The Danger of Self-Awareness in Preaching

I once heard John Piper say in an interview, “Self-consciousness is the curse of the preacher.” The context of the conversation was concerning the infamous “gesturing” of Piper in the pulpit. He made clear that he does not practice, plan, or otherwise pay attention to that stuff. Furthermore, it would be deadly if he did.

crystal_spurgeon-300x221By self-awareness I mean the unhealthy fixation of the preacher upon himself. When the preacher is thinking about himself before he is preaching, when he is preaching, and after he is preaching, then he is dangerously self-aware.

And why would it be a danger for the preacher?

1. It could divert his focus.

The task of the preacher is to communicate God’s Word in such a way that his hearers will be captivated with the greatness of God. To this end the preacher must be focused on God. He must be enveloped in the majesty of God and speak as one who is personally impressed with him.

If the pastor spends his time trying hit the perfect inflection, making the right gesture, telling the right kind of story, or making the perfect face, then he is distracted. I have heard of some men who weekly watch videos of their sermons to improve. Doubtless some of this study can be helpful. But if you are breaking down your motions with the detail of an NFL commentator, then your focus may be off.

2. It may detract from God’s power.

The logic goes something like this: If we could just improve our craft a bit then perhaps they will trust and treasure Christ. But conversion and growth does not work this way. God has chosen to use the weak things—like imperfect people preaching—to show his power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31). In this weakness God shows himself powerful.

So by all means, try to remove needless distractions. However, do not seek to make the message more powerful by putting some air in the gospel sails. You can’t do it. It will inevitably deviate from God’s plan and detract from his power.

3. It may lead to pragmatism and manipulation. 

I have often wondered how some preachers started doing certain things while preaching. Some guys wear outlandish clothing, say shocking things, and even deploy props on stage during their sermons. How does this happen? Nobody just wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “I think I’ll ride my motorcycle to the pulpit today.” People don’t jump to pragmatism overnight.

I believe they really want to be effective. You can see how this type of thing could dangerously progress. The preacher’s unhealthy fixation upon himself can lead him down unexpected roads.

We know that manipulation has always been a pulpit felony. If the preacher is manufacturing emotion in himself or his hearers only to get a response (however “good” his end-goal) he must repent. Preachers, of all people, must not manipulate people. We proclaim truth!

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2 )

4. It may be quenching the Holy Spirit.

Another way preachers could be too self-aware is to try to defuse emotion in the pulpit. Some guys are greatly moved with emotion, even to tears, while preaching. There’s nothing wrong with this response. However, in his unhealthy fixation upon himself the preacher may try to resist this emotion. But if he is genuinely moved by God the Holy Spirit, how can he suppress being moved? Isn’t this hypocritical?

Think about it: we preach and pray for “God to work in people’s lives” only to resist him in our own? What an insult to the Trinity for me to mitigate the divine passion for his glory and honor by trying to preserve and promote my own! Being too aware of self could lead to a lack of awareness of the Holy Spirit.

Bottom Line

When a preacher fixates on himself, his preaching becomes a personal performance rather than proclamation of God’s Word. And the preacher can never let himself become the spectacle. He cannot be the show. He gets out of the way by being wrapped up in and carried away in the God he proclaims. I think this is what God the Holy Spirit is doing when he uses the preacher’s personality and expressiveness to serve the Word of God. As Piper teaches:

You want the significance of what you are saying to be seen and felt, and I suppose it is largely a personality thing as to how much expressiveness you give with your voice and how much expressiveness you give with you body. But for me, it is just who I am and what I do and it is part, it is just part of a language.

Be yourself and don’t be too conscious of yourself. Just preach the Word of God.

  • Mason

    I have struggled with this at times but I seem to struggle more with the danger of being “Other Aware”. That is thinking to much about how the congregation is recieving my preaching (i.e., the looks on their faces). They don’t seem to be as excited and passionate as I am about what I am saying…lol. Has anyone written on being overly “Other Aware”?

    • ben

      I hear you there Mason and have struggled with this the few times I have preached; but then I ask myself. .”what would their approval/disapproval cause me to change?” If I have prayed and prepared, then the answer should always be ‘nothing.’

