Theological and Rhetorical Perspectives on Self-Disclosure in Preaching

[1] This article arises from the conviction that preaching from the Bible is “standing between two worlds,” a communication between the ancient biblical text and modern listeners.[1] Preachers are bridges for the truth of the Word. The bridge building metaphor leads to the fact that reaching involves self-disclosure. The speaker and the message are inseparable. As Arnold states, in oral rhetoric the speaker “stand[s] with his symbolic acts”[2] God has ordained that His truth be communicated through human agents His treasure is in earthen vessels (2 Cor 4.7). Paul knew this and was glad to share with the Thessalonians not only the gospel but also his life (1 Thess. 2:8). The term “self-disclosure” means verbal or nonverbal revelation” of the speaker’s feelings, values, and/or personal experiences.[3] Powell lists four levels of disclosure.[4]

[2] This article uses the term “self-disclosure” to mean levels three and four, while recognizing that level two may also fall under the above-stated definition.

[3] When used well, self-disclosure illustrates the point under consideration. It holds listeners’ attention. It demonstrates the relevance of the Word and is a tool preachers can use to disciple listeners by modeling values such as humility. It tends to increase the cohesiveness and satisfaction of church members[6] and builds an atmosphere of trust between pastor and people.[7] In general, it makes genuine fellowship more likely.[8]

[4] Most preachers have experienced at least a few of these advantages. Most preachers know that self-disclosure “works.” But why does it work? Why do listeners sit up and take notice when a speaker reveals a feeling or a childhood incident? How does adherence to values grow when preachers talk enthusiastically about their values? Why does loyalty to the church’s vision increase when preachers reveal their passion for that vision? The answer is that preaching that uses self-disclosure is incarnational; it helps preachers stand between two worlds by embodying the message. This principle is viewed from two perspectives–theology and rhetoric–and a final section suggests ways to implement self-disclosure in preaching.

Theological Perspectives on Self-Disclosure
[5] A preacher who uses self-disclosure in revealing truth about God is in a sense recreating the very process by which God has revealed truth about Himself.

[6] Both Jesus Christ and the Scriptures bear the same title. In both cases God’s self-disclosure is the “Word of God.” Just as God has communicated Himself to humankind, so should believers communicate Him to others. Believers are to “witness,” that is, to share personal experiences, values, and feelings that reveal Jesus Christ in their lives.

The Incarnation
[7] To help people understand who He is, Jesus Christ, the Word, became “flesh” (John 1:14), “being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). Truth in its most extraordinary and crystallized form was incarnated. In preaching, God’s truth should be incarnational as well. As Fant states, “When the Word would make its fullness known it took on flesh and dwelt among us; and to make itself known now, the Word must keep on becoming flesh among us.”[9] In other words what God did to reveal Himself to humanity, preachers should parallel in revealing God’s truth to others. God identified with humanity through the Incarnation.

[8] The person and work of Jesus Christ reveals what God is like. For example, the abstract statement, “God is love” can be seen experienced in the Incarnation. Similarly preachers should let their audiences see and experience the truth of God by embodying the message.

The Written Word
[9] The Scriptures speak of themselves as God’s written self-disclosure; they are not merely human religious ideas (2 Tim. 3:16-17). One might say that the Scriptures fulfill in print what Jesus fulfilled in flesh: disclosing the truth about God. It is no accident that both Scripture and Jesus Christ are called God’s Word (Ps. 119:9, 11; John 1:1). Also both are fully human. The only two places where such a convergence of the divine and the human have occurred in such a profound sense are the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the scriptures.

[10] The Scriptures are not a detached series of abstract propositions; they are the dramatic and personal account of God’s revelation to humans and their response to that revelation. The form of the message matches the content. The Bible is “incarnational” because it communicates God’s truth in forms that are emotive, imaginative, and immediate. The biblical writers used forms of communication that mirrored the message they received. Through stories, poetry, personal letters, prayers, and prophecies they proclaimed God’s truth.

