Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class. He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2. What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching. Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.
Let’s see this on a scale:
Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change. Instead of third person, now it is told in first person. Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute. Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail. There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person. It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.
Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail. Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination. This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.
Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail. In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled. That was enough. He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations. This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.
I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon. This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.” If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC. If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.
First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort. It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy. Put that extra effort into your study for the message. Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)