3 Ways Your Backstory Informs Your Preaching (whether you're aware of it or not)

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Maybe you want it revealed. Maybe you don't.

Regardless, it's on display in every sermon.

What am I talking about? Your backstory.

Your backstory is "visibly invisible."

Your backstory is the story you tell in your sermons without "telling" it.

It seeps into your sermons whether or not you say the word, "I." 

Your backstory is the unique mixture of your theology, childhood, DNA, education, church experience, personality, political persuasion, and so much more. It affects how you approach the Sunday's scriptures, influences your conclusions about them, and shapes your style and the purpose for which you preach.

We preach more about ourselves than we realize, for good and for ill.

When for good, our backstories magnify the Lord. But when for ill, our backstories can block the Good News from its fullest expression.

Rather than allow our backstories to show up by default in a not-to-decide-is-to-decide fashion, at Backstory Preaching®, we recognize, articulate, and cultivate our backstories to be in service of our sermons.

We perceive sermons not as objective weekly assignments, but as a Word from God offered for our listeners through us.

With the Holy Spirit, our entire being prepares the sermon and carries the manuscript into the pulpit: our whole lives preach the Gospel!

To preach the message you intend to preach, consider these three aspects of your backstory to help you use your backstory in service to your preaching.

1) Your Connection to God

It all starts here. 

Your connection to God influences your integrity as a preacher and your joy in offering the message.

I'm a preacher, but also a spiritual director and retreat leader of more than twenty-five years. I've met with enough people and read enough of the spiritual tradition to know pray-ers come in all shapes and sizes.

  • Some talk to God nonstop, some only when in "foxholes."

  • Some rely on routine with rote prayers, forgetting themselves in the process, while others sense the wonder and presence of God that won't be pinned down to structure, time, or place.

  • Some rely on imagination, others on heady reasoning, and others don't think much about God at all, but come "holy-alive" while getting their hands dirty to help someone in need.

Regardless, intentional pray-ers have a practice they stick to whether or not they "have time" and whether or not they "get anything out of it."

They stick to their practice because they made a commitment to God, because they know before that, God made a commitment to them. And most pray-ers know that from that commitment, from showing up over and over, they are changed. Fruits of the spirit ripen.

Those fruits—joy, peace, patience, kindness, humility—show through our sermons.

Listeners sense them. These spiritual gifts help listeners trust us to lead them towards Someone we know: Someone good, Someone worth knowing, Someone we know has so much more to offer them.

Our sermons are enriched by those fruits...and suffer when they aren't developed.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is your practice as a pray-er?

  2. What influence does it have on your preaching?

  3. What might you do to cultivate it?

2) Your Childhood Image of God

Good or bad, idyllic or horrific, scrabbling for every meal or enduring parental lectures about "starving children in India" over plates of rejected food, your childhood helped shape you.

And without awareness of the ways your childhood shaped you, that childhood may unwittingly play out in your sermons.

In particular, your childhood influences how you interpret God's character and dealings with us.

  • If your childhood was happy, you might have given God the name of Buddy, Sister, or Star.

  • If your childhood was not so great, then maybe God got names like Scorekeeper, Trickster, or No-Show.

  • If your childhood wasn't terrific, just as possibly you might have given God names like BFF, Rescuer, or The-One-Thing-I-Can-Count-On.

Listeners walk in to church after living through every kind of childhood. Young listeners are currently living every kind of childhood.

If we're not aware of it, our sermons might describe only the childhood God we grew up with, while our listeners know God by very different names.

Some of those names are holy and worthy to be reinforced, but insufficient. New holy names could be added.

Other names, of course, are unholy and false. Those names need to be replaced.

Ask yourself:

  1. How did you name God as a kid?

  2. Looking back, did that name truly reflect God's character?

  3. Whom do you describe in your sermons now?

  4. How do your listeners name God? How might a fuller expression of God be offered?

3) Your Personality

How would you describe yourself?
    •    Artist
    •    Mystic
    •    Intellectual
    •    Introvert
    •    Extrovert
    •    Perfectionist
    •    Loyal
    •    Intuitive
    •    Data-driven
    •    Courageous
    •    Cautious
    •    Wanting to be liked
    •    Prophet
    •    ???

Our personalities reflect the image of God. They are wonderful and amazing, and they serve us well. Our personalities show the world one important aspect of God in a one-in-billions-of-chances way. But some aspects serve us better in the pulpit than others.

In addition, some aspects are under-represented, and others over-represented. For example:

  • Perfectionist. Perfectionism serves us well to push when we prepare sermons. It pushes us to pay attention to detail and not take sermon-writing for granted. Perfectionism is not so great, though, when it drives us to spend inordinate amounts of time word-smithing, or fills us with shame at the prospect that our sermons aren't good enough.

  • Intuitive. You sense what others miss. You can feel and empathize with a Scripture story and bring it to life in a sermon like no one's business. That is, when people can follow your train of thought. Intuitives can find brilliant threads of connection that make listeners gasp. However, Intuitives may not be as naturally adept at tying those threads together into a coherent message that can be followed from beginning to end.

  • Prophet. Champion of the dispossessed, fearless in a fight, unflinching in the face of disapproval, you give us courage to act on Jesus' preferential option for the poor. We need you! We just don't need you all the time. Some prophets are so passionate for "the cause" they struggle to find other messages in Scripture. They can be so focused on the needs of those who suffer outside the church they can struggle to find messages for those who suffer inside the church, right in front of them. Messages of "fighting the good fight" need to be balanced with messages of healing, compassion, and the joy of the living Christ already in our midst!

Ask yourself:

  1. What aspects of my personality serve my preaching well?

  2. Which are under-represented?

  3. Which are over-represented?

  4. How might I adjust my sermons so listeners with different personalities than mine hear the Good News more effectively?

Backstory Preaching® Mentorship

In August, we start our next season of the Backstory Preaching® Mentorship, where 100% of preachers who have participated in the program recommend it for their colleagues.

Where else do you get the chance to:

  • examine the ways your backstory informs your preaching

  • have every sermon appraised

  • take part in preaching master classes

  • learn, practice and integrate new preaching skills

  • create a sermon prep process that gets your sermon done by Friday

  • work 1:1 with a trusted, trained mentor

  • enjoy a community of preachers who are equally invested in their preaching

  • integrate your prayer life with your preaching

  • grow closer to God

  • all online?

Running for ten months out of twelve (August-May), preachers are guided through an intensive process to develop new skills, improve their preaching craft, and spiritually infuse their preaching process in a way that transforms their whole ministry.

As an intimate program, space is limited.

Applications are open now through June 30th.


Be Good News to Preach Good News!