How to bridge the credibility gap
An article by Haddon Robinson
Time has changed the way people view pastors. The average preacher today is not going to make it on the basis of the dignity of his position.
A century ago, the pastor was looked to as the person of wisdom and integrity in the community. Authority lay in the office of pastor. The minister was the parson, often the best-educated person in town and the one to whom people looked for help in interpreting the outside world. He had the unique opportunity to read and study and often was the principal voice in deciding how the community should react in any moral or religious situation.
But today, the average citizen takes a different view of pastors and preachers. Perhaps we’re not lumped with scam artists or manipulative fund raisers, but we face an Olympic challenge to earn respect, credibility, and authority.
In the face of society’s scorn—or being relegated to a box labeled “private” and “spiritual”—many preachers struggle with the issue of authority. Why should anyone pay attention to us? What is the source of our credibility? In such a climate, how can we regain the legitimate authority our preaching needs to communicate the gospel with power and effect?
Let me identify some guidelines that have assisted me.
Articulate unexpressed feelings
One way to build credibility with today’s congregations is to let people see that you understand their situation. Many people in the pew suspect that preachers inhabit another world. Folks in the pew may listen politely to a reporter of the distant, biblical past, but they won’t be gripped unless they believe this speaker speaks to their condition.
This is why, in a sermon, I try to speak for the people before I speak to them. Have you ever listened to a speaker and found yourself saying, “Yeah, that’s right; that’s my reaction, too”? The speaker gave words to your feelings—perhaps better than you could have expressed them yourself. You sensed the preacher knew you. He explained you to you.
We capture the attention of people when we show that our experience overlaps theirs. For instance, a preacher might say, “There’s no good place for a .150 hitter in a championship lineup. No matter where you put him, he’s out of place.” If listeners know sports, they know that’s true. The preacher’s speaking their language.
Or the minister may take a punch line from a comic strip, or use material from Business Week or Advertising Age or The Wall Street Journal. A business executive will resonate with that. Obviously this pastor knows a bit more about the bottom line than playing Monopoly. Through illustrations, the preacher has revealed something about his reading, his thinking, and awareness of life. When some areas of a speaker’s life overlap with the listeners’, they are more likely to listen. He’s gained some credibility. An ingredient in effective preaching is using specific material that connects with lives in the congregation.
Listen to the invisible congregation
Another way effective preachers connect with the audience is to sit six or seven specific flesh-and-blood people around their desks as they prepare. I have assembled such a committee in my mind as real to me as if they were there.
In that group sits a friend who is an outspoken cynic. As I think through my material, I sometimes can hear him sigh, “You’ve got to be kidding, Robinson. That’s pious junk food. What world are you living in?”
Another is an older woman who is a simple believer, who takes preachers and preaching very seriously. While I prepare sermons, I ask, “Am I raising questions that will trouble her? Will my sermon help her?”
A teenager sprawls in the circle, wondering how long I’m going to preach. I can make the sermon seem shorter if I can keep him interested.
A divorced mother takes her place feeling alone and overwhelmed by her situation. What do I say to her?
Those are four of my seven. Another is an unbeliever who doesn’t understand religious jargon and yet has come to church but doesn’t quite know why. Another makes his living as a dock worker. He has a strong allegiance to his union, thinks management is a rip off, curses if he gets upset, and enjoys bowling on Thursday night.
The last is a black teacher who would rather attend a black church but comes to a white church because her husband thinks it’s good for their kids. She is a believer, but she’s angry about life. She’s very sensitive about racist remarks, put-downs of women, and will let me know if my sermon centers on white, middle-class values dressed up as biblical absolutes.
I change the group from time to time. But all of them are people I know. They have names, faces, and voices. I could prepare a vita on each of them. While they do not know it, each of them contributes significantly to my sermon preparation.
Let’s face it. Life is complex. We sometimes preach as though it were not.
One time after I’d preached a sermon on love, a man came up and said, “You said that love means always seeking other people’s highest good.”
“That’s fine, but my business puts me in competition with another man in this congregation. I run an efficient operation that lets me sell my product cheaper than his. What’s the loving thing to do—underprice him and take some of his customers? Or should I keep my prices roughly equal?”
Before I could respond, he went on.
“But that’s not the toughest part. A large corporation has just moved into town selling the same product. I’m going to have to scramble to stay in business myself. I may have to cut prices so drastically it will drive my fellow church member into bankruptcy.
“I want to love this man. We’re in the same Sunday school class. I coach his kids in Little League. I want to do what’s best for him. But the name of the game out there is survival,” he said. “Why don’t preachers talk about these kinds of things when they talk about love?”
For us to communicate with authority, we’ve got to step into the shoes of those Christians who are in the home and marketplace. In our preaching, we must recognize the complexity of the issues. How do we do that?
First, it’s helpful simply to admit the tension and point it out. All truth exists in tension—God’s love exists in tension with his holiness. Skillfully applying love and justice is not easy.