[11] The biblical writers realized that God’s truth was personal and dynamic, not distant and abstract. Preachers should communicate God’s Word in the same manner it has been communicated to them, namely, “incarnationally.” So when they use self-disclosure, they reflect God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures and in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Preacher as Witness
[12] The personal testimony of the apostles is the fertile ground out of which the Gospels sprang (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8; 26:16; 2 Pet. 1:16). Although the primary focus of the term “witness” is that of a firsthand eyewitness encounter with Jesus, Stott rightly asserts that the concept of witness is still valid today even for those who have not literally heard, seen, and handled the Word of Life. The concept of “witness” can be broadened to include a personal experience of Christ. In other words, believers today are witnesses too. Stott comments on this in this way:

In our preaching, we do not just expound words which have been committed to our stewardship. Nor do we only proclaim as heralds a mighty deed of redemption which has been done. But, in addition, we expound these words and proclaim this deed as witnesses, as those who have come to a vital experience of this Word and Deed of God. We have heard His still, small voice through His Word. We have seen His redeeming Deed as having been done for us, and we have entered by faith into the immeasurable benefits of it. Our task is not to lecture about Jesus with philosophical detachment. We have become personally involved with Him.[10]

[13] Stott claims that the preacher must preach from the context of a “personal experience of Jesus Christ Himself. This is the first and indispensable mark of the Christian witness. He cannot speak from hearsay. He would not be a witness if he did.”[11]

[14] Of course personal experience should not stand on its own as the sole pillar of truth for proclamation. However, it is a legitimate source of authority when it stands in accord with the written Word.

Rhetorical Perspectives on Self-Disclosure
[15] God’s communication is incarnational, and humans, created in the Image of God, communicate best when they include themselves in presenting ideas and values.

[16] Burke’s theory of identification has profound implications for those who would stand between two worlds. He explains the theory this way “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded that they are. In being identified with B, A IS ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. At the same time he remains unique, an individual of motives. Thus he is joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another”[12]

[17] In practice the theory of identification looks like this: A preacher expounds a truth from the Word, but it remains merely an abstract principle. Then the preacher discloses the personal impact of this truth, or how a personal experience demonstrates the relevance of the principle, or how the expositor has sought to live out the precept. The listeners are likely to see themselves in the personal disclosure. The preacher voices their feelings, values, and experiences. They identify with the preacher and the same impact the truth had on the preacher is likely to occur with the listener. A is not B, but when B identifies with A, response to the proposition is not far behind.

[18] Closely related to Burke’s theory of identification is Lee and Gura’s discussion of “empathy.” They discuss this in relation to interpretation, but the principles are applicable to homiletics. When a performer imagines and feels the literature, then the audience will too. The listeners adopt the performer’s stance toward the text.[13] In the same way, identification and empathy created through self-disclosure can help preachers stand between their biblical text and the congregation.

[19] Aristotle stated, “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.”[14] The qualities of Aristotle’s “good men” have been described in these terms, among others:

Competence-the speaker is knowledgeable or experienced.

Trustworthiness-the speaker demonstrates sincerity.

Dynamism-the speaker demonstrates poise and conviction.

Warmth-the speaker likes the audience.

Similarity-the speaker identifies with the audience.[15]

[20] Self-disclosure increases ethos by heightening each of these qualities.[16] For example to make oneself vulnerable to listeners, one must trust them. A display of trust honors listeners and prompts them to trust in return. The reciprocal nature of self-disclosure is well attested in communication studies and in everyday experience. DeVito calls it the “spiral effect” as one self-disclosure begets another, usually deeper, one.[17] Conversely “lack of personal disclosure is often associated with relational problems and breakup.”[18]

[21] Besides building trust, self-disclosure also heightens ethos by drawing attention to similarities between listener and preacher. This strategy may be particularly crucial for preachers, since Americans value “personalness” over office as a source of ethos.[19]

[22] As Griffin states, “Intimacy is possible only when there is parity of power.”[20] Self-disclosure that highlights “similarity” is a tool for preachers who would act on Robinson’s insight that listeners “want the speaker to understand their pain and the difficulty they have in doing what’s right without letting them off the hook.”[21] Nash states simply that “we are attracted to people who are like us.”[22]

[23] Along with attraction and trust comes influence. Even when listeners differ with a speaker, if the speaker is attractive and trustworthy, the listeners may change their minds when “cognitive dissonance” sets in. For an unbeliever it might look like this: The unbeliever has a friend who is a Christian. They share many similarities, but faith in Jesus is not one of them. This creates dissonance in the unbeliever because he values the Christian but not his or her faith. The dissonance can be resolved in one of three ways: The unbeliever may devalue the believer, pretend that the believer is not a Christian, or change his ideas about faith in Jesus.[23] In this way self-disclosure may be integral to witnessing. Those who reveal their feelings and values may be persecuted (scenario 1), or they may win souls (scenario 3). In either case self-disclosure influences the listener to change.

