We enhance our communication when we use personal illustration in our message.

Sunday morning while shaving, I heard an uplifting sermon on the radio. The speaker knew his text well and had carefully prepared his message. I rated him an excellent communicator. But twice he flawed his own message.

After making his first major point that God is like a loving father who forgives, he said, “Permit me to use a personal illustration.” He then recalled a preteen experience when he had deliberately thwarted his father’s authority and plunged into serious trouble. The story ended with a tearful father hugging an equally tearful son.

Near the end of the sermon, the preacher said, “Allow me to digress again to use a personal illustration.” A poignant experience followed that nicely illustrated his theological principle.

When I say he flawed his message, I mean he flawed, not by using personal illustrations, but because he apologized for using them. He came across as saying, “I really shouldn’t talk about myself, so please overlook that they’re personal.”

His stories not only added spark to his message by deepening the content, but I found myself listening more closely. When he described his own history, even his voice changed. It softened in volume and slowed in cadence. Even more significant is that five days after hearing that sermon, I can’t remember all his theological points, but I’ll long remember his two personal stories of how he lived and learned more about God. He communicated the gospel of Jesus Christ in concrete terms. Why should that require any apology? What’s wrong with using ourselves as illustrations for sermons and teachings? In fact, I believe we enhance our communication when we bring ourselves into our messages.

The Bible itself lends support to this idea. In theological circles we talk of the kenosis. The word comes from Philippians 2:7 where it says that Jesus “emptied himself” (RSV) of his divine glory. The doctrine states that Jesus took on the full form of humanity as his self-limitation. It is the concept of incarnation—God living in this earth in a physical body. We could state it in a principle: God chose to effect the salvation of human beings. Or we can give it flesh and blood terminology and say, “God so loved … that he gave His … son” (John 3:16).

The great plan of God and the self-giving of Jesus both say a lot about God’s desire to communicate with mortals. He proclaims a gospel in human equations. When we read passages in the Gospels such as Jesus weeping at Gethsemane and crying out, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” we encounter a human Jesus. When John tells us that Jesus wept or that he hungered, we know we are reading about a man. We read of Peter’s foibles in the Gospels and say, “Ah, yes, I can identify with him.” Or when Paul says he rebuked Peter for his fickleness (Gal. 2:11–16), we see no plastic-coated saint—but a man who failed, got up, fell again, and kept getting up. We identify with a person like that.

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Paul admits he was a murderer before his conversion. He hints (or so many of us think) that he had poor eyesight. Perhaps we need to allow the human characteristics of the biblical heroes and heroines to become guidelines for contemporary preaching.

For today’s preaching we have to fasten upon a style that communicates. Charles Spurgeon did a splendid job in the nineteenth century, but no one (I hope!) would preach his sermons today—or those of Jonathan Edwards of the eighteenth century. I enjoy reading the messages of Calvin, Luther, Bunyan, and other Reformers, but I would hardly expect to preach them today. Their culture was different, their situations foreign to us. I also believe that in the present age, we need a different type of approach to preaching.

And if Phillips Brooks’s definition of preaching holds true, we need to think it through again. If preaching truly represents “truth through personality,” let’s stop denying personality in the communication process. In short, put the human you into the sermon.

I can think of several reasons for this.

1. We teach values. We are always teaching by what we say, by our silence, and by our examples, as well as by the illustrations we use.

Twice recently, people expressed appreciation for the way I treat my wife. In a Tuesday night sharing group, Richard said, “You really make us men realize how important our wives are.”

The next morning, a young husband said, “Susan and I have both noticed the love you show for your wife.”

I had made no attempt to teach husband-wife relationships. My sermon had been on controlling the tongue.

The young husband reminded me of an illustration I had used on Sunday. During the early days of our marriage, Shirley had a friend I didn’t particularly like. I blurted out an unkind remark about Alice and Shirley walked over to me. She put her arms around me, looked into my eyes and said softly, “Cec, Alice is my friend. Please don’t say anything against her to me.” I concluded the illustration, “And like the Mennen commercial, I wanted to say to my wife, ‘Thanks, I needed that.’ ”

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As I recalled the illustration the husband said, “We’ve all noticed the way you respect Shirley. It makes me want our marriage to be like that.”

2. We show our imperfections. Who says clerics are holier than the laity? Who says we who are ordained have arrived at a spiritual height that others haven’t? Yet our preaching often gives that impression. Telling our success stories implies our spiritual superiority. We preach a sermon and ten people make professions of faith. In a counseling situation the Holy Spirit puts words of wisdom on our lips and we reconcile a marriage. Fine. Let’s share those. But let’s share the other side, too.

I have fought a battle with my temper since the days of my conversion. Some days I win; other days I end up with confession to God and a plea for additional strength.

Prayer plays an important role in my life. But some days I’m bored and have to struggle to make my devotional time relevant and enriching. I keep on trying, even on those dreary November-like days. And I tell my congregation of specific spiritual failures.

The people I admire most are those who struggle and overcome—or at least put up a great fight. I don’t much admire the billionaire who inherited five million dollars and catapulted that into astronomical figures. But don’t we all love the stories of Joan of Arc? Of David who came from the sheepfold to the throne? Of Dickens’s David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, those orphan boys who rose to success?

3. We live by the grace of God. When we put ourselves into our preaching, we show ourselves realistically. I’m not a third sex, not a cloistered hermit. I worry about handling money, about how my children are going to turn out, as well as about my spiritual ups and downs.

A few months ago, my sermon revolved around the Golden Rule. The most difficult time for me to treat people as I want to be treated is when I get behind the wheel of a car. I shared this, but I also described the way the Lord had been helping me grapple with my problem. “Friday afternoon I crept along in snail-paced traffic. And only once did I even get irritated when a car cut in front of me. I’m learning.”

My intention was to say, “It is by God’s grace that I grow. And that same grace is available to you.”

4. We recreate a spirit of openness. During the first years after my conversion, I found it difficult to talk to my pastor. I loved him. I revered him. But I didn’t feel comfortable talking to him about certain areas of my life. Obviously, he was a man who had never harbored a grudge, never entertained a salacious thought, and never considered cheating on his income tax.

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Recently a young couple came to see me. “We’ve been living together for six months. We know it’s wrong and we want to get married. But we felt that if we told you the whole story, you would understand.”

Can a pastor hear any more affirming words than those? To know that parishioners believe they can talk to him, open themselves up to him and know that he understands?

5. We pay the price of not opening up. If I’m open about myself, it encourages others to be open. We put ourselves into our sermons—whether we realize it or not. We either project the untarnished saint image or else a person too locked into himself to be helpful to others.

During my seminary days, one of my professors had a reputation for brilliance and erudition in his field. I went to him for counseling once—only once. One of my classmates, who had helped me by his caring and willingness to listen, asked me what I thought of the professor. I answered, “He’s got a mind like a computer. And about that much feeling for people, too.” I was probably too harsh in my judgment, but he never did understand my problem. He gave me several logical solutions; but he never really gave me himself.

A fellow pastor read an earlier draft of this article. As he laid it down, he said, “I’m convinced you’re right. Do you want to know why? As I think about everything you’ve said, I can’t recall your main points—but I remember your personal illustrations. And they helped me.”—CECIL B. MURPHEY, pastor, Riverdale Presbyterian Church, Riverdale, Georgia.

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