Dismantling Mistrust from the Pulpit
Responding to a presentation I was making to mission leaders in Göteborg, Sweden recently, Daniel Ringdahl, a former pastor and high school instructor from Stockholm, who is now a staff member for a mission organization, noted that “dismantling mistrust” is an important task and challenge for preachers of the Gospel in our time. Political leaders, in conjunction with news reporting outlets, have attempted to use fake news or news based on partial truths so often that the public arena in many Western countries, certainly in the United States, has become a hothouse for breeding mistrust toward any public statement. This characteristic of twentieth-century leadership has proven itself a vital element in mastering the population by breaking down the normal channels of trusted communication and inhibiting the ability of the populous to work together as a society based on previously assumed trusts. This serves not only for those who have already achieved dictatorial powers, but also those who have the ear of the people. In similar fashion, exaggerated claims by manufacturers seem to simply be an accepted part of the way in which they cultivate the dissatisfaction that nourishes the market for their products; and trust in another part of the public sector breaks down. Add to this the apparent growing frequency of abusive or neglectful parents, with no set rules for their own behavior to say nothing of their children, who build a world for those young people that has neither example of, nor basis for trusting the most important people in the child’s life.
God made trust the essential core of being human, according to Martin Luther. Trust binds us to God, as he noted in the Large Catechism: “It is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” The philosopher-psychiatrist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) found out of his own experience and his observation of others that trust is indeed constitutive for the human personality and for every individual’s sense of personhood and identity. In stark contrast, the U.S.-American creed, “I did it my way,” rejects the necessity of interpersonal trust and our hearts relying and depending on anything but our own prowess and cleverness. But it was not good that Adam was alone (Genesis 2:18). Trust diminishes and dies in a culture guided by the ideal of standing alone on one’s own two feet against—or even in indifference to—the world. Trust disappears under the cloud of a hermeneutic of suspicion. Personalities are distorted. The ability to work together to attain a more or less normal human life is disabled when trust vanishes.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the One who presents Himself as the object of our ultimate and absolute trust, cannot be understood apart from the ability to trust. It is both a psychological activity and a gift of the Holy Spirit. Even psychologists admit that trust, like love, happens in ways that escape human scientific analysis. Trust takes place when a person encounters another person who is trustworthy. But why one person is trustworthy and another is not, why I trust one person and not another, never yields to measurements or tests devised by human reason. Therefore, thinking through how we go about dismantling or deconstructing mistrust in our society for those who hear us preach never reaches neat conclusions.
The homiletical task of diminishing and debilitating mistrust begins, as every part of preaching, with the preacher. The person and message must, of course, be kept distinct, but they are never totally separable in the minds of the hearers. Those who hear preachers for the first time will rather quickly form an impression of the trustworthiness of proclamation and proclaimer. Those who are listening to the preacher for the hundredth time will have firm convictions before the sermon begins about the plausibility of that which they are hearing or about to hear. As I recently visited the congregation of a friend, I thought I would test my own reactions to the pastor of the congregation who preached that morning. The preacher had preached a number of times previously when I visited that congregation. My plan to test my reactions, however, escaped me completely until the preacher was almost finished with his sermon, but suddenly I realized he had commanded my trust. “Why?”, I asked myself. My first thought was, “Because he knows Jesus.” That had been clear in the sermons I had already heard from him; some of them good and others less than up to my personal standards. It is apparent, though, that sermons which reflect a close, personal acquaintance with the Lord build trust.
The faithful in the congregation experience the person of the preacher in a host of venues. Each—whether in a church meeting, a home or hospital visit, or a chance encounter in the local grocery store or gas station—prepares the hearers for their next time in the pew, as they receive the message from the preacher. The sermon takes place in the context of a multi-facetted set of relationships experienced through the weeks and months of being together in congregation and community. Those relationships shape the credibility of the preacher in the pulpit.
Delivery styles differ. Some preachers are more effective with gestures or tone, some with metaphors and some with exegetical insights according to current homiletical theories. Trustworthiness is not based on such factors, though they may reflect something of the preacher’s person. For instance, in eras before the microphone came to our aid, a “preacher’s tone” was necessary to convey to audiences in larger spaces, indoors and outdoors. This “preacher’s” or “orator’s” tone today usually projects artificiality, if not even an air of arrogance. All of us have our own conversational style. Hearers recognize this and use it as one means of measuring the sincerity and seriousness of the preacher. Speaking to their problems, fears, joys, and hopes as one human being to another creates a sense of trustworthiness.
The connection of the message to the daily lives of the hearers lends credibility to the preacher’s sharing of exegetical insights and systematic deliberations. Law preached against the sins of those in other places or times appeals to most people more easily than hearing reminders of sins committed by “our kind of people.” Criticism—the word comes from the Greek for “judgment”—always creates defensiveness, but the trustworthy preacher elicits reactions that are positive— “that sermon hit me right between the eyes.” The Gospel shows how Jesus’ death and resurrection make specific impact on our lives. Preachers always convey a sense of how well they know Jesus. The cute stories of children who call their pastors “God” or “Jesus” reflect the truth that the Word of God comes through their lips to the congregation (I pray that it is never said of me what a cousin of mine said about her pastor, “He gets himself and his boss mixed up too often”). But hearers do get an impression of how well their pastor has been interacting with the Lord. They do take both the message and the example of their minister seriously.
Honesty regarding their struggles with the Anfechtungen to which Satan subjects us helps build bridges to hearers as well. Preachers are not solely observers of the eschatological battle. They are participants and showing scars from those battles is not a mark of weakness nor a testimony of some lack of faith. Preachers often have difficulty recognizing that their own vulnerability and their ability to talk about their vulnerabilities and defeats makes them credible in their testimony to the wisdom and power of the God who went to the cross.
Finally, only the Holy Spirit can create the preacher’s trustworthiness and the ability to convey it from the pulpit. Also, in this regard, preparation for every sermon should begin with prayer for the gift of trust in this Sunday’s speaking of God’s Word to His people. Trust just happens as the Holy Spirit goes about His business. Attempts to appear reliable usually defeat themselves. The harder we try to make ourselves look trustworthy, the less trustworthy we seem to be. We simply have to be trustworthy. Authenticity radiates from our commitment to the Lord and our desire to serve Him by serving His people. Loving His people as He has loved us leads to deconstructing mistrust and building trust in Him through a trustworthy message delivered by a trustworthy preacher.
 E.g. in Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1950).