Revealing our human weaknesses initiates deep connection with our hearers if done in the right way and with the right motives.

“David, the more you show the clay, the more they will see the treasure.”

That’s the advice a wise old pastor gave to me one day after I expressed some fear that I had spoken too much about myself in a sermon.

Pointing to 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us,” he said that when people see that the pastor is just a clay pot like them, and not some shiny trophy of perfection, they will connect with us on a deeper level, giving us a better opportunity to introduce them to gospel treasures.

Of course, he wasn’t advocating the kind of over-sharing that draws attention to ourselves at the expense of Christ, or that causes our hearers to squirm with embarrassment, but he was encouraging some measure of honest disclosure of our frail humanity.

I know of one pastor who goes in for quite a lot of self-disclosure, but it almost always reflects well on him. It’s painfully awkward for his congregation.

Another preacher friend never said anything about himself—ever. His sermons were fine on paper but they never seemed to connect with or move people. His congregation thought he was a kind of semi-angelic being who floated above ordinary life. However, when he started putting in a line or two or personal illustration in his sermons, most of them revealing his humanness, if not his weakness, his sermons began to connect in life-changing ways.

Showing personal vulnerability is the second connection strategy recommended in TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking  (the first was eye-contact). But it comes with a warning against misusing it in such a way that it destroys our credibility:

Willing to be vulnerable is one of the most powerful tools a speaker can wield. But as with anything powerful, it should be handled with care….Formulaic or contrived personal sharing leaves audiences feeling manipulated and often hostile toward you and your message. Vulnerability is not oversharing. There’s a simple equation: vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability….The best way I’ve found to get clear on this is to really examine our intentions.

I remember hearing a preacher weep for a number of minutes in the course of one sermon in which he was extolling the beauty of Christ. It was powerful and deeply moving. However, I had a chance to hear him another half dozen times and discovered he wept at about the same point in every single sermon! I felt manipulated, if not deceived.

One last beacon is the preacher who, in the middle of a sermon against adultery, confessed to a serious problem with lust. The men appreciated his honesty and many felt a new connection with their pastor. But he never recovered his credibility with the women in his congregation. Some dirt is best kept for confessing to God alone.

The clay that best shows off the power of the Gospel is not so much our sins but our weaknesses and frailties.

Revealing our human weaknesses initiates deep connection with our hearers if done in the right way and with the right motives.

More articles in the Preaching Lessons from TED Talks series.