Biblical counseling is the Word applied to individual people. Preaching is the Word proclaimed to the larger church community. Together they summarize a pastor’s primary job description, with each informing and strengthening the other.
Preaching certainly affects counseling. The sermons from Sunday, whether I listen to a sermon or preach one, consistently find their way into my face-to-face ministry during the week. But it goes both ways. My counseling also finds its way into my preaching which, I’ve decided, is a good thing. Here are a few thoughts about that.
Preaching becomes more personal. Pastors who spend time counseling will find that it impacts their preaching; it becomes more personal. That is because counseling is a wonderful, personal, back-and-forth between two people. Someone speaks, and instead of two people simply matching stories, the other person really listens. Each person can really hear the other, consider what was said, and be moved by both the words and the person speaking the words. Both people are affected, and are now different because they have met together. For a pastor, that difference can show through in future sermons.
Preaching doesn’t have the same back-and-forth as counseling, but it can still be personal. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during WWII would be a secular example. Roosevelt was saying, “this is really hard, and I am with you in it, but, don’t forget, together we have reason for hope.” A speech is to the masses. A fireside chat is to people with names. A speech focuses on delivery. A fireside chat – or a meal together – or a good sermon – focuses on the interests and needs of those present. It’s personal, like a family gathering, in which we know and are known.
When I was instructed in preaching during the mid-1970’s, we learned a lot about delivery. I passed those homiletics classes only because of the patience and grace of my professors. For example, I was supposed to preach to a camera, which, to me, felt absurd and gave me the occasional giggles. It also felt like talking to a dead relative, which just felt weird. I was supposed to raise my voice, which I assumed was an artifact from the years when there was no such thing as microphones. My voice would inevitably crack as though I was an adolescent in transition. I have never been much of a voice-raiser, and my voice knew it. “Diaphragmatic breathing, Mr. Welch, diaphragmatic breathing,” which I interpreted as, “speak as if you are being punched in the gut” and I would practice it. Sometimes a resonant booming sound would actually come out of my mouth – and that too gave me the giggles. Above all, I wasn’t to say anything personal because a preacher was supposed to get out of the way and make the Word prominent, not himself. That was the one thing that made sense to me then, and I could do it, because I wasn’t very comfortable being in front of people anyway.
None of these principles for preaching, of course, veer toward the personal.
Today I notice that my voice can still get loud at times when I preach, just as it does when I get excited about anything. But what I notice most is that, after many years of doing counseling, my preaching and counseling have converged somewhat. I go between “you” and “we” when I preach, just as I do when I talk to individuals. More often I say “we,” because whatever the other person is saying during a counseling time, I can find similar matters in my own heart, and whatever the other person is saying, we are in it together.
And inevitably a personal illustration shows up in my preaching. For some reason, the Spirit uses real people to encourage other people. When I preach or counsel I am not God’s amanuensis, as if I were taking dictation and passing it on without any editorial remarks. I am someone who has been challenged and changed by both other people and the Word – or maybe I discover that I have not been changed by others and the Word, so I need the prayers of my brothers and sisters, and I need the mercy of God.
I could put it this way. My preaching mirrors my counseling in that I say “we” often, “you” occasionally, and “I” or “me” more and more.
“Here is what the Spirit has been impressing on me over the last week.”
“Here are the ways you been on my heart.”
The back-and-forth? That’s tough to do in a sermon. My substitute to “now tell me what you are thinking about” is my response to my own sermon. When I preach, I typically have a section in my notes titled: “What do I do with this?” and I leave it blank. Since I have meditated on the passage, I have already had some responses to it, but I want to listen to the sermon as I am preaching it and see what is impressed on my heart. That’s one way my preaching becomes more personal.
I’m sure most pastors hope their sermons will be persuasive but the impact on the hearers is often not known. Not so with counseling. As a counselor you might think a particular passage of Scripture is very relevant to someone. So you open your Bible and read it. Mid-way through the passage you notice that, though the Word is powerful, it seems to be falling into a puddle on the floor before it gets to the other person’s ears. You stop. Maybe you apologize. You start again.
“Okay, let’s read something together. It is God’s communication to you. But it might be hard to hear. Your mind is swirling with thoughts and anxieties. You want relief from pain. Your problems are foremost in your mind right now. With all those voices, Scripture could easily become background noise. It could sound like an old book that doesn’t connect to today’s worries. Could you pray for us? Could you pray that we would be able to hear God’s words to us? These are spiritual words that need more than adequate hearing and a decent brain. The Spirit himself must plant these words in our hearts, and he is pleased to do such things.”
Counseling will make your preaching more persuasive because your experience with the back-and-forth will show you how Scripture impacts people and this will help your sermons to do so too. You will appeal, invite, induce, anticipate roadblocks, tell stories, be more succinct, and scratch your head as you search for the most beautiful words to describe a beautiful gospel. You will find yourself preaching in a way that echoes the book of Proverbs. That book is more counseling than preaching. The king is speaking to beloved royal children. Notice that he speaks both personally and persuasively throughout.
It’s a basic rule. If you close your office door to people and define yourself only as a preacher/teacher, your church will follow your lead by dispensing only truth. But if you talk with individual people who are wrestling with the many troubles of life, walk with others who are taking two steps forward and one step back, your preaching will become warm, personal and increasingly persuasive. Your church, too, will bear each other’s burdens in new ways.