the shape of leadership

Preaching and Lived Experience

Three ways to make your messages more inclusive

Shannon Polk on August 16, 2021

A few years ago, I was talking with a male colleague about the need for gender-inclusive language in the pulpit.

He shook his head and said confidently, “Shannon, some things are gender neutral, like preaching.”

I gently asked one question: “Have you ever preached while pregnant?”

I wasn’t trying to be flippant, but I wanted my friend to realize many of his congregants have lived experiences that are quite different from his own. Failing to see that means missing opportunities to connect with them through the message. It takes intentionality to engage the group and compel the one.

Sure, you can use an NFL analogy when talking about teamwork, but you could also draw from soccer, a sport girls and boys play around the world. Likewise, you could talk about hunting with your son to illustrate parenting, or you could choose a scenario to which more moms and dads in your congregation can relate, such as teaching a child to ride a bike.

The purpose of storytelling in preaching is to help listeners understand and apply the truth of Scripture to their own lives. Jesus was a master storyteller. From parables to analogies, Jesus used imagery that captivated minds and changed hearts.

Jesus knew there were a variety of lived experiences wrapped in human flesh listening to His stories. He addressed religious leaders and foreigners, political opponents and friends, men and women, adults and children, rulers and slaves, devout followers and skeptics. Jesus’ stories and illustrations reflected the diversity of His listeners.

Here are three ways to follow Jesus’ example and preach more inclusively:

1. Be intentional. If God has assigned a variety of people to your congregation, you need to become comfortable speaking to each of them in your sermons. Jesus had never been a Samaritan traveler (Luke 10:25–37), a widow facing an unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8), or a woman cleaning a house to find a lost object (Luke 15:8–10), but He used such examples to illustrate points His wider audience could appreciate.

Be careful about asking others to discuss issues related to their identity, especially if you aren’t also inviting them to preach on more general topics. You may have women and ethnic minorities on your preaching team, but don’t limit their pulpit assignments to Mother’s Day or a racial or ethnic heritage month.

My lead pastor is a 60-year-old Italian man from New York who has learned to quote Maya Angelou in his sermons and use illustrations that are not related to his beloved Yankees. If he can do it, you can do it.

2. Be creative. In John 16:21, Jesus compared the pain and subsequent joy of childbirth to the feelings His disciples would experience at His death and resurrection. Jesus had obviously never been a woman in labor, but He used His imagination, acknowledged a uniquely female experience, and appealed to universal human emotions.

We must bring in stories from the margins, and draw illustrations from the spaces parishioners occupy.

Plenty of sources are available for creative and inclusive illustrations. Start by reading biographies and works of fiction by authors with diverse identities, life experiences and perspectives.

Learn from preachers who are master storytellers. When these ministers describe what’s going on in the text, they draw people in using all the senses. Their listeners smell the animals in the stable as Mary places her newborn in a manger. They feel the tension in the room as Moses confronts Pharaoh. They hear the surprised gasps of the Philistines as David slays Goliath. That kind of tangible storytelling brings people to the edge of their seats and opens their hearts to the presence of God.

3. Be observant. Pay attention to those individuals who are on the margins of your congregation. Look for the overlooked.

In New Testament times, the social status of widows placed them in the category of the nearly invisible. However, Jesus observed the poor widow in Luke 21:1–4 and pointed to her actions as an example of true generosity. Even though Jesus’ comments were unexpected, each of His listeners could easily comprehend the lesson He was teaching.

Including the stories of the marginalized sends a message that there is a place for everyone in the kingdom of God. Be careful not to lean on stereotypes, however. Reading one book on the Asian American experience doesn’t make you an expert. If anything, it gives you just enough knowledge to be offensive.

Develop friendships with diverse people. Then share your illustrations first with these friends so they can provide feedback and let you know whether there are any landmines. If you don’t yet have such relationships, consider using a direct quotation from someone who understands that lived experience. For example, if you want to talk about living with a disability, quote an author who uses a wheelchair.

You might also share an illustration from the life of someone in your congregation, but always get permission first.

We must bring in stories from the margins, and draw illustrations from the spaces parishioners occupy. There are individuals in our churches who know what it is like to be a widow, navigate life with a physical disability, and, yes, work while pregnant.

Jesus told stories from those on the margins of society in His day. He was able to tell those stories because Jesus spent time with people on the margins. He hung out with tax collectors, Samaritans, and people with illnesses and disabilities. As Jesus interacted with these people, He not only ministered to their needs, but He also heard their stories.

Danielle Strickland, former Salvation Army social justice coordinator, said telling stories of those on the margins helps everyone see their own humanity. I would add that it helps everyone see their need for Jesus.

When you reflect on your most recent sermons, do they speak to the women in your congregation? What about single adults, the childless, ethnic minorities, senior citizens, and the poor? You get my point. Our goal as preachers is to tell people the good news in such a way that they can relate to it and receive it. We want them to know God sees them and wants to be in relationship with them.

Follow Jesus’ lead by telling stories in creative, imaginative, and inclusive ways. I’m not suggesting you change your style completely or stop sharing illustrations from your own experiences and areas of interest. But it is worth the effort to include stories that will help everyone find their place in the greatest story of all — the story of redemption.

Go ahead. We’re listening.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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