Ill-Used Illustrations

Quick rant here.

I recently heard a message from a church that has a well-deserved reputation for consistent biblical teaching. This message was different from the church’s norm, however, and it came at a particularly bad time. The pastor shared a human interest story, paused to tie elements of the story to the life of Christ, then continued with the story. By the time he was finished, the illustration hadn’t “shed light” on the Bible; it had replaced it.

I’m certainly not opposed to illustrations. Scripture is filled with them. They can have a variety of useful purposes. I started Sunday’s message on Paul’s self-identity as the chief of sinners by contrasting him with Victor Hugo’s character Claude Frollo. Frollo was a judgmental, arrogant bishop…and a lustful, murderous witch. The allusion to Frollo displayed how modern culture’s (sometimes accurate) portrayal of Christians as self-righteous hypocrites is flatly contradicted by the Scriptures. Good. But I spent the rest of the message explaining 1 Timothy 1:15, not The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The reality is, the best illustrations can often be given in a single sentence. A paragraph may be necessary at times. But if your illustration takes on a life of its own and takes a significant amount of time to tell, it’s probably shading the Truth rather than enlightening it. So be careful.

And one more thing. There’s something terribly wrong when both a preacher and a congregation are bright-eyed and attentive during his hilarious or gripping illustrations, then drowsy and distracted when he explains the Scriptures. If illustrations are used essentially as attention-keepers during otherwise boring messages, it speaks poorly of our view of God’s Word. Scripture itself is honey, not medicine that needs a spoonful of sugar to make it go down.

Pastor, resist the temptation to tell an engaging story with a few Scriptures pinned to it here and there. It’s a presumptuous thing. It’s a powerless thing. It’s a shirking of what is probably our greatest responsibility in Christian ministry. Preach the Word, not illustrations (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

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12 Responses

  1. Very insightful, Chris. Thank you.

  2. I have heard these type pastors called “skyscraper pastors” ….. one story on top of another!

  3. Chris, another error in using illustrations are those stories that are “too perfect” in illustrating some Scripture truth. I have taken to using Snopes a good deal with stories purported to be true. I have had occasion to subsequently cringe in hearing friends use stories as true when I know that they are urban legends. Some of these perfect stories are widely used by preachers all over… I think it harms our credibility when we do.

    When I use an illustration that I am uncertain about and unable to verify, I tell our people that it is a “preacher story” that I found, and it may or may not be true. I don’t do that very often, but sometimes I can’t resist the story … It’s too perfect!

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. I heard several “illustrations” at a Christian camp that I thought were obviously false.

    If you want some sermon illustrations, you can find them all here:

    http://www.sermonillustrations.com/

    Merry Christmas, Chris!

  5. Very helpful Chris. You may not know me but I pastor a Bible church in Southeastern Ohio and heard a story about a well known man (Ironside) and something that happened to him, I thought WOW, I could use that someday, came back, used the same story in a message I preacehed and had a man tell me “I heard the same story only the subject of the story I heard was Spurgon.” I thought O NO….So I limit stories in my preaching. Let the scripture speak for itself and compare scripture with scripture…that is all you need to do anyway.

  6. Amen!

  7. Chris,

    Thanks for the well stated and much needed reminder.

    Cordially,
    Greg

  8. Excellent! Spot on Chris

  9. Good post.

  10. I commend Mr. Don Johnson for using Snopes. That is a wonderful website which guides me in much of my teaching. Just the other day I was talking with some nutcase who actually believed that someone other than Oswald killed Kennedy. I was almost embarrassed to be in the same room as this woefully ignorant and stupid person. I told him to go to Snopes and have many of his delusional views corrected.

  11. […] Chris Anderson at My Two Cents on Ill-Used Illustrations: There’s something terribly wrong when both a preacher and a congregation are bright-eyed and […]

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