Here is the “most effective” and terrible sermon illustration I’ve ever used:
One day my wife and I were arguing about something—the exact subject has long been forgotten. In the course of the argument—probably when she was getting the best of me—I became so frustrated that I hit our dining room wall with my fist. The wall didn’t move, of course, but I expected to at least put a hole in the drywall. As fortune (or providence) would have it, the place I decided to punch with all my force was backed by a two-by-four stud. Let’s just say it hurt.
We both fell silent after that, and I set about sweeping up the kitchen and dining room (we were remodeling at the time). It became immediately apparent that there was something wrong with my hand, as I could barely hold on to the broom with my right hand.
My wife noticed that I was in pain and that my hand didn’t look right. She gently lifted my hand to look at it. “I think it’s broken,” she said. “We need to get you to the emergency room.” Her diagnosis was soon confirmed by the medical staff at the clinic.
From the point where she looked at my hand, there was no anger, resentment, or moral superiority on her part—all of which would have been justified. She was just concerned about my welfare. She very well knew that there was some part of me that was striking out at her when I hit the wall, but instead she focused on the fact that I vented my anger elsewhere than at her and was in deep pain as a result of my foolishness.
I used this illustration in a sermon on grace. It was the final illustration, tailored to drive home the truth that God treats us with kindness and grace even when we show ourselves to be hostile and angry, even toward him. I thought it the perfect illustration.
Turns out, very few listeners heard all that. Comments after the service, and for a few weeks running, were of three sorts:
“Thank you for being so vulnerable and sharing that story.”
And, in a low voice so no one else could hear, “I’ve done that but was too afraid to tell anyone.”
And of course, “That was so funny!”
No one ever told me that as a result of the illustration they understood God’s grace better. No one.
But they understood me better. They learned something about my temper. My remodeling efforts. About my wife and my marriage. And they were entertained.
By contemporary standards, it was effective: It was riveting; it was funny; listeners remembered it for weeks, even years.
But they remembered the wrong thing. They remembered me. They didn’t remember anything about God’s grace, as far as I could tell. Therefore I have concluded that it was about the worst illustration I ever used.
The problem is this: This type of sermon illustration is the order of the day in evangelical preaching. And it’s one reason evangelical preaching is in dire straits.
When Style Becomes Substance
Preaching is one time in the week when we have the opportunity to hear about something other than ourselves, other than the horizontal. It’s the time to hear about God and the wonder and mysteries of his love, of what he’s done for us in Christ. But more and more, evangelical preaching has become another way we talk about ourselves, and in this case, to learn about the preacher.
Once again, in the interests of identifying with the culture, the entertainment world has become the model here for many churches. To begin with, the sermon in many evangelical churches represents a cross between the patter of a standup comic and the opening monologues of late-night television. The idea is to be “authentic”—that is, natural and unscripted and funny to boot.
This, of course, is naive as naive can get, because you can be sure that those opening monologues are hardly unscripted. The patter of the comedian, as well as his or her persona, has been fashioned and sharpened with months or years of practice. Late-night TV hosts and comics are entertaining, no question about that. But they are entertaining precisely because they are anything but authentic. Instead, they are deeply practiced in their profession.
The evangelical sermon mimics all this but without the use of a teleprompter or without repeating the same shtick honed over months of gigs. There are no podiums or pulpits, no notes, not to mention a sermon manuscript. You can be sure, however, that the preacher has practiced the sermon in the quiet of his or her office and memorized his or her best lines, as well as the right gestures at the right moment—all so that he or she can appear authentic.
It’s not just the setting but the content that communicates the most troublesome thing: that the sermon is, in the end, mostly about the horizontal. Given the length of the sermon and the method of delivery and the personal illustrations from the preacher’s life to drive home the message—it all brings an inadvertent focus on the one who is preaching.
Let me emphasize that word inadvertent. Because I doubt if many preachers invest in this style of contemporary preaching so as to exalt themselves. These men and women love God and strive to make him known. What they don’t recognize is that the style they are engaged in thwarts their desires.
Whatever happened to the pulpit?
