Friday, June 15, 2007

Telling Personal Stories from the Pulpit

The pendulum has swung quite widely about telling stories about yourself or your family from the pulpit. When I began in ministry we were just transitioning out of that period when it was not proper for the minister to use himself as an illustration within the sermon. Many, many time I heard older ministers apologize for using a personal story.

The pendulum has swung to quite the opposite extreme. Much of that is healthy. People need to hear how what we are preaching impacts our lives. But there are the extremes: I have heard preachers tell stories about themselves from the pulpit that seemed quite inappropriate. In an age of confessional tell-all, some think any thing that happens in their life is fair game for relating from the pulpit. Some cast themselves in an embarrassingly bad light, others in an overly good light (braggadocio). Other times it not not that the story is extreme either way, but I would ask, why is he or she telling this story? To make us laugh? Does it relate to the sermon at all and if so, how?

In his tape series of lectures on Preaching as Storytelling, Fred Craddock gives what is, I believe, a healthy balance. He comes from that generation that did not tell stories on themselves, but as a preacher, he tells stories on himself and his family with great relish and effectiveness. Here is what he says:

"The question comes: should I tell things about myself from the pulpit? The standard or canon by which you measure whether or not a personal story is to be used is whether or not the personal story is not just yours, but is Every-persons. To what extent in that experience you were "Every-person." You were Adam & Eve. If you were Everyperson, so that the listeners can identify with it, then it can be told. If it was yours in a peculiar sense remote from the experiences of other people, it is for private conversation and not for the pulpit. Because there can be no identification; and the point of it all is for people to enter into the story." (Preaching as Storytelling, Lecture 4)

Have you seen personal stories of the preacher used in especially effective or ineffective ways? What made the difference? What guidelines do you use in including or not including personal stories?

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