I believe God honors an honest try. People need to know that. Sometimes I’ll point out that we will make a wrong decision with the right motive, which is very different from making a right decision out of a wrong motive. As far as I know, the Bible never calls any action, in itself, right. No action is right apart from its motive. Obviously, there are some acts the Bible calls wrong: murder, lying, adultery. But it’s not as easy to classify right behavior.
In God’s economy, motive is a key factor. One of the things we preachers can say with authority to people is: “In these situations, it’s important to handle life skillfully, to make the right decisions. But the prior and more important decision is What’s motivating you? Are you willing to be God’s representative in this situation? Are you seeking what’s best in the lives of the people involved? Sometimes those decisions are confusing. We need wisdom. That’s what Christian friends and Christian counsel give you.”
Speak with authority
Preachers, of course, have to be more than “fellow strugglers.” No one is helped by “You’re a loser; I’m a loser; let’s keep losing together.”
People want to believe you have taken your own advice and, while you’ve not arrived, you’re on the way. You’ll never learn to be a .300 hitter by watching three .100 hitters. You study a .325 hitter. Although he will occasionally strike out, he knows how to hit.
Likewise, people want to listen to somebody who knows what the struggle is, has taken the Bible’s message seriously, and knows how to hit.
Of course, we identify with the needs and experiences of our people—we’re every bit as human as they are. But our task is to speak a word that is qualitatively different from normal conversation. Effective preaching combines the two and gives people hope that they can be better than they are.
When the combination is right, we preach with authority, which is different from being an authoritarian. Preaching with authority means you’ve done your homework. You know your people’s struggles and hurts. But you also know the Bible and theology. You can explain the Bible clearly. We help our credibility when we practice biblical preaching.
The authoritarian, on the other hand, is someone who speaks about biblical and nonbiblical things in the same tone of voice. Whether the subject is the Super Bowl or the Second Coming, the verdict is delivered with the same certainty and conviction.
An authoritative tone without genuine biblical authority is sound and fury signifying nothing.
When we speak with authority, we preach the Bible’s message without embarrassment, but we also communicate that we don’t, always know how to tailor faith to life.
Be precise in descriptions
Authority also comes from a track record of being truthful and not distorting the facts. It’s especially important to be precise in our definitions and descriptions, whether we’re defining the historical background of the text or delivering an apt illustration. Accuracy builds credibility.
I once used an illustration about snakes and referred to them as “slimy, poisonous creatures.” A woman came up afterward and said, “Snakes aren’t slimy; they are dry. And most snakes aren’t poisonous.” She worked in a zoo, so she spotted that I was careless in my description. As a result, I had given her reason for suspecting the rest of what I had to say.
The need for precision is particularly acute with an antagonistic or less than supportive audience. They’ll focus on your minor error as a reason for not listening to the rest of what you have to say.
For church leaders, perhaps no factor contributes more to legitimate authority and credibility than authentic Christian character. It’s what Aristotle called ethos; in New Testament terms, it’s being mature, upright. These days, if we want credibility in the pulpit, genuine character has to come through.
Part of effective preaching is the ability to make the presentation match the internal conviction. The image we project will influence our credibility. Appearance in the pulpit will affect the way people respond. I’m convinced inwardly, for example, of the importance of discipline and order in the Christian life. How can I present myself in a way that matches the conviction? In the first thirty seconds, people are deciding whether they’re going to listen. God looks on the heart, but people in our culture look on the outside. Am I disheveled? Do my shoes need to be shined? If I’m fifty pounds overweight, they may perceive that I’m not disciplined or that I’m careless about myself.
Obviously one advantage of a lengthy ministry is that the pastor has a better chance to bring perception and reality together. The long-term pastor is judged more on his pattern of behavior than on a specific appearance. People are more likely to say, “The pastor not only talks love; he gives love. He was there in our family crisis when we needed him.” A pattern of care can cover a multitude of less-than-stellar sermons.
Of course, the flip side is that we may have things to live down, and that also takes time. A pastor I know lost his temper in a board meeting and spoke some harsh words in anger. Now, months later, when he stands in the pulpit, some people play that record mentally. Another pastor in a similar situation confessed his misuse of anger and publicly asked for forgiveness. He got it. In his case, people learned that the fellow they saw in the pulpit was real and had integrity.
Ethos comes from authentic ministry—praying for individuals, remembering people’s names, caring for them in times of crisis. And it comes from recognizing and articulating the struggles people face and offering an appropriate word from God. All this shapes our character, and this character is vital as we preachers strive for our rightful authority among those we serve.
Haddon Robinson is John Harold Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in South Hamilton, Massachusetts; senior editor of PreachingToday.com; daily radio teacher on Discover the Word; and author of Biblical Preaching (Baker, 1980, 2001).
This article first appeared in Leadership journal, (c) 1995-2009 Christianity Today International. More articles like this are available at www.leadershipjournal.net