Take the method of delivery—often without a pulpit (at best, a transparent lectern), and often by walking back and forth across the stage while preaching. And doing so for 30 to 45 minutes, at least half if not up to 75 percent of the worship hour. What all this communicates is this: The preacher is by far and away the most important person in the room. The preacher is the person upon whom we are riveted for the greater part of the service.
I didn’t realize how theologically important the traditional pulpit was until I received a comment after one guest sermon I preached. The church’s pastoral team liked to preach from the center of the stage and wander back and forth during the sermon—the standup comic style. I, however, stood behind the makeshift pulpit—a wooden lectern sitting on a small table. I did so mainly for practical reasons—I’m pretty dependent on notes and/or a manuscript, and I didn’t wander from them.
After the sermon, one man said to me: “Thanks for preaching from the pulpit.” When I asked why, he explained, “The pulpit reminds us that the authority of the preacher comes not from the preacher and his personality. The pulpit is a symbol that the sermon derives its authority from the church, which in turn derives its authority from Scripture.”
Pondering his comments for weeks afterward, I realized how much a pulpitless sermon, and especially the sermon delivered in standup comic style, does an extraordinarily good job of entertaining people and making the preacher, and not the preached word, the center of attention.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to church
Add to that the problem of content. Make no mistake: Jesus is preached in many evangelical churches still. But not necessarily foremost.
We evangelicals are suckers for the practical sermon that tells us how to live for Jesus. But too often, the practical crowds out the biblical. A sermon on “Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Strong” might mention Jesus or the Bible here and there, but take away those references and the substance of the sermon remains the same: great, practical relational psychology. In a similar vein, we hear sermons on how to manage one’s finances, with the key insights drawn from financial self-help literature, decorated with verses from Proverbs. And then there are the sermons on raising children and finding a career and work against abortion so on and so forth. Such sermons are full of sound and wise advice, and we need sound and wise advice on many topics.
The question is: Is this the most vital, relevant thing we have to communicate in worship? The one time in the week in which we gather to praise and glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is this really the most important thing we can say? Have we exhausted the treasures and wonders of God’s Word? Have we said all we can say about the glories of salvation? Or are we bored with talk about God, so that we revert once again to talk about ourselves and how to make our lives more manageable?
One giveaway that we are deeply tempted by the horizontal in preaching is the number of illustrations preachers today use from their own lives. There was a time when preachers were discouraged from using their own lives as sermon illustrations. But sometime starting in the 1960s that began to change. The idea was to show listeners that the preacher was no different from the listeners and faced the same challenges, difficulties, and temptations as everyone else. This led to more attentive and appreciative listeners, who now felt they could connect psychologically with their preacher.
Today, it’s not uncommon to hear a sermon in which the opening, closing, and key illustration from the sermon’s main point is taken from the life and experience of the pastor and his family. Such sermons do a wonderful job of helping listeners connect with the pastor. And pastors keep using them precisely because when people leave the service and shake their hand, they say what a wonderful sermon it was, with comments like, “I love hearing about your family” and “Your kids are so cute” and “I really identify with you.”
Really? We want our congregations to identify with us? This is precisely the problem with personal illustrations: It inadvertently puts the spotlight on the preacher. Within a few months of such preaching, everyone knows the quirks of each member of the pastor’s family, his triumphs and failures in key parts of his life, his passions and his dislikes, and so forth. In the end, they know more about their pastor than they know about Jesus.
Some pastors defend the practice by saying they only use negative examples of themselves—talking about ways in which they have failed to live up to the call of Christ. What they don’t realize is that this just raises their status even higher with the congregation. Invariably, the illustrations turn on a moment or realization when the preacher recognized his flaw and changed direction. So now the pastor is someone who is a model of humility! And even if the pastor says, “I still struggle with this,” either no one really believes her or they exalt her as a model of spiritual seriousness—they think, She really is working hard on her spiritual life!
There is, in short, hardly a way to use an illustration from one’s personal life without it distracting listeners’ gaze from Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. That role has now been subsumed by the preacher, who depends on the personal illustration to make the sermon relevant.
