimistic faith, in triumphant hope, and make church an experience of celebration first and foremost. Whatever the reason may be, avoiding the breadth of human emotions can create a gulf between the preacher and the congregation.
The problem is partly one of approach. Preachers often offer sermons focused on future hope, which address a deep spiritual need, but is not holistic. There is a serious need for hope that is focused in the present. The world we live in creates an environment of despair, and preachers must offer hope of God’s present hope and love, in addition to future oriented hope. Preaching focused on hope centered on God’s presence in the midst of suffering addresses the immediate need of individuals’ suffering.
A second common mistake for preachers is inadequately addressing the normality of human emotions and their roots. Hope-centered preaching should not rush to optimism without adequately addressing pain. Preaching that ignores or merely mentions suffering inadequately is unfaithful to the biblical witness and can even be harmful if it is the pattern week after week. If preachers refuse to process grief and despair from the pulpit, then hope is robbed of its fullest expression. Hope without lament after all is in danger of being labeled naïve or out of touch. Of course, no preacher should ever drive his or her church to hopelessness, but frequently congregants are already in the valley. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, PTSD, or a child addicted to drugs are all common situations that need to be addressed. Preaching must meet people where they are. Congregants need to be more than just heard and understood from the pulpit, they need to have their experiences and struggles expressed. Preaching is effective when congregants feel that they and their problems are understood because being heard and understood by someone who also gives voice to their struggles meets spiritual and psychological needs that can provide hope in the present.
Lament, anger, and despair are all natural emotions. Some traditions of preaching tend to imply that we should not feel them even if it is not said explicitly. This creates a stark double standard of emotional expectations and a false dichotomy of faith. Rarely addressing these human emotions from the pulpit subconsciously invalidates their existence and creates an existential conflict between the body and soul. Moreover, it ignores the holistic biblical witness. Jesus wept at the loss of a loved one (John 11:35). He became angry with the money-changers (Matt 21:12). Jesus fell into despair on the cross when he felt forsaken by God (Matt 27:46). He lamented over the fate of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37). The life of Christ validates our feelings and reveals the need to address them. The powerful emotions of grief, anger, loss, discouragement, frustration, and even disillusionment can be seen as normal experience for faithful humans. Instead of seeking control over them or treating them as problems, what if we validated and guided these emotions? It takes more faith to remain steadfast in the midst of enduring pain than ignoring or denying that pain exists. In order for preaching to reach people, it must practically address what they are feeling. Christ, as fully God and fully human, understands our emotions and connects with us on a personal level, as preaching should.
Often preachers rely on the arch of God’s redemptive plan to offer hope. Comments like “this too will pass,” “it will all be worked out when we get to heaven,” and “God has a plan” are helpful for reflecting on suffering in the long run, but they do little to address immediate needs. All of these comments are solution-oriented. They imagine a time in which the problem and pain no longer exist, but in the meantime, the problem still exists. Surely preaching can offer something more than the imperative to wait to those in pain? In order to address the immediate needs, preaching should be problem oriented too. Problem oriented preaching seriously admits the reality of pain and authentically processes emotions. If the pulpit abdicates its role in addressing pain, preachers cannot expect to meet the congregation’s needs. I am not advocating for less hope but for hope that balances the redemption to come with God’s presence now. God is present with us within suffering, not just at the end of suffering. God has something for us in the middle of pain and loss, not just “someday.”
Preachers and their sermons must be “non-anxious.” A non-anxious presence is the ability to explore, process, and empathize without becoming anxious.[i] Being a non-anxious presence requires self-awareness and reliance on God. It has the faith to maintain calm in the midst of storms and to guide others through the storm without waving the existence of the storm away. Christ can say “Peace be still” and the storm ceases. Preachers do not have this power. In many ways we preach to those who, like it or not, will have to ride out a storm, sometimes to the bitter end.
What is it about the 23rd Psalm that speaks to us in times of distress? The psalm does not promise that we will never face difficult times; the psalm does not even promise that difficult times will end. So, how is it that in the valley of the shadow of death someone could find comfort? The answer is simply “I will fear no evil for you are with me” (Ps 23:4 emphasis added). The most comforting passage of scripture offers solace because it promises God’s presence, even in the midst of suffering and despair. Pain and suffering are real, are a normal part of the human experience, and their effects are potent. The psalm promises that in the midst of despair and darkness we are not alone; it is hope for the present that acknowledges pain. God’s presence is hope that can always be offered.
The seriousness and depth of the traumas we face cannot be fully explored in a sermon. A sermon cannot replace pastoral counseling even when the primary focus is appropriately pastoral care. I remember two specific times when the sermon’s main focus was pastoral care—the Sunday after 9/11 and the chapel following the suicide of a college classmate. The collective needs of the community were so great in each of these situations that doing anything but address the trauma would have been harmful. In these times, the homiletical task is not to solve or fix trauma. The task is to address the pain and offer hope, hope that is here now and hope that is to come. If congregants feel that the preacher understands them and is able to address their spiritual needs, they are more likely to seek pastoral counseling.[ii] The light of hope is brightest when it shines despite the darkness of despair, not merely at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Until preaching addresses the present need for hope rooted in God’s presence and grapples with the breadth of human emotions, a congregation’s needs will not be met. People have the need to be heard and understood. Preaching can address that need by exploring and validating negative emotions explicitly and in depth before hastening to hope. Sally Brown and Luke Powery say that “preachers are those who dare to dance on the graves of despair.”[iii] Dancing prematurely is offensive. Suggesting others dance without grieving or lamenting is counter productive. We dare to dance because we know the faithfulness of God’s presence in the present. Preachers can better understand their role by becoming more comfortable with emotions, especially their own as it comes to death, loss, meaninglessness, and other forms of despair. When a person has been heard and understood, they are more receptive to hope and aware of God’s love. Articulating that hearing and understanding takes practice and careful forethought. At times what not to say in relation to grief and loss is as important as what to say.
Preaching is always contextual, and our hope-centered preaching needs to attend to that context. Each congregation is unique with distinctive needs. Leonora Tisdale convincingly argues that preachers have the task of exegeting scripture and their congregations. This means that preachers need to study their congregations. She reminds her readers that the central message of the Gospel always remains the same, but the identity and needs of the congregation should impact the message. Preachers need to consider how race, ethnicity, gender, age,[iv] and the emotional needs of the congregation impact the sermons receptiveness, timeliness, and appropriateness.
Preachers can choose to speak of life in ideals, of the life as it ought to be or will be one day. Sometimes that is exactly what needs to be said; on the other hand, we must speak of life as it is. With all its struggles and adversities, rooted in the reality of the world we live in. The Bible offers a holistic message to body, mind, and soul; thus, preaching should do the same. When death and suffering are ignored or understated, our people are ill-equipped when they come.
By Scott Donahue-Martens
Questions for you to ponder:
[i] Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family process in Church and Synagogue, (New York: Guilford Press, 2011).
[ii] Preachers must be careful not to break confidentiality or make a public display of another’s pain.
[iii] Brown, Sally A., and Luke A. Powery, Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for your Time and Place, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), x.
[iv] Leonora T. Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1997.