    • DC

      Being others aware in that sense can also be helpful as long as the REASON you are so others aware is not something that ben said: approval/disapproval. This too is a plague in the pulpit – being worried about what people think about you. Being keenly aware of the reactions on people’s faces is invaluable. It can tell you if you are being clear/unclear, connected/disconnected, helpful/unhelpful, engaging/un-engaging, etc. Along those lines, while it’s helpful at times to have a strict/detailed outline while you’re preaching, it can also be hurtful. Once you’ve noticed that a point really isn’t getting across, if you’re too fixated on your outline and the points YOU want to make, you will keep beating the dead horse and wasting everyone’s time. We have to be conscious of the fact that preaching in and of itself is not the blessing. The blessing is what gets across to the people. If you have to close the door on one of your points because it really isn’t getting anything across to the people, we should be willing to do so. The point is to communicate something to the people that will make some sort of impact on them. It doesn’t matter if that takes 3 points or 1, 60 minutes or 30, make the point and move on before you over-preach. Being “others aware” is a helpful tool in modifying your preaching, not so you can feel good about the message, but so that the people can be impacted by the message. This is also helpful with self-awareness. Sometimes we do stuff that distracts or otherwise hinders our communication. But being overly self-aware to the point that your preaching ministry loses focus on the first things will harm your ministry (and not just the preaching).

  • Jo

    I agree. I also think this is the case with some worship leaders.

  • Tony

    Great Word! Thank you for this post.

  • George

    Thank you. Amen.

  • Steve Cornell

    It will also make it harder to admit when you’re wrong. It’s so liberating to not make it about yourself. But this doesn’t always mean people won’t falsely charge you of it. The book of Second Corinthians is a great model for leaders under attack.

    Here’s a great quote: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves” (T. S. Eliot ).

    I used it in a piece I wrote titled, “Insecure leaders are dangerous.” There I suggest 5 reasons leaders sometimes make leading about themselves. You might find it interesting and complimentary to the good piece you wrote here. (

  • Michael

    A question from a young preacher: how does this look for someone who is developing their abilities? I can preach, but there are some things I need to work on, such as my voice inflection, as well as some more hand gestures and body language. How do you learn how to be a better speaker without being self-aware?

    • Eric F

      How much time do you think Paul put into correct voice inflection and hand gestures? Or Peter or Jesus. Perhaps if you are having trouble with voice inflection when you speak about how your day was with your family or friends you could work on that, but your brothers and sisters in Christ are even closer in relationship to you so you need not worry or spend time on that for their sake. To be clear, you have Christ living in you, if He speaks through you even in the smallest bit the impact will be massive. Voice inflection and body language have no spiritual value.

  • RJ Grunewald

    I think this is a tricky one. I definitely agree with some of your cautions on the self-awareness in preaching, but I’d argue that self-awareness can also be incredibly helpful. For example if you pace back and forth in your message, being aware enough to stop could actually benefit the proclamation of the Word. I regularly watch myself after I preach to try to learn what I need to be doing differently and sometimes what should be changed isn’t the content but the delivery of the content.

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  • David Lee

    There is a really strange irony here.

    On the one hand our evangelical gospel churches make proud boast of our claim to be (supposedly) “Bible based.” (“Not like those liberals or catholics over there”, as some fundamental types sometimes (nearly) say.)

    Yet on the other hand, we reduce, constrict, confine and limit the scripture reading into just one single, paltry little reading which is over, done and finished within 30 seconds or less; then we elevate the sermon or message to a “mighty, anointed Word of God” lasting 30 minutes or more.

    So some guy places himself centre-stage and talks for 60 times longer than we allow scripture itself to speak in its little corner.

    Yet we have the bare-faced cheek to describe this gross mismatch as “Bible-based”?

    We even have the nerve to describe the scripture as merely “the reading” but the guy’s own ideas as “the Word”. What? Excuse me; which of these (the Bible or the guy’s ideas) is “the Word”, please?

    Me? Over the years I’m turning more and more away from the my evangelical roots and towards the Anglo-Catholic traditions, precisely because the Anglo-Catholic tradition takes scripture far more seriously (four full scripture portions and a relatively short human sermon) than the evangelical traditions (one short reading and one long guy-centre-stage so-called “Word”).

    If there are any “Bible-based” evangelicals reading this, please, please, I beg you, I implore you: rediscover the central place of scripture itself.

    • Kyle

      The type of preaching you are describing, while it may claim to “bible-based,” is a far cry from true expository preaching, and definitely is not indicative of the state of the evangelical church as a whole.

      But as for the practice of expository preaching, this IS what we see Jesus and the apostles doing, they read or quote from the Word, and then they explain it and exhort to action based on what it says. In my personal opinion, neither of the two options you are describing are the most beneficial, and I would opt for the a third.

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