Matthew D. Kim is no stranger to pain, either personally or as a pastor. In Preaching to People in Pain: How Suffering Can Shape Your Sermons and Connect with Your Congregation—which won CT’s 2022 Book Award for church and pastoral leadership—Kim encourages preachers not to avoid addressing pain from the pulpit. Kim served for many years as the director of the Haddon W. Robinson Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s recently been appointed the Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Chair of Pastoral Leadership at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Author and Denver Seminary professor Angie Ward spoke with him about how preaching to pain is a critical aspect of church health.
Your book focuses on an often-overlooked reality for preachers: In any congregation receiving a sermon, there will be listeners who are in pain. To begin, how do you define pain and suffering?
Pain is something that’s universal and yet also so individualized. Even though we all share in pain, we’re not going to experience or process pain and suffering in exactly the same way. So I would say that suffering and pain are about where we each experience discouragement or loss. They have to do with an internal discouragement, frustration, or anger with a situation and feelings of hopelessness about it.
In your book, you mention six universal types of pain: painful decisions, painful finances, painful health issues, painful losses, painful relationships, and painful sins. Have you seen an increase in particular types of pain over the past two years?
I think most of us recognize that loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues seem to be at the forefront in our culture today, along with relational trials. There’s so much relational strife and division—even Christians not being able to speak to each other, not being able to find a place of unity in Christ. Even though we are Christians, we’ve allowed our identities and the things that we hold dear to divide us, especially in the last couple of years.
What part should lament play in church health? How do you preach and lead lament from the pulpit?
As a Christian culture, we often want to push aside how we’re really doing emotionally, but Peter Scazzero and others have talked about the importance of being emotionally healthy, especially as spiritual leaders. How we talk about pain from the pulpit—or if we don’t talk about it—communicates a lot to the church in terms of whether or not it’s a taboo subject. I would like to see us, as a Christian community, be able to embrace how we’re feeling, even if it’s not always joyful. We can lead by not always putting on our Sunday face that communicates “I’m doing fine” and tries to hide those issues.
This doesn’t mean that we need to be a completely open book and share everything from the pulpit. There should be discernment and wisdom in considering: Is this the right time to talk about these issues? Should I use self-disclosure or be vulnerable in the pulpit right now? What is proper in this moment?
But at the same time, in my view the church is a hospital. We are able to be vulnerable and care for each other as a Christian community, which means that I can share from the pulpit about struggles I’m having. Doing so can normalize an openness about pain so that it feels less taboo to talk about these things.
In my own pulpit supply in the past few years, if it’s warranted in the sermon, I’ll purposefully share about my own pain. Specifically, I’ll share about the pain of losing my brother six years ago to murder. To give an example of what happens when I do this, one time after I preached about it, a lady came up to me and she started weeping. I wasn’t sure why, but eventually she shared with me, “My daughter was murdered two years ago. I never realized any pastor would ever speak about this issue from the pulpit.” Essentially she was saying, I’m surprised the Holy Spirit led you to talk about this so openly.
Preaching lament is the ability to verbalize what we’re going through and to be able to make space for it. If we don’t talk about these issues, we’re just allowing the Evil One to make us all feel like we’re on this journey alone.
What are good ways for pastors to work on their own health before they bring their pain to the congregation?
We need to remove the stigma around clergy receiving mental health care. We desire to be healthy pastors, but often pastors are not able to articulate their own personal pain to anyone. So I think the first thing is finding trusted people who love and care for us—a leader, a friend, a mental health care professional—and being able to talk about these issues. But then we should also get leadership input in terms of, should I preach about this topic or not, or is this something that is unwise to do right now?
You write that one of the roles of a preacher is to help listeners receive comfort from God, and it seems to me that a part of health for both the preacher and the congregation is dependence on God rather than on the pastor as an ongoing caregiver. As a preacher, how do you help move people from the Sunday-morning word from you to deeper dependence on God?
Most of us—preachers and laypeople alike—are so busy that we don’t make time for our own spiritual journey in terms of processing our hurt or the comfort we desire. I encourage congregants to protect space in their week to make this a regular practice in their lives: to invite God into the spaces where we’ve closed off to him, and to ask God to help us process some of the areas of our lives that we don’t want to talk about openly with God or with other people. This can become a regular rhythm in our lives, where we’re able to spend some time in daily surrender, asking the Spirit to reveal the areas of our lives where we’re really struggling. I encourage daily surrender time, to invite God into the conversation.
We often may counsel against sin and making bad choices from the pulpit, aiming to help listeners cultivate wisdom. But sometimes we can forget that those in our pews have already made bad decisions and they’re experiencing pain as a result. How can preachers challenge and comfort listeners at the same time?
One of the things that’s beautiful about preaching is that God speaks to people in different ways through the same sermon. One of the practices I do with my seminary students is I encourage them to think of who they know and then to write a sermon for that one person in the church. This helps prevent getting overwhelmed by all the different types of pain in the room. Write the entire sermon for that one person, and just see what God does.
I’ve done that in my own ministry. Sometimes I’ll write a sermon with one specific person in mind, but after preaching, a totally different person will come up to me and say, “How did you know that is going on in my life?” I tell them, “I didn’t. That was God.” God is able to do far beyond what we expect or envision for our sermons.
There are also moments when we need to confront sin. Scripture tells us we are to challenge and rebuke with patience and great instruction, so as we confront sin or bad choices, we need to think through things like our tone: How are we conveying the truth of God’s Word in a loving, pastoral, encouraging way?
One Sunday I spoke at a church, and I was trying to make the point that we are accountable for our sins. Afterward, a woman sat down next to me, and she was very angry. In short, she told me, “I had an abortion seven years ago, and the Bible promises that God would not remember my sins. So why are you bringing up my sin?”
I was speechless at that point, so I just prayed with her. Then I said, “I’m sorry. If the Holy Spirit is confronting you or speaking into your life about something, I believe that is God’s work. But I didn’t intend for this kind of response because I didn’t know about your situation, and I’m sorry.”
Because of these types of potential reactions from listeners, we can be afraid to speak about those issues from the pulpit. But we can challenge and confront our listeners and say, “Maybe God is doing some kind of work in your life. Maybe God is trying to heal you of this.” Yes, we’re accountable for our sins, but yes, God also promises that he remembers our sins no more. So I try to do both in my preaching—but ultimately it is up to the work of God moving in that person’s life.
This article is part of our spring CT Pastors issue exploring church health. You can find the full issue here.