Kim, Matthew. Preaching to People in Pain: How Suffering Can Shape Your Sermons and Connect with Your Congregation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021, xvi + pp. 223, $21.66, paperback.
With the heart of a pastor, the mind of a theologian, and the skill of a soul-surgeon, Matthew Kim navigates the turbulent waters of pain. This insightful work will “encourage pastors to preach less pain-free sermons and to preach more pain-full sermons where preachers disclose their suffering and pain” (p. xi). Kim (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) serves as the Professor of Preaching and Practical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, MA, as well as past president of the Evangelical Homiletics Society. He is a seasoned pastor and prolific author of works such as Preaching with Cultural Intelligence and Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today.
Preaching to People in Pain is a balm for each preacher’s soul as well as their weary flock. If after reading this book, you can see the value of preaching on pain, then Kim has fulfilled his goal (p. 201). He arranges his work into two units: Naming the Pain (three chapters) is an invitation to authentic dialog concerning how and why pastors and congregants suffer pain, with a clear process for the task of preaching on pain (p. xii). In Preaching on Pain (six chapters) Kim investigates six distinctive categories of pain that hearers frequently conceal (p. xiii). Each chapter concludes with a Kim sermon addressing that particular pain. There is a helpful Appendix with a Worksheet for Understanding Pain (pp. 205-211).
Chapter 1 alone is worth the price of this book, for it addresses the elephant in the room – the pain of the preacher. Kim admits what most pastors will not admit, “I can count on one hand the number of times that a church member asked me how I was doing and actually cared enough to listen to my pain and suffering” (p. 3). Should pastors preach on pain regularly, even revealing their own? He supplies some “Pitfalls of Preaching on Pain” and the danger of the preachers’ self-disclosure, for it will 1) damage listeners’ faith in God, 2) diminish pastoral authority, 3) focus the sermon excessively on the preacher, and 4) make for repetitive sermons (pp. 9-12). Conversely, there are “Benefits of Sharing our Suffering,” which will 1) humanize us, 2) connect us with people and their pain, 3) help us model how to overcome pain, and 4) help us become self-ware (pp. 12-15).
Listeners’ Pain comprises chapter 2. Weighty is the baggage that listeners live with and bring to worship every week (p. xii). Many pastors have lost their way and instead, “Pastors might like the stage on which to preach but no longer want to serve as a pastor to others and be involved in their painful, messy lives” (pp. 21-22). A way is offered to create an “inventory” of listener and church pain (pp. 24-25). While noble, one might wonder about the time-consuming process of this daunting task. Kim also provides a preaching strategy to address pain and reorder the hearers’ biblical and theological mindset, we should preach: 1) to expect to suffer, 2) to lower one’s expectations (people disappoint), 3) against entitlement and ingratitude, 4) to educate and reconcile the church, 5) a big God and small problems, 6) lament without an immediately happy ending, and 7) for spiritual maturity (pp. 27-34).
Chapter 3 “invites us to consider some of the key elements for preaching on pain and an initial pathway for how we can preach on pain intentionally and end effectively” (p. 35). Kim provides a template called Preparatory Questions to Preach on Pain: 1) Which passage will I preach on, 2) What type of pain/suffering is revealed in the text, 3) How does the Bible character or biblical author deal with the pain, 4) How does this pain in the text relate to our listeners’ pain, 5) What does this pain say about God and his allowance of pain, 6) How does God / Jesus / the Holy Spirit help us in our suffering, 7) How can their preaching show care and empathy, 8) How can we share this pain in a Christian community, and 9) How will God use our suffering to transform us and bring himself glory (pp. 36-41).
Part 2 (chapters 4-9) deals with six areas to consider when dealing with and preaching on pain: 1) decisions, 2) finances, 3) health issues, 4) losses, 5) relationships, and 6) sin. For each of these subjects, the Nine Preparatory Questions for Preaching on Pain are asked, followed by Principles for Preaching on that specific painful issue. Kim reminds us that “ministry requires pulpit time and people time. Imbalance will lead to ineffective preaching and ineffective discipleship” (p. 142).
This work has several strengths. First, the weight given to addressing pastoral pain is commendable. Kim asserts, “Pastors are not immune from encountering unspeakable tragedy and hardship. If we believe in the power of the local church, why, then, are we so reluctant to share struggles with our beloved Christian communities? (p. 4). Of the few books that address this topic, his is most insightful for he offers a roadmap for wisely disclosing pain in the pastor’s life (p. xii). Sagaciously he states “we cannot allow ourselves to stand “above the congregation” as if we are better than they. We can admit and share our pain and suffering with judiciousness” (p. 5). Second, one may, by first impression believe Kim will try to hammer pains’ square peg into preachings’ round hole. Rest assured Kim always prioritizes the text, “I hope that after reading this book you will agree with me that speaking on suffering regularly, and as you’re preaching pericope warrants, will contribute to increased vulnerability and congregational change (p. xv). He states further, “I am not arguing that every single sermon must address pain and suffering. This would be unfair, unwise, and unfaithful to Scripture and its assortment of genres and passages … As a general rule of thumb, we can preach on pain and suffering when the sermon text addresses it” (pp. 35-36). Finally, his emphasis on compassion or preach with your presence is a much-needed word. This type of preaching occurs in “a hospital room, palliative care center, waiting room, home visitation, police station, courtroom, prison, and other physical locations where they are” (p. 46). He concludes, “Preaching on pain involves more than simple proclamation. It requires active participation and empathy” (p. 202).
This book is homiletical and pastoral gold. To be sure, “Scripture exposes suffering and pain because God provides solutions for us and is the solution for the Christian” (p. 9). It serves as a stark reminder that preaching and pastoral ministry can never be divided (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2; 2 Tim 4:2) and it also reminds us that we are to preach to pain, but sometimes we will preach with pain. This excellent work is for every vigilant shepherd of God’s flock and every professor who trains shepherds in preaching and pastoral ministry. For other helpful works see Timothy S. Laniak Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (IVP Academic, 2006) or Brent A. Strawn Honest to God Preaching: Talking Sin, Suffering, and Violence (Fortress Press, 2021). This is a must-read for every shepherd who takes their calling, their preaching, their pain, and that of their flock seriously.
Tony Alton Rogers
Southside Baptist Church, Bowie, TX