Any We've Heard Twice

Marguerite Shuster

Years ago, my church-going uncle, observing a tiny grandchild struggling to carry a Christmas present almost as big as he was, slyly intoned, "It's not heavy; it's my present."

Of course, he was invoking an illustration that is now 130 years old, of a little Scottish girl carrying a large baby. When asked if he is heavy, she responds, "He's not heavy; he's my brother."

By the time I first heard the story, the girl had transmuted into an African boy trudging along a long, dusty road, trying desperately to get help for the disabled brother on his back. The line has become the slogan for the Boys Town nonprofit; the title, slightly altered, of a hit Hollies song; and the theme of a Miller Lite commercial (good deeds being appropriately rewarded, of course, by a tall cool one). The story clearly strikes a chord across time and genres, so why would I suggest banning it from the pulpit?

My uncle's response gives the first clue: Everyone has heard this anecdote already. It readily provokes parody instead of a deep understanding of the truth that love makes burdens light. I tell students that if they have heard an illustration even twice, using it themselves is risky. Of course, the problem for the preacher is exacerbated by the viral quality of today's good stories, to which nearly all of us have instant access. Such stories can be made to work only if the preacher signals a fresh twist upfront.

A subtler difficulty, but one all too common, is moralism and guilt-induction. Yes, love lightens burdens, but even the most loving people can become exhausted and overwhelmed by burdens, say of caregiving, that have pushed them beyond their strength. The last thing they need is to hear a pastor imply that if only they loved enough, their problems would seem easy. Jesus may have said that his yoke was easy and his burden light, but he also challenged disciples to take up their crosses—heavy instruments of death. The preacher needs to find the delicate balance between proper challenge of the cocky and self-absorbed, and mercy for the crushed.

Most serious is the likelihood that anecdotes of this type tend to overwhelm rather than bring home the biblical text. (How many times do we remember a story yet have not the slightest idea what the biblical point was?) And the wholly human-focused nature of the story often means that it works as well in a beer commercial as in a sermon. The point of the story neither directs us to God nor offers the hope of the gospel.

True, an illustration doesn't have to do everything; a good sermon will make contemporary connections in a variety of ways. But the material that carries the weight of the sermon needs to illumine and not obscure the biblical text, and to make clear that in the end, it is always God with whom we have to do.

Marguerite Shuster is senior professor of preaching and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Most of Them!

Richard Allen Farmer

What sermon illustrations should be banned? Nearly all of them! We gospel proclaimers are told that the illustration is the "window" to the sermon. It illuminates and supports our points, which are apparently so weak that they need help standing.

We need a filter to help weed out the "there was a little boy" stories.

I want to ban the story that is vague. That vagueness is often seen in lack of detail: "There's a story of a man who made lots and lots of money. He found a family in need and helped them. By his giving, he showed the love of God."

We would serve our listeners much better if we did some writing and said, "Jon earned $650,000 last year, counting his bonuses and stock options. He was excited, because he and Betty needed only $80,000 a year to cover all expenses. He began to think about families he could help and bless. By their generous planned giving, Jon and Betty showed the love of God."

Article continues below

I want to ban the mono-genre illustration. I have a pastor colleague whose every illustration is from the world of sports. Another friend draws every illustration from politics and current events. To demonstrate a balanced and well-rounded life, I want to draw from the fields of literature, the arts, sports, military history, entertainment, and business.

I want to ban the illustration that doesn't fit the culture I am addressing. Some years ago, I was preaching in South Korea. I said that even if we had the house we desired and drove our dream car, we'd still be impoverished if we had not Jesus. My host missionary later told me that most of the university students to whom I spoke would never own a car. The illustration, which would have been clearly understood in the affluent West, did not play well in Seoul.

I want to ban the illustration that doesn't make sense—that violates the laws of nature or common sense: "That massive 18th-century ship stopped at the exact point where the little girls were lost at sea and there, they wept and wrote the following poem." It is highly unlikely that a ship in the 18th century could find an exact spot in the sea. Every gps-using listener in the audience dismisses the story as rubbish.

I am careful to introduce a story like that with an introduction such as: "There is a legend that says," or, "It is believed that," or, "In my sanctified imagination, it went like this."

I want to ban the illustration that is sexist. I have heard preachers say, "Now, you ladies love to shop. We know that." Then they proceed to talk about spending or about how much time the woman spends in a store while the husband waits. Don't men shop also? Perhaps we shop at different stores, but don't we all linger in the places that sell what we like? Even as a man, I was offended when a speaker said, "Ladies, when you get married and are able to buy a house. . . ." As if women cannot purchase houses without a husband's assistance.

Enough already. Illustrations should never distract or alienate people from the true message of God's Word.

Richard Allen Farmer is senior pastor of Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Any Story That's Just a Story

Haddon Robinson

Illustrations are the lifeblood of preaching. They take an ordinary truth and make it extraordinary.

The word illustration means "to throw light on a subject." Effective illustrations are like footlights that help us see the actors on the stage. But if a footlight shines in the audience's eyes, it blinds them to what they ought to see. A story told for its own sake may entertain or amuse, but if it fails to throw light on the truth preached, it is not an "illustration" but simply a story. It gets in the way. In fact, the better the story, the more distracting it will likely be.

A preacher speaking about the courage of Daniel tells about a reporter at The New York Times who is a committed Christian. He uses his influence to help publish a story favorable to traditional believers. He risks a great deal in doing this, because most of his colleagues are members of the liberal elite. They will mock him and further distrust him. Many of those who work by his side have no time for Christians who speak well of the Savior.

One of the problems with this story is that it is not accurate. It makes up details that were never in the original story. Another is that although the reporter has courage, it is not the kind of courage that Daniel manifested.

Article continues below

Above all, the preacher tells this story because he knows there are listeners who have strong feelings about liberal media, not because it throws light on a key aspect of his sermon. When the listeners leave on Sunday, they may feel good about the sermon mostly because the preacher has demonstrated that he is against a liberal newspaper.

As I study Scripture, I go through at least two stages. First, I ask, "What does this passage mean?" Then I ask, "How does this passage apply to life today?" In the first stage my illustrations tend to appeal to the intellect, but in the second stage my illustration involves the whole person. Can you think of a situation where someone in the seventh row two seats from the end might need this truth? Then picture that situation, picture it specifically, and tell it with the delight someone has when they tell a joke, or with the seriousness someone has when they talk about a tragedy.

Illustrations serve a preacher in many ways. They can apply the Bible to people's lives. They can make abstract statements specific. They can stir people so that they are more open to difficult truths. They can make an audience laugh, weep, and understand and accept what the Scriptures teach. But stories should not be told for their own sake, but only because they light up the biblical concepts we want to communicate.

Haddon Robinson is senior director of the doctor of ministry program and preaching professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.