[24] A final rhetorical perspective on self-disclosure and preaching arises out of narrative theory. Good stories, including stories about themselves can help preachers stand between two worlds.

[25] Little that is new can be offered on the rhetorical power of stories. This bone has been chewed thoroughly. Briefly, one may be reminded that although stories may not seem to “argue,” appearances are deceptive. They do argue. Stories serve the propositions the preacher advances, and they do so by engaging the interest of the listeners

[26] This interest or “enchantment” occurs because narratives use concrete details of people, places, and actions. Details hold attention. Craddock reminds us that “primary attention is given to the specific rather than the general.”[24] In terms of self-disclosure, when the preacher tells a story, the specific details “awaken within listeners dormant experiences and feelings.”[25] It may seem strange that personal experience could lead to widespread persuasion because a preacher’s headache, for example, is not the listener’s headache; but with stories details add to the interest. Specific details rather than universal propositions are the stuff that listeners translate into their own experience. Stories can be powerful rhetoric because imaginatively enter the story and identify with the speaker.

[27] A second way stories add interest and intrigue is by prompting listeners toward closure. When a story begins, the listeners all want it to have a middle and an end. They “will” the story on to completion. When that completion occurs, they experience the satisfaction of an issue resolved, a conflict settled, a problem solved. And when listeners collaborate in the form of the story, acceptance of the story’s propositions is not far behind.

[28] Self-disclosure in preaching, then, creates identification, builds ethos, and employs the beguiling power of stories.

Suggestions for Using Self-Disclosure in Preaching
[29] A number of homileticians have warned against the perils of using self-disclosure in the pulpit. For instance, Lloyd-Jones suggests that the response evoked from a congregation by a preacher’s self-disclosure is simply a “lust to know personal details.”[26] In a similar vein Buttrick states, “To be blunt, there are virtually no good reasons to talk about ourselves from the pulpit.”[27] Buttrick claims that a personal illustration will “split the consciousness” of the congregation. In other words some will follow the illustration as it illuminates the idea being discussed while others will simply remember the illustration as an example of the preacher’s character.[28]

[30] True, self-disclosure in preaching, like any communication device, can be used poorly. Preachers must not brag about themselves in their self-disclosures. Neither should they use the pulpit as a therapy session for themselves. And they should not reveal themselves as a substitute for revealing Christ and the gospel. But poor self-disclosure does not negate the values of self-disclosure properly used. Therefore the following ten suggestions may help preachers avoid the pitfalls of misuse.

Consider your Motives
[31] Latham suggests four reasons preachers use self-disclosure: to illustrate, to identify, to shock, and to purge conscience.[29] Of these four, only the first two are valid. Graphic details that shock cause the congregation to recoil from rather than identify with the preacher Robinson illustrates this with the story of a preacher who in the interest of complete transparency said to his congregation, “I too know the power of lust. In fact, I have lusted after some of you.”[30] This type of self-disclosure is obviously inappropriate and will disillusion a congregation and obscure the message rather than clarify it. The pulpit is not the place for preachers to resolve their own issues with God and others. Self-disclosure from the pulpit should not be confused with self-disclosure to God, one’s spouse, and close personal friends and family.

Count the Cost
[32] With transparency and vulnerability come risk. The potential for enhanced identification and trust is great, but so is the potential for estrangement and gossip. A thorough consideration of the risks involved can help preachers avoid using self-disclosure haphazardly. Preachers should count the cost not only for themselves but also for their congregations. An expositor’s purpose is not to burden people with emotional baggage but rather to encourage them by demonstrating God’s grace.

Get Permission from Others Involved
[33] Although this seems like an obvious caveat, many preachers neglect it, especially with regard to their own children. By gaining permission from their children to use an illustration that involves them, pastors make their children part of the process of edifying the church.

[34] A preacher should usually avoid using personal illustrations that involve current members of the congregation. However, if it seems appropriate to use such an illustration, the preacher must always secure permission from the individual. If this is not done, the preacher will lose credibility and trust.

Honesty above All
[35] Illustrations must be honest and sincere. As witnesses and heralds of God’s grace, pastors should present their true selves to the congregation, not sanctified or vilified versions. As Stott warns, “There must be an exact correspondence between our experience and our testimony. We must be strictly honest.”[31] Hypocrisy from the pulpit will not be tolerated by a congregation, nor should it be.

Appropriate Level and Timing of Self-Disclosure
[36] There are no simple guidelines for determining how much and when to disclose from the pulpit. A general rule of thumb is simply that the level of self-disclosure should be appropriate to the point being made, the level of intimacy between the preacher and the congregation, and the occasion of the message. Backing up an emotional dump truck and burying a congregation with a load of intimate details can create awkwardness and distrust rather than a sense of intimacy and trust.

Disclose Resolved Difficulties
[37] This is a general, not universal, guideline. Latham comments, “When using personal weakness or struggles as illustrative material it is usually wise to speak only of resolved situations. Using an unresolved situation can unsettle and distract an audience.”[32] While it is true that disclosing unresolved issues can create identification (the preacher is seen as “one of us”), a resolved struggle can elicit the same response with the added benefit of the wisdom that comes from having reflected on the experience. Furthermore the preacher’s account or coming through a struggle can be seen as a light at the end of the tunnel. Those in the midst of similar circumstances can be encouraged that God will bring them through this struggle.

[38] Morgan writes, “Nothing disheartens a church more than a leader who broadcasts his darkness before he has discovered the source of light.”[33] Exley adds, “I am careful to disclose them [personal temptations] in such a way that the worshipers’ attention is focused not on my struggle but on the grace of God. . . . If I admit sinful actions, they should be ones I’ve repented of and, if possible, made right.”[34] He continues, “My preaching should inspire hope, not amusement or sympathy, or worse yet, doubt. When we make our congregations privy to our present temptations, we inevitably threaten them.”[35] The job of pastors is to offer hope. Otherwise they speak about thirst but offer no water.

Beware of the “Cult of Personality”
[39] This is Bonhoeffer’s phrase. He states, “Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community.”[36] How then should preachers balance the duty to present the person of Jesus Christ with the need to preach “incarnationally” out of their own heart and experience? The words of Paul come to mind: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2.1-5).

[40] Paul’s statements in these verses are not critical of self-disclosure On the contrary, they disclose much about the apostle. However, the disclosure is done in such a way as to magnify the power of God, not to obscure it.

Self-Disclosure Is a Style of Life, not Just a Preaching Technique
[41] William Temple said, “It is quite futile saying to people, ‘Go to the cross.’ We must be able to say, ‘Come to the cross.’ And there are only two voices which can issue the invitation with effect. One is the voice of the Sinless Redeemer, with which we cannot speak; the other is the voice of the forgiven sinner, who knows himself forgiven. That is our part.”[37] Preachers of the Word do well to heed Augustine’s words, when he said, “What I live by, I impart.”

[42] It is not enough for pastors simply to tell stories about themselves. As stated earlier, self-disclosure includes nonverbal communication. Unless a preacher “owns” the message and speaks out of the fullness of his heart and mind, the message will be hollow. “The preparation of the heart is of far greater importance than the preparation of the sermon. The preacher’s words, however clear and forceful, will not ring true unless he speaks from conviction born of experience.”[38] Pastors must be committed to a genuine and open relationship with the Lord and others.

Don’t Overlook the Ordinary in Search of the Extraordinary
[43] A congregation can have difficulty relating to story after story of a preacher’s adventures of, say, climbing the Andes mountains or helping deliver a baby in the back of a bus racing through the streets of some town in Bosnia. Although these experiences can be used effectively from the pulpit, the preacher must remain sensitive to the fact that the congregation is made up of mostly ordinary people, with ordinary concerns, and ordinary lives. Exley states, “If I miss the ‘little’ moments, I will be the poorer for it, and so will my preaching.”[39] In fact it is these “little” moments with one’s spouse, children, God, and others that most poignantly illustrate the grace of God working in the pastor’s life.

Share Positive and Negative Experiences
[44] Some preachers find it easier to share their struggles than their victories. Perhaps they think the congregation will find stories of sin and struggle more interesting than stories of peace and community. However, even if the congregation does exhibit a proclivity for “negative” self-disclosure, preachers should resist giving them a steady diet of it. Other preachers share only “positive” stories of victory. Eventually their self-disclosures ring hollow, for everyone knows that “life just isn’t like that.” The Christian life consists of the interplay of both victories and defeats. Therefore as preachers disclose both victories and defeats, the congregation will be encouraged toward both genuine repentance and joyous celebration.

John R W Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1982)

Carrol C Arnold, “Oral Rhetoric, Rhetoric, and Literature,” Philosophy and Literature 1 (1968) 200

See Joseph A DeVitto, The Interpersonal Communication Book, 7th ed (New York HarperCollins, 1995), 139, John Stewart and Carole Logan, Together Communicating Interpersonally, 5th ed (Boston McGraw-Hall, 1998), 245, Sarah Trenholm and Arthur Jensen, Interpersonal Communication, 2nd ed (Belmont, CA Wadsworth, 1992), 136, and David T George, “An Examination of Self-Disclosure in Preaching” (Th M thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1976), 34-5

John Powell, quoted in George, “An Examination of Self-Disclosure in Preaching,” 15

Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise

Lynn Palmberg and Onas Scandrette, “Self-Disclosure in Biblical Perspective,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 5 (1977) 213

George, “An Examination of Self-Disclosure in Preaching,” 59

Palmberg and Scandrette, “Self-Disclosure in Biblical Perspective,” 213

Clyde Fant, Preaching for Today (San Francisco Harper & Row, 1987), 46

John R. W. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 74.

Ibid 71

Kenneth Burke A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley CA University of California Press 1969) 20-21

Charlotte I Lee and Timothy Gura, Oral Interpretation, 7th ed (Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 128

Aristotle, The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle, trans W Rhys Roberts (New York Modern Library, 1984), 1356a

Stephen E Lucas, The Art of Public Speaking, 2nd ed (New York McGraw-Hill, 1992), 326

Trenholm and Jensen, Interpersonal Communication, 136, and Stewart and Logan, Together Communicating Interpersonally, 259

DeVito, The Interpersonal Communication Book, 140

Stewart and Logan, Together Communicating Interpersonally, 246

Edward F Markquardt, Quest for Better Preaching (Minneapolis Augsburg, 1985), 159

Em Griffin, Making Friends (and Making Them Count) (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity, 1987), 177

Haddon W Robinson, “Preaching to Everyone in Particular,” Leadership 15 (fall 1994) 101

Tom Nash, The Christian Communicator’s Handbook (Wheaton, IL Victor, 1995), 87

Ibid, 91

Fred B Craddock, Preaching (Nashville Abingdon, 1985), see also Markquardt, Quest for Better Preaching, 160

Roderick P Hart, Modern Rhetorical Criticism (Glenview, IL Scott Foresman, 1990), 133

D Martin Llyod-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids Zondervan, 1971), 233

David Buttrick, Homiletics Moves and Structures (Philadelphia Fortress, 1987), 142


Darin Latham, “The Trauma of Transparency, ‘Should I Let Them See Me?'” Eastern Journal of Practical Theology 7 (1993) 12

Haddon W Robinson, “Bringing Yourself into the Pulpit,” in Mastering Contemporary Preaching, ed Bill Hybels, Stuart Briscoe, and Haddon W Robinson (Portland, OR Multnomah, 1989), 131

Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait, 74

Latham, “The Trauma of Transparency,” 11.

Robert Morgan, “How Much Should I Let On?” Leadership 17 (spring 1992): 109.

Richard Exley, “Decemt Exposure Preaching about You and Yours” Leadership 8 (fall 1992) 119

Ibid, 120

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Fant, Preaching for Today, 104

William Temple, quoted in Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait, 74

Ibid, 76

Exley, “Decent Exposure,” 121