Too many evangelical pastors have become addicted to using them because, let’s face it, they love the feedback. People pump their hand after the service and tell them how much they enjoyed that little story. I know of where I speak. Pastors are a lonely and insecure lot, and we need affirmation as much as (and maybe more) than everyone else. It is very difficult to resist this temptation in a day when the personal, the intimate, and tell-all is the order of the day everywhere else.
(It is no wonder that we’ve stopped understanding this part of the service as “worship.” It isn’t in so many of our churches. In this regard, I thank God for praise choruses—they at least keep the service from completely collapsing into the horizontal.)
The way forward is not hard to fathom, and let me take privilege of being more hortatory in this article, as I do have experience in preaching.
First, we might bring back pulpits. It doesn’t have to be the kind that remind us of churches of yesteryear. How about designing a contemporary pulpit that accents the fact that the preacher has been commissioned by the church, and that the sermon is finally under the authority of the church—all of which is under the authority of God? Something that says in its design that in this moment, the sermon—the spoken word of God—is not about the speaker of that word but about the God who stands with and above the preacher.
Second, pastors might shorten the sermon so that the service is not dominated by one person and one voice. We can make room for more singing. Make room for more prayer. Make room for silence. Maybe make room for the regular celebration of the sacraments/ordinances. In other words, we can make room for God.
That means congregations have to give the pastor more time for sermon preparation. As hard as it might be to believe, it takes more time to prepare a shorter sermon than a longer one, because every word and phrase becomes ever more weighted. It requires the preacher to think hard about what to keep in and what to leave out.
Third, I’d suggest we put a moratorium on personal illustrations—or at least go to some lengths to curtail the number. Preachers can tell they have become addicted to personal illustrations the moment they decide to stop using them. Try for a few weeks not to use any, and what you’ll see is your mind returning to yourself and your experience time and again to drive home a point.
Of course, in a People magazine/Facebook culture, where we are dying to know the intimate details of others’ lives, where someone doesn’t seem authentic unless they reveal something from their personal life—well, we cannot be effective communicators in this culture without dropping in the occasional personal illustration. People want to identify personally with speakers and preachers and writers. So if we want to gain an audience in this culture, we have to offer them a bit of ourselves. This is precisely why, when I am a guest speaker at a church, I try to include one personal illustration toward the beginning of my talk. For better or worse, it makes it more likely that the audience will give me an ear. It’s also why my publisher asked me to include a few in my book.
So I get it. But I’m unclear why a pastor, who has all sorts of occasions other than worship to lift the veil and let the congregation see him as more than a preacher, needs week after week to draw on his own life to drive home a point in sermon after sermon. And I’ve seen too many instances when the personal anecdote becomes such a crutch that a cult of personality slowly but surely begins to develop around the pastor.
Part of this is due to sheer laziness—believe me, I speak from personal acquaintance with the vice. It’s so much easier to reach into one’s memory than it is to read extensively. And when Sunday morning is breathing down your neck, it’s just too easy to reach for the personal illustration.
Part of this is due to the fact that preachers do not feel they have time to read widely and deeply, in literature, in history, in politics, in theology. So they don’t have anything in the tank when they sit down to write a sermon. It’s another reason congregations need to insist that their pastors take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a week in sermon preparation.
Fourth, preachers need to ask themselves at the beginning, the middle, and the end of sermon preparation: “Is this mostly about God? Does this help people better grasp who God is, and what he has done for us in Christ? Does it first and foremost exalt Christ?”
One sign of how horizontal our faith has become is the internal objection that our minds raise at this point: Really? Can I preach about God week after week? I mean, how much can one say about Christ before it gets old or one starts repeating oneself?
As if God is finite. As if there is only so much one can say about his countless attributes? As if heaven will get boring after a few weeks of praise because we will have run out of things to praise.
One objection, of course, is a good one: “Doesn’t my congregation need guidance on how to live in Christ?” Yes! And when that guidance is thoroughly and firmly grounded in who Christ is and what he has done for us, then it will be more relevant and meaningful than anything we can conjure up by talking about our needs with highlight reels from our lives.