Last week The Front Porch joined forces with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Kentucky Baptist Convention to host “Tell Your Story: Expositional Preaching in the African-American Context.” The event served as a pre-conference for the Expositor’s Summit, Southern’s annual conference on preaching. We had the honor of inviting Victor Sholar, senior pastor of Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington, KY; H.B. Charles II, senior pastor of Jacksonville, Florida’s Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church; and Curtis Woods, Executive Director for Convention Relations and Communications for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Our brother Kevin Smith, Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern, did a wonderful job hosting us and spurring us on in discussion.
You can find the audio from the pre-conference here. Each talk was rich in its own way and each man left a deposit of grace with the attendees. The attendees were attentive, encouraging, thoughtful, and joyful. I hope Southern makes this an annual event because these are the kinds of gatherings at which ministries are strengthened and friendships forged.
During the panel discussion an issue arose that’s had me thinking since that time. Someone asked a question related to the difference between preaching as performance and preaching out of one’s personality. The questioner seemed concerned about how to identify the line that shouldn’t be crossed. After hearing so much about authenticity, about the authority of scripture and the divine scrutiny that attends our preaching, the question was really for us all.
As I think about the question, several passages from the Apostle Paul’s letters come to mind. In these words we find both a prescription for personality and a prohibition against performance.
The Preacher’s Personality
Paul’s view of preaching with personality has a lot to do with integrity. We preachers ought in some genuine measure to be what we preach. Consider his words:
“You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor the God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ (Rom. 2:21-24).”
Our primary concern when it comes to personality is whether or not we personally embody the word we preach.
Only after we reflect the character becoming the office (Titus 1:5-9) should we consider individual personality in preaching. Character trumps personality.
Nevertheless, we are not to all sound alike, act alike, or try to fit our natural selves into some artificial and constricting range. David couldn’t fight in Saul’s armor, neither can the preacher preach in another man’s suit. We are to fully be ourselves. This is, in part, what Lloyd-Jones means when he defines preaching as theology coming through a man on fire, or through personality. Paul preached “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3), but Apollos “was an eloquent man,” “fervent in spirit,” who spoke “boldly” in the synagogue. Apparently their personalities and resulting styles were so different that people began to form cliques in loyalty to each man (1 Cor. 1:12).
So, first comes character, but then comes individual personality as an integral part of authentic preaching.
Performance Destroys True Preaching
However, preaching with the personality the Lord gave us ought not be confused with performance. Preaching is not a show. It ought not be faked or pantomimed. We are not street corner performers or thespians amusing crowds with make-believe. That preaching that consists largely of sophistry, exaggeration, and fabricated drama robs the cross of its power. Paul, again, speaks to this:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (Rom. 2:1-5).”
Preaching should not be a performance because preaching and the hearers’ response should “rest… in the power of God.” Flashy speech and clever theatrics may suggest power, but it’s not the power that comes form the Spirit of God.
In fact, preaching that lapses into performance proclaims the preacher not the Christ. This is why Paul is relentless about the plain statement of the scripture when he preaches:
“We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God …For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake (2 Cor. 4:1-2, 5).”
The “open statement of the truth” commends the preacher in the sight of God and man (v. 2). But that same open statement of the truth also hides the preacher behind the proclamation of “Jesus Christ as Lord” (v. 5). How is it possible to preach in such a way as to commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone and yet not proclaim ourselves? According to the Bible, we should preach Jesus Christ so plainly and openly without cunning and worldly eloquence that the people lose sight of us to see Jesus more clearly. Then we will avoid “preaching ourselves” with some performance, while earning the approval of God and men.
Plainness, clarity, openness about Jesus keeps us from emptying the cross of its power. For the Lord Jesus Christ sent us “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).
So What’s the Difference between Personality and Performance?
All will acknowledge that there is a difference between preaching with personality and putting on a show. I’ve yet to meet anyone that denies the fact. But there’s considerable discussion about where to place the line. It’s the kind of conversation every preacher should have with himself and the Lord as well as with other preachers.
But perhaps it’s helpful to suggest one principle for telling the difference: The preacher in the pulpit should be pretty much like the preacher outside the pulpit. We should be the same men wherever the people find us. If have that kind of integrity we will seldom risk slipping into performance.
I remember one of my early sermon review sessions as a pretty inexperienced preacher. Fifteen to twenty men filled the room to pray and reflect on the Lord’s Day. As they commented on my sermon a pattern began to emerge. They essentially said, “I don’t feel like the Thabiti we saw in the pulpit today was the same Thabiti we talk to in the halls.” More specifically they said, “When we talk to you in the halls there’s this great range in your conversation. You can laugh belly laughs and you can peer with intense seriousness. There’s a whole range to who you are that didn’t come through in your preaching. When you preached today you hit this high intense range and you never came down. You should preach with your entire personality.”
That conversation lives with me years later. Those were the blows of a friend and, more importantly, those were the loving blows of men who prized Christ in the gospel more than they prized my personality.
In my case, I’d pulled back my natural self too much. But some men make the opposite mistake. They affect these grand personalities and shows that you would never see outside the pulpit. They are larger-than-life when they preach and church mice in conversation. Both pulling back too much and putting on too much are exaggerations. Neither is authentic. Both are performances. Neither is truly who we are. Both draw attention to us; neither points as clearly to Christ as it ought.
And here is where we bump up against our very notion of preaching itself. Some men can’t conceive of preaching that isn’t in some way a performance. Their entire notion is that the preacher is the one who “moves the crowd,” and what they have in mind is not the truth moving the crowd but their “gift,” “style” or “personality” producing the effect. We preachers do want crowds moved—but not with us. We want them moved with the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. To have them moved that way, many will need to learn the art of plain speech and work against the learned habits of performance and empty eloquence. After all, only one thing is really required of us: faithfulness as stewards of the word of God (1 Cor. 4